Far from the Silent Hill spiritual successor games media painted it as pre-release, sparked by Akira Yamaoka’s involvement, The Medium is nonetheless an interesting fork in Bloober Team’s portfolio. It’s their most ambitious project, but ambition doesn’t translate to quality.
The Niwa Hotel
The Medium‘s plot follows Marianne, a grieving medium who receives a call from a stranger telling her he knows about her powers and the meaning behind her dreams. She takes this is a joke, listening intently as the stranger, Thomas, recites “it starts with a dead girl”, the game’s first spoken lines. This incites an innate desire to trust Thomas, urging her to meet him at the Niwa Worker’s Resort.
This now defunct resort was home to the Niwa Massacre; a series of events leading to everyone’s deaths through various circumstances. Stating anything more would spoil the plot too much. It begins strong with an interesting mystery. Its historical, communist-era Polish backdrop also plays host to the underlying messaging, which is woven into the narrative and spirit worlds.
As expected, the story is told through a mix of cutscenes and environmental storytelling. The split-screen cinematics are the most fascinating, often playing with the dual perspective to frame unique shots or add a sense of continuity between worlds. Some are as subtle as a shadow from a moving tree casting on parts of Marianne’s body in place of a living thing wrapping around her. These dual-screen cinematics showcase The Medium‘s split reality gimmick better than the gameplay. Beyond shot composition, though, there’s not much meat to the title’s bones.
Its writing lacks the nuance and subtlety exhibited by the cinematography. The narrative’s most interesting bits center around the real world’s political history rather than the plot driving the action or the fictional characters within it. As a Polish developer, Bloober Team’s passion and cultural identity is most evident through these real-world lore entries. The disparity between the groupthink of the Cold War-era Polish People’s Republic and the modern day individualistic Republic of Poland is expressed through The Medium‘s supernatural setting–the spirit world echoing the desolation of living under Stalinism.
Unlike the best Silent Hill games, though, this underlying messaging acts as a disparate part of a whole rather than enhancing the main plot. Understanding the political commentary doesn’t make the story or its characters more engaging. Rather than transforming the story, it exists within its own corner.
The Medium has a player agency problem. In an industry with walking simulators, visual novels, and horror games sans combat, limited agency isn’t a new concept. Many modern games sacrifice agency in specific instances to make grand statements or across larger portions of their runtime for a unified vision allowing other elements to take the spotlight. Not every type of game needs to gamify every interaction.
On a surface level, The Medium has more moment to moment interactions than genres that get pigeonholed as “having no gameplay”. The further players dig, though, the more they discover how meaningless these interactions are.
Game Design 101: Gameplay needs purpose. Don’t provide players with a mode of interaction if the systems in place don’t make players feel like they solved a problem, whether it’s how to turn on a generator or how to defeat an enemy.
- Example: Many games simplify their level design and mechanics in tutorial levels to present audiences with what’s possible in their play space. That hands-on experience reinforces what sorts of things gamers should keep pocketed as they play the rest of the game.
- Let’s examine an immersive sim like Dishonored.
- A tutorial level would introduce opening a locked door by placing a key next to it or unlocking safes with the combination inches away. These simple interactions establish the game’s rules. Later levels become much more complex, necessitating keen spatial awareness and solutions driven by player experimentation. Imagine if every locked door and safe had their keys and combinations beside them. At that point, they might as well be open. The interaction’s weight is eliminated when the solution is handed at every step.
- Let’s examine an immersive sim like Dishonored.
This is what it’s like playing The Medium. Most puzzles can hardly be considered in the running for fitting within that definition. Coupled with nearly equally unimpressive enemy encounters, The Medium is one of the few games I’ve ever played that’s better experienced through watching someone else play.
Even walking simulators provide more fulfillment. The genre’s watermarks use their gameplay to enhance players’ connection to the world and convey character specific vices. Case in point: the canary level from What Remains of Edith Finch—its split perspective communicating Lewis’ active imagination while juggling a mundane job that’s difficult to focus on.
The Medium’s gameplay segments exist as filler. In one instance in the spirit world, in order to trigger a door opening, one must insert a reel tape into some AV equipment and press play….where is the reel tape? In the table NEXT to the equipment. These sorts of puzzle scenarios are all too common:
- Interact with object
- Object needs a thing to open it or make it do something
- Said object is in same room
The existence of an inventory system adds insult to injury as in the most extreme of cases, there will be three possible items to use at specified points. More often than not, solutions and vital inventory items are within the same room they’re needed or so close by, what’s the point in making players access an inventory screen? In many cases, gamers will have only one or two possible inventory items at an interaction point with the use of one item already established beforehand, effectively making it a one-item inventory.
This lack of agency also permeates lore exploration. Aside from the typical notes and posters, Marianne can extrapolate audio diary-like echoes from important items with memories attached to them. To listen to them, one needs to rotate the item to find the point to draw the echo from, signified by a blob of light. Holding the camera at that point for a few seconds triggers the echo, but there’s not much precision required, with many echoes playing while I was still attempting to find the perfect spot. With such a generous zone, what’s the sense in gamifying it? Why not play the echo once it’s been picked up?
There’s also echoes with an added visual element known as memories. Upon touching certain objects, gamers are tasked with with rotating the analog stick until spirit energy aligns into a recognizable human silhouette. Other games have used similar alignment systems, but they use both analog sticks, requiring some thought on the consumer’s end. The Medium‘s implementation is as passive as can be, requiring little effort to fixate on the proper point. The gameplay loop winds up feeling like a mundane checklist as a result of its ineffectual agency.
Considering Bloober Team’s history, lack of combat isn’t a surprise. There are threats which can kill Marianne in the form of progress-gating moths(requiring players to find an energy source for constructing a bubble to bypass them) and the Maw. The moths are nothing more than roadblocks, but it’s the Maw’s inclusion that’s the most heartbreaking. The Maw isn’t tethered to the spirit world. Had The Medium leaned on this facet more heavily, it could have been terrifying.
Its ability to traverse planes, manifesting as an invisible creature in the real world, onset an initial sense of dread. Unfortunately, the Maw’s appearances are similarly scripted to that of Nemesis’ appearances in the Resident Evil 3 remake. A clever horror game would have lulled players into a sense of security, flipping that comfort on its head when least expected.
The scripting doesn’t end with its appearances, continuing through each encounter’s entirety. In many scenarios, the Maw stands idly or patrols a pre-defined path until players inch forward, triggering its next patrol routine. The play-spaces during which the Maw shows up are also so linear and constrained that there’s only one way to end the encounter or escape it every time.
Akira Yamaoka Who
The Medium barely qualifies as a video game not because it lacks gameplay, but because its gameplay is as passive as possible. It feels like separate developments teams crafted the narrative/atmosphere and the gameplay systems. Gameplay should inform story and vice versa, especially in a narrative driven horror title. Horror games have the capacity to be significantly more impactful than horror films due to their agency. Unfortunately, 95% of The Medium‘s interactions are so meaningless, it begs these questions:
Why does it disguise itself as a traditional video game? Why is there an inventory system when it hardly makes a difference? Why are there so many puzzles if nearly all solutions are handed to players? Why gamify the act of extrapolating the echoes and memories from objects when these interactions are so basic? Why not just make it a trigger upon picking up the item like every other game, including those with more tangible gameplay mechanics elsewhere? Why build up a threat whose every move is scripted? Why are there so many arbitrary triggers for allowing the next thing to happen even if the player should already have had the information to complete the objective prior to that arbitrary trigger point?
The Medium is a mess. Even Akira Yamaoka couldn’t salvage the mundanity as there are only three memorable tracks, all of which were saved for the last hour.