Angus Law comes to terms with The Medium, the newest game from Bloober Team. Is it a breakthrough, or will it leave him divided?
Content Warning: This article contains late-game spoilers and will discuss themes of child sexual assault, suicide, and abuse.
The Medium is… a bit of a mess.
The first thing I wrote in my notes was ‘Dead girl mystery’- the opening line regarding the protagonist Marianne’s recurring dream is given so much gravity, I thought it would be worth keeping track of. I would see ‘Dead girl mystery’ at the top of my page, every time I went to write another note afterwards. A constant reminder that there was still no mention of a potential girl, or murder, to continue the narrative thread that opens the game. It is only at the very end of the game that The Medium’s opening line is revealed to be in reference to the character Lilianne- the protagonist Marianne’s sister. A reveal that I found, to be frank, pretty disgusting.
Lilianne, is a victim of child sexual assault, she is involved in a traumatic house fire and she is locked in a vault underground by her father for most of her life. These are all real topics that very much could be explored in a game, especially a game with supernatural embodiments of people’s inner demons. Yet, The Medium never explores any of Lilianne’s trauma past the very surface level. Even worse is the fact that a significant part of the game involves an in-depth exploration of Lilianne’s childhood abuser’s backstory and demons. Lilianne’s struggle with this trauma is almost never mentioned- it feels like the game brushes the abuse under the rug as soon as it no longer serves the character of Lilianne’s abuser.
The answer to the ‘Dead girl mystery’ is that Marianne’s recurring dream of a girl being shot, is actually a result of Lilianne beaming her prophetic desire to be shot, into Marianne’s head. Lilianne’s wish for death, isn’t ever explicitly related to her trauma. Instead, Lilianne wants to die because she thinks she is too dangerous to be kept alive. She is haunted by a demon that caused a bloody massacre; a demon that I interpreted to have been created as a result of her many traumatic experiences.
The conclusion of The Medium, is not to convince Lilianne that she was wrong to wish for death, to comfort her and tell her she is a victim, that the massacre was not her fault. Things you might expect from a story about a medium who can interact with, and save people from, their inner-demons. No, the conclusion of The Medium and of the ‘Dead girl mystery’ is that maybe, it would just be safer and easier if Lilianne was killed- by no less than her own sister. Lilianne was finally offered a way out of her torment in Marianne’s powers, a chance to live outside of her vault and to be free of the guilt and trauma that has followed her almost her entire life, and the writers at Bloober Team decided that she did not deserve that. The final moments of the game show that Lilianne was destined to be shot by her own sister, and that this was the right thing to do. That is enough for me not to recommend The Medium.
The Medium is a fixed-camera 3rd Person horror game from Bloober Team, the team behind Observer and the recent Blair Witch game. It cites an art style inspired by painter Zdzisław Beksiński and features music from ‘legendary composer Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame’ (https://themediumgame.com/, 2020). The game is centered around the protagonist Marianne: a medium with the ability to exist in both the real world and the spirit world concurrently.
Marianne’s abilities manifest in the game’s ‘dual-reality’ system. What this means practically is that the screen is split in two, with one side displaying the real world and the other side showing the same area in the spirit world. It is certainly impressive that the artists at Bloober Team managed to design each room during the ‘dual reality’ segments twice, and to succeed in making both versions of each room cohesive and gorgeous in their own ways.
The influence of Zdzisław Beksiński can definitely be seen in the design of the spirit world. Especially his pieces featuring buildings or architecture. The spirit world is incredibly hostile, alien but still traversable. There are implications of humanity too, echoes of buildings and paths: spaces for living. Perhaps the best use of the ‘dual reality’ gimmick is in drawing out these comparisons by placing the two worlds side by side. The Medium presents you with a tangled bundle of potential trypophobia and tells you ‘this is a desk’- yet somehow, this makes sense. These spaces that seem totally lived in (if a bit spooky) but at the same time empty and alien, really does mimic the feeling of the hostility in the familiar-looking buildings seen in many of Beksiński’s works.
One particularly impressive example being a chase scene during which Marianne constantly flips between the two worlds. Trees flicker and turn to eerie, twisted towers; broken wooden bridges become architecturally impossible stretches over the abyss. The art team were really given the chance to show off during this scene, and the results are stunning.
However, Beksiński’s influence feels somewhat lacking when it comes to the creature and monster designs. The main antagonist of The Medium is The Maw, an inner demon who has a very classic demon look. I was rarely afraid of The Maw as its design felt so familiar. Excluding a few minor touches, The Maw lacks any of the body horror that can be seen in many of Beksiński’s works. Being the main antagonist and source of fear throughout the game, this strikes me as a sorely missed opportunity.
The art direction really is an incredible feat, it successfully uses its influences to support the narrative and themes of the entire game, and I wanted to give appropriate praise to the art team for what really is an incredible achievement. This is because, unfortunately, the art is let down by almost everything else The Medium has to offer.
If I had to put a pin in exactly what kind of game The Medium is based purely on gameplay, I would describe it as a walking simulator. This isn’t meant in a negative way; it’s based only on the large proportion of the game that is spent walking and examining the environment. The comparatively barebones gameplay systems of walking simulators put more focus on the other aspects of the game. Namely, the environment and art design; the narrative; and the way the narrative is told. The Medium’s narrative failed on almost every front for me, to the point that the gorgeous environments weren’t enough for the game to leave me with an overall positive feeling.
The Medium is thoroughly overwritten and cliché, with attempts at deep or poetic lines that only made me cringe. This isn’t helped by voice performances that I had to force myself to be persuaded by. In particular, I struggled to believe Marianne’s reactions to almost all of the events of the game. The delivery of her lines often made her sound bored and unphased by the gruesome history she uncovers and the outright nightmarish sights. Often, when I was at my most immersed and engaged with the game, walking through a particularly well-designed environment, Marianne would chime in and pull me right out. Powerful moments created by particularly dramatic visuals are completely and totally undercut by poorly written and strangely delivered lines. On top of this, many of the clues or assumptions that the player could make from the environment alone are said outright by Marianne as if to say: ‘Hey, look at this! This is what this means!’. Rarely is the player given an opportunity to put pieces of the story together themselves in The Medium.
There are gameplay systems other than walking in The Medium. In fact, I’d say there are too many for what is around an 8 hour game with heavy cutscene use. There are so many actions a player could take at any given time, and not one of these actions is ever explored in depth, through puzzle solving or stealth. Instead, whenever a particular gimmick or skill has been used for one or two puzzles, the game adds another. There were still new elements being introduced when I was nearing the conclusion of the game, most memorably being a telekinetic spirit blast only ever used in about 3 instances. The result was that while the narrative of the game was obviously nearing its conclusion, the puzzles and gameplay still felt like they were in the ‘teaching you everything you have at your disposal’ level of the tutorial. I didn’t necessarily want there to be more content in The Medium as the narrative overstayed its welcome, if anything, but I was still surprised when the credits rolled as in some ways, it felt like the game was just getting started.
Overall, I will remember The Medium as a bit of a mess. A game with an identity crisis, unsure whether it wants to be a story heavy walking simulator, a stealth horror game or a fixed-camera horror puzzler (like classic Resident Evil). For the relatively short game that it is, its scope is much too wide and whenever one element shines, the others quickly rush in to muddy the waters. As much as the concept of a medium, straddled on the border of multiple worlds, is novel; I wish they had just stuck to the one.
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