Bloober Team’s rise as one of the leading voices in video game horror was already cemented long before The Medium. However, The Medium is such a spectacle that Bloober Team is now operating at an entirely new level. The Polish developer has taken everything it learned creating Layers of Fear, Blair Witch and Observer and used those lessons to create an existential, dread-soaked thriller.
The Medium is a study in human nature, mental wellbeing, determinism and familial ties. It’s part Resident Evil and part Silent Hill with a hint of Fatal Frame (Project Zero) and a touch of Hellblade. And while it may be all of these things, The Medium stands on its own. Never weighed down by its influences, never aping those that came before it.
It’s a heavy, brooding and incredibly disturbing experience and one that is guaranteed to remain with you long after the end credits roll. The Medium is a resounding success and perhaps the first game in the ‘new wave of survival horror.’
The Medium Review
Set in 1990s Poland, The Medium is a masterclass in pacing and narrative delivery. Playing as Marianne, players begin by preparing to farewell her adoptive father who has recently passed away. This opening sequence introduces players to the mechanics and basic gameplay while setting the stage for Marianne’s quest for answers across two planes of existence. It’s often quite difficult to discuss the plot of games in reviews without spoiling them but so integral is everything which occurs in The Medium, I’m loath to say any more than the most basic of details.
So, Marianne is a Medium and simultaneously exists in the Material and Spiritual Worlds. On receiving a phone call from a mysterious stranger while bidding farewell to her father, she investigates the Niwa Workers Hotel and uncovers a long-buried and dangerous secret which threatens not only her but potentially the entire world.
It may sound as though I’m describing any ordinary old game with supernatural themes but trust me, The Medium is anything but ordinary. For instance, much of the action and drama is understated and allowed to play out without drama or histrionics. Much of this success is due to Marianne being the player’s way into The Medium and doing the majority of the storytelling. In addition, rather than being fed line after line of exposition throughout The Medium, players simply hear Marianne’s thoughts while she’s coming to grips with things as they are occurring.
There are occasional info dumps but for the most part, the narrative unfolds naturally and gracefully. It’s a miracle it does so as the subject matter isn’t easy.
I’ve briefly touched on some of the themes of The Medium, including human nature and family but importantly, the game also dives deeply into nature versus nurture, the cycle of abuse and analytical psychology. The Medium frequently asks players to question their own beliefs and to examine how external factors and experiences can shape a person and their future actions. While child abuse is never justified, can it be forgivable? Can the experiences of a person in childhood engender empathy (or sympathy) such that their actions as an adult can be understood?
These are very, very hard questions and they’re but some of what The Medium asks its audience. It’s certainly not for the squeamish nor those looking to kick back and forget life for a while with some terrifying horror. The Medium is a horror game, no question but it’s not a typical horror game. Instead of inducing fear and panic, it slowly creates an atmosphere of dread through disturbing visuals, audio and themes. Over the course of the game, Bloober Team ratchets up the tension and unease without ever letting up. You don’t get a chance to catch your breath in The Medium but that’s ok because you’ll barely be thinking about breathing. Instead, your stomach will be turning over on itself while your mind works overtime to land on an acceptable response to the conundrums The Medium poses.
All that being said, while Bloober Team may be asking a lot of its players mentally throughout The Medium, it doesn’t give them freedom of choice. Bloober Team doesn’t even give players the illusion of choice. Instead, The Medium is as linear as they come. Its linearity isn’t a negative quality though. The only way for this story to be told as well as it is, is for the storyteller to remain in complete control. Players are being put to bed by Bloober Team and its incredibly poor choice of bedtime story; fully engaged but never in control.
When I say, “never in control,” I am, of course, speaking figuratively. This is a video game after all so it goes without saying that players are in control of the gameplay. And the gameplay is where this game cribs from its elders. The Medium makes use of (mostly) fixed cameras and so feels and plays a lot like Resident Evil; 1 through Code Veronica. Thankfully, it doesn’t rely on tank-controls so moving Marianne around is rarely an issue. On some occasions, the switch in perspectives leads to some control niggles but nothing which derails the experience.
With Resident Evil-esque exploration, The Medium spends a majority of its runtime being a walking simulator. Players move Marianne through the world, examining clues, collecting notes and items and solving puzzles in order to progress. There is no combat in The Medium and only a handful of dangerous sections in which Marianne can be killed. In these sequences, players need to remain hidden and stay quiet so as to sneak past the enemy and continue.
The lack of combat is, again, something which might have been construed as a negative but in this case, isn’t. The Medium works so well because you’re not worrying about trying to keep Marianne alive at the same time as solving puzzles and figuring out if you think imprisonment of the innocent for the greater good is righteous.
It’s also a good move on Bloober Team’s behalf since a big drawcard is the dual-reality gameplay. As Marianne is a Medium, she exists in both the Spirit and Material Worlds simultaneously. Throughout the game, players will encounter sections in which they’ll control both Marianne’s in both worlds, just the real Marianne, just the spirit Marianne or alternating between. Players won’t be playing the entirety of The Medium in split-screen nor can they opt to jump between the two worlds at will. Like the narrative, Bloober Team is firmly in control of where and when players get to see beyond the veil and it’s for good reason; servicing the story.
The dual-reality gameplay is definitely a nifty feature and more than a gimmick but only just. The Medium would have had just as much impact if it switched between perspectives rather than showing them both at the same time. It’s a neat way to complicate puzzles and certainly has a ‘wow factor’ but it’s not the game-changer it appears as. Again, this isn’t meant as a slight. The dual-reality gameplay is great, it’s just one small part of the overall package; which only marginally impacts gameplay.
Visually though, seeing both realities at once is breathtaking. The Material world looks as it should, realistic and detailed. The Spirit world, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Inspired by Zdzisław Beksiński’s artworks, the Spirit World is depicted as a dystopian nightmare. Not based on any religious idea of the afterlife but rather, a decrepit, broken shadow of the world in which we live. Seeing both realities side-by-side emphasises the striking visuals and paints the Spirit World as even more foreign and uninviting than it already is. Complementing the visuals is the amazing audio which works overtime to get players into just the right frame of mind.
January’s not even over and The Medium has already set an unbelievably high bar for gaming in 2021. Not for the faint of heart, nor those susceptible to trauma, The Medium is an intensely disturbing masterclass in storytelling, dripping with atmosphere and loaded with enough dread to make you question the very nature of your existence when you’re finished with it.
The Medium was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a digital copy provided by Microsoft.