The Medium – Tense and Terrifying
PC, Xbox Series
It all starts with a dead girl…
Death is captivating. It can be beautiful, frightening, sudden, inevitable, but no matter the circumstances surrounding it, there is an inherent mystery to death that makes it a gripping subject matter to grapple with. Anything can be scary if you try, and anything can be mysterious if you surround it with enough questions, but there’s something about that inherent element of the unknown associated with death that makes it a perfect centrepiece for a horror game. Many have tried to harness the themes of death, loss and truth in various ways over the past few years, but The Medium, a game about the connection between reality and a world of spirits and demons, manages to succeed where others in recent times have failed. This is not a horror game that uses jump scares or quick-time events to build tension, but one whose power is rooted in a dark and unsettling story set in a pair of uniquely haunting worlds. In many ways, it’s a study in how to do horror games right. But it must also come with a warning – this game gets very, very dark and deals with some incredibly distressing themes, including sexual violence and mentions of the holocaust, so proceed with caution.
The narrative and gameplay elements of The Medium are inextricably linked, with a story based around main character Marianne and her psychic abilities. Marianne is a spirit medium, able (or cursed?) to exist in the real world and the spirit world simultaneously, with actions performed by one version of her also performed by the other. Since she was a young girl, she has been able to interact with spirits, using residual emotional energy attached to objects in their world to assist them in passing on and avoiding remaining trapped there for eternity with their demons – which in that world can manifest in often grotesque forms. She’s haunted by a vision of the murder of a young girl, but the lines between reality and what’s caused by her abilities are so blurred that she isn’t sure whether what she’s seeing is a vision, dream, or premonition, so she just adds it to the list of mysteries surrounding her life. One day, Marianne gets a mysterious phone call summoning her to an abandoned hotel outside of town to meet a man who seems to have answers about her murky past, and like all good horror protagonists, she hops on her motorcycle and her journey towards answering those unanswered questions begins.
The hotel, once the site of a horrific massacre, is filled with echoes of the past and restless spirits, including one who guides Marianne on her journey and one who is determined to hunt her. Once The Maw, voiced (almost unrecognisably) by Troy Baker, appears, the tension shifts and the stakes are raised, and this story is no longer just about Marianne and her past, but a whole lot more. In order to find the answers she needs and escape The Maw, Marianne needs to use her psychic abilities to explore her environments and interact with objects in ways most humans cannot. The unique dual-reality gameplay means that both worlds are often rendered simultaneously, so most of the time you are controlling both Mariance and her spirit counterpart. In both worlds, she is able to use her Insight to highlight objects or sense the presence of the lurking Maw. In the spirit world, she can draw energy from objects that she can then use to create a shield around herself or to unleash a powerful blast that will power nearby objects or knockback foes. Barriers that exist in the real world (like doors) don’t always exist in the spirit world, and vice versa and Marianne is also able to have out-of-body experiences that allow her to temporarily access areas she otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to in order to open up new paths. Occasionally the game will force you to exist in one reality at a time, which does remove some of what makes the gameplay exciting, but it usually makes sense narratively.
Most of the rest of the game involves standard environmental puzzle-solving, often requiring you to get to a new area, find the items you need to progress, and then repeat. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult, even those requiring you to use the dual-reality abilities, but they never had me feeling bored. Everything was a little too easy, but it also made complete logical sense. Nothing felt like busywork, and everything had a purpose. The encounters with The Maw are a little repetitive, often taking the form of a standard chase scene or stealth section, but to me, that just made sense with the tone of the game. The Maw is a threat that must be escaped, but for much of the game, he’s also just something to be outrun until your questions can be answered. He’s scary, and obviously being caught by him isn’t nice, but this isn’t a game about worrying that he’ll jump out at any time to surprise you. It’s about trying to push through this creepy, decaying world to find peace for yourself and those you came to help. It’s almost as if The Maw is just more set-dressing, like the rest of the unsettling environments.
The environments, as unsettling as they are, are also stunning. They’re based on the artworks of Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński (whose work you should absolutely look up because they’re a unique brand of creepy), and are distinct from any horror game environment I’ve seen before. I imagine these are the kind of environments the early Silent Hill games were striving for, but couldn’t quite achieve with PS1 era graphics. If you happen to be a person with trypophobia, you’ll find them particularly upsetting, but otherwise, there’s a beauty to their hideousness. The real-world environments look like you’d expect for a horror game, complete with the fixed-camera angles that seem to plague all games in the genre. I understand their creative purpose in that they force perspective, but damn do they make navigation hard. This game takes many cues from its predecessors, but this wasn’t one I was overly fond of.
That is a big part of what may make or break your enjoyment of this game. In a lot of ways, it isn’t doing anything new. The dual-reality gameplay is innovative, but otherwise, there are huge nods to Silent Hill in particular, and even more modern classics like Alan Wake. The unsettling atmosphere with random body parts strewn around the environment and enemies, the themes of loss and grief and dual worlds that sometimes don’t quite make sense, even the music, composed in part by Akira Yamaoka – it’s all very Silent Hill. Part of why I really like this game is that I’ve been hoping for something to fill that proper old-school Silent Hill void in my heart, and no game has been able to do it in a long time. Not until this one. And not everything it emulates is good, but it does it well, and I applaud Bloober Team for what was a damn good homage to some classic games.
If you’re a fan of old-school psychological horror, there’s a lot to like here. There’s probably a lot to like if you aren’t too, but be ready for a game that isn’t perfect. Sometimes the camera angles are jarring, the action is a little slow, and it’s easy to get a little lost in the plot. But at the same time, everything somehow makes sense. Marianne is a likable protagonist, and her quips and remarks were exactly the right amount of curious and concerned by what was going on around her. At times she was really just a dork, and it was exactly what I needed to break some of the often oppressive tension in the environments. The dual-reality gameplay was cool, if a little underutilised. The real game-changer was the fact that a short way into the game, I got a pair of bolt cutters that allowed me to just break through chains without having to search for something new to open every single door. It forced the game to come up with more creative ways to stop me from going to new sections, and the way that it broke video game logic in which everything inexplicably breaks after a single use and replaced it with actual logic was weirdly exciting. Marianne is a big fan of the bolt cutters too – maybe that’s why I like her so much.
Overall, I think The Medium did enough to establish itself as a solid addition to the horror genre. It avoided the overreliance on jump scares that’s hurting a lot of newer games, and still managed to create an extremely tense and creepy world. Were there holes in the plot? Almost certainly. Do I wish horror games would branch out and stop relying on extraordinarily dark themes like child abuse? Absolutely, and this game comes with a bunch of huge trigger warnings. But after experiencing the ending, I can’t help but feel every twist in this mystery led closer to a conclusion, and that while it didn’t all come together neatly, it didn’t rely on being vague to be mysterious, and I think that’s a feat in itself. So to anyone who misses the Silent Hill brand of creepy, I think this one’s for you.
The Medium was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Xbox Australia
Jess is a writer and researcher who loves games with good puzzles, good stories, and a tendency to punch you straight in your feelings. She is one of the directors of not-for-profit organisation Queerly Represent Me and is particularly interested in games told from unique perspectives that highlight themes or characters from groups that are often underrepresented. She also just really loves coffee, hot chips, and terrible superhero TV shows, and is always secretly hoping that one day the world will give her a good Sherlock Holmes game.