The world of The Medium begs to be closely examined, to be parsed for small details that begin to paint monsters as something not too dissimilar to humans. Recognizing these similarities, at times, can be even more terrifying than facing an actual grotesque creature. There’s something disturbing about being forced to confront the evils that humans can inflict on one another, and recognize how horrific acts of sexual abuse, ethnoreligious discrimination, and physical violence rarely, if ever, result in a singular trauma. The aftereffects of such actions can fester in the heart and mind of victims for years, an unsettling truth that is often glossed over. It’s here that The Medium finds the basis for its story, one that leaves a lasting impression
In The Medium, you play as Marianne (voiced by Kelly Burke, who does a fabulous job), a powerful clairvoyant who travels to the Niwa Resort. She goes there in search of Thomas, a man who leaves her a strange message telling her to find and help him, promising that he’ll give her the answers she seeks about her past in return. As a medium, Marianne is able to commune with spirits and help them pass on to the afterlife, a skill she’s developed working in her foster father’s funeral home. To that end, The Medium plays out on two planes of existence: the normal world and the spirit world, the latter of which acts as a twisted reflection of the former.
The spirit world–inspired by the surreal dystopia portrayed in the paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński–is a nightmarish hellscape, one where the doors are made of human skin that you have to slowly carve open with a rusty knife, and the inhabitants are either monstrous creatures or creepy mask-wearing spirits. Even Marianne takes on a new appearance when navigating the spirit world, the sleeve of her kickass jacket (she’s so stylishly put together, I’m jealous as hell) and pant leg becoming frayed, as if this version of her is an incomplete, less-human being. But these two depictions of the world are not black and white opposites. Instead, the game posits that they exist as mirrors of one another–one manifesting literally what the other only hints at figuratively. And via this shared window into both perspectives, The Medium is able to explore the trauma of its characters through puzzle-solving and riddles.
Puzzle Of The Spirit
As you explore the Niwa Resort in search of Thomas, you’ll stumble into areas where the emotional remnants of the world are so powerful, Marianne is forced to traverse the space in both the real and spiritual plane. At this point, your perspective is split, forcing you to look at and explore both worlds simultaneously. Navigating these spaces isn’t straightforward, though–a staircase that’s still present in the spirit world may have collapsed in the real world, or an empty hallway in the real world may be full of killer moths in the spirit world. And what affects Marianne in one world will do so in the other.
These moments of dual-reality occur in a good third of the game, transforming areas into self-contained puzzle boxes where an understanding of the space is necessary for moving forward. For example, putting together certain items in the real world might spark memories that manifest as positive energy in the spirit world that Marianne can then absorb and use to power her supernatural abilities, such as a shield that can protect her from moths. As you continue, the puzzles become more elaborate, encouraging you to take a closer look at the environment in search of clues that might lead you toward the solution to the problem in front of you.
The puzzles revolving around the dual-reality of Marianne’s life are impressive in their technical achievement and the best part of the game. Bloober Team has spoken about how these moments are actually two different, wholly separate experiences running side by side, a feat the developer could not accomplish when The Medium was first conceptualized as an Xbox 360 game nor even made possible with the Xbox One. Only now, thanks to the powerful hardware and architecture of the Xbox Series X|S can the vision of what Bloober Team wanted for The Medium be realized–and it certainly is impressive. There are in-game ramifications beyond the visual splendor, too. Marianne is able to have an out-of-body experience, allowing you to control only her spirit form for a limited time. When this occurs, the game suspends the real world experience, giving you a chance to quickly explore previously inaccessible sections of the spirit world. When you’re done, a brief flash of light hides a very fast load as spirit Marianne returns to the same position as real world Marianne and your controller connects to both versions again. It’s incredible how seamlessly the two experiences link up to one another–it can’t be any longer than a second or two.
But beyond how cool it is to see Xbox’s new hardware finally getting a console exclusive that accomplishes something that feels very “next gen,” these moments of dual reality also add to The Medium’s gameplay. In order to solve a puzzle, for instance, you may need Marianne to be in two places at once or rely on the fact that she can essentially teleport from one place to another. One of my favorite moments in The Medium was when I came face to face with a monster during a moment of dual reality. I had an out-of-body experience and ran down a hallway, the creature chasing after my spirit form. Right before it caught me, I returned to my body, reloading spirit Miranne alongside real-world Marianne, who was able to physically interact with and cut through the chain locking the door, allowing both versions of Marianne to pass through just before my pursuer returned. It was a terrifying and thrilling moment.
Regardless of whether they’re a part of the dual reality sections or not, the puzzles are satisfying to solve–both for the sense of accomplishment and for how each one gives you a new glimpse into a world you’re desperate to understand. Most puzzles require a level of spatial awareness or deductive reasoning; they’re less about leaving you stumped and geared more toward smartly navigating spaces. So while you can’t guess your way to success, figuring out what to do shouldn’t trip you up for very long. And there’s a great deal of incentive in solving each puzzle–prior to your arrival, the Niwa Resort suffered a horrifying incident in which almost everyone on the premises died but no one knows why. Journeying deeper into the resort begins to fill in those gaps, unveiling a mystery that compels you to push further through the horror in hopes of finding the answers you seek.
All In Perspective
Though most of the game revolves around puzzle-solving, there are stealth encounters and chase sequences in The Medium as well. Both of these stem from encounters with The Maw (voiced by Troy Baker), the main antagonist of the game. The Maw is a fairly straightforward chap who is very confident in letting others know what it desires–it wants to strip you down and live inside your skin… because reasons. These instances grant The Medium an opportunity to delve into more traditional horror game tropes, the kind that make it feel like your heart is going to explode out of your chest. And in this way, the fear of running into The Maw provides an ever-present tension.
Any time you have the eureka moment of figuring out how to solve a puzzle, it’s usually accompanied by the growing dread that you haven’t seen The Maw in a while. And that feeling only grows worse once you notice that you now have to travel down a very long hallway to use the item you’ve just discovered to unlock the next area; it feels like it would be a real inopportune time for you if the creature were to show up, which probably means it’s going to show up, whimpering about how cold it is and how you’re being very selfish for not letting it try you on, and then growling with malicious glee upon spotting you and demanding you hold still so that it can have its way with your body. I’m not sure what well of horrific creativity that Troy Baker found in order to inform his performance, but we must ensure he never finds it again–he does way too good a job of making The Maw sound creepy as hell. I’m not even really sure how to describe the voice; it’s as if a toddler that’s struggling for air is cooing in your ear about being a serial killer. You just feel unclean listening to it. The Maw is a deeply unsettling antagonist, made all the more so because you go a great deal of the game not knowing why it wants to be inside you, but knowing that it can appear at almost any time.
Thankfully, there are a few systems designed to ensure you don’t always outright fail if you make a wrong turn during a chase sequence or accidently stop holding your breath while trying to sneak through a stealth section. When captured–provided you have spirit energy–you can emit a blast that temporarily stuns The Maw, allowing you to keep running or flee to a hiding spot. Marianne can’t hold an endless supply of spirit energy (the amount is cleverly indicated by how much of her jacket sleeve is glowing, removing any need for a user interface) but you usually always have enough to escape at least once. So the first time you’re caught, it’s not necessarily a game over. That doesn’t dispel the unnerving atmosphere when The Maw is nearby, of course, nor did it help my unease when exploring the resort, especially during the times when I hadn’t had a chance to recharge Marianne’s spirit energy in a while and was running dry.
That feeling of unease is only heightened by how you’re able to perceive The Medium’s world. Bloober Team strips you of any agency over the camera, opting for a more cinematic experience where you’re at the mercy of predetermined angles for every room. Often, you’re forced to view a room from a less-than-ideal perspective; for example, with the camera facing Marianne head-on so that you can only see what’s directly behind her, or a faraway shot that showcases just how big the room is and how vulnerable you are. To the game’s credit, it’s very effective for establishing the tone of every moment, allowing Bloober Team to orchestrate the same type of shot composition seen in well-choreographed horror films or cinematic horror games like Silent Hill.
Occasionally, The Medium will combine both the cinematic nature of its shots and the dual reality of its setting to amplify climatic moments, such as extended chase sequences or significant conversations. My favorite examples are the series of talks between Marianne and Sadness, a mysterious spirit of a young girl who cannot remember who she is. Because Sadness is a spirit, she only exists in the spirit realm, and so it looks like the Marianne in the real world is talking to thin air. Bloober Team almost always uses this opportunity to great effect in order to show how Marianne and Sadness’ relationship is evolving. For example, the side of the screen that focuses on real-world Marianne may remain as a close-up of her face so that you can read her microexpressions, but not see much else while the spirit world side may showcase how Marianne and Sadness are talking to one another. One camera reveals what Marianne is likely thinking while the other gives us a glimpse as to what she’s reacting to.
The sound design of The Medium is top-notch, too. Wood creaks beneath your feet, the thudding footsteps of The Maw reverberates into your ears when it’s chasing you, and the sound of Marianne replenishing her spirit energy comes as a major relief. The soundtrack is no slouch either, as composers Arkadiusz Reikowski (Layers of Fear 2, Blair Witch) and Akira Yamaoka (the Silent Hill franchise) ensure the music creates a terrifying atmosphere and moments of silence deliver an unnerving one. The music and sounds of The Medium work beautifully (in the most frightening way) to amplify each scene, typically working in tandem with the odd angles of the camera to keep you in a perpetual state of freaking out, but also informing you of Marianne’s current state.
The Medium does a terrific job of storytelling without explicitly telling you what’s going on, so it’s disappointing when it goes out of its way to explicitly lay things out. Almost the entire game is a flashback of past events as Marianne recaps her harrowing journey through the Niwa Resort, narrating her innermost thoughts, feelings, and convictions during each moment. She’s excessively vocal, often explaining revelations that do not need explaining because the game has already sufficiently established a situation. The most annoying instance of this is when Marianne comments on how she’s feeling. Kelly Burke’s stellar performance does much of the work in conveying Marianne’s mental and emotional state, so getting narration about how she’s feeling just after inferring it from the tone in her voice feels redundant. The Medium gives you everything you need to piece together its puzzles and narrative. But whereas it leaves you to solve the puzzles on your own, it goes too far in trying to ensure you never miss a beat of its story. Granted, this straightforward narration does act as a benefit for those that might not be able to pick up on certain visual or auditory cues, ensuring that the necessary information remains accessible, though it feels a bit inelegant in its implementation.
Coming To Terms
The Medium’s initial hook of finding Thomas in order to learn about Marianne’s origins isn’t all that interesting, but, as mentioned before, the walls of Niwa Resort hide many compelling secrets. Early on, you discover evidence of several seemingly unimportant but fascinating stories that speak to what transpired in the days leading up to the massacre that left Niwa Resort abandoned. Many of these stories tie into the puzzles–more often than not, deducing the identity of someone and understanding who they were is key to moving forward. Thus, to understand the puzzle in front of you, you need to empathize with those who once lived there to figure out how they ticked. Even if you can’t fully comprehend the scope of their trauma, it’s important to acknowledge it and try to understand how it may have shaped them.
Two moments in particular stand out, as they involve getting at the heart of trauma that has been kept from others to see. These sections play out in unique dreamscapes inspired by the twisted subconscious mind of the individuals in question. They’re both harrowing and intense–you’re cutting away at the defenses that someone has erected against the most traumatic moments of their life, so it can occasionally feel like you’re the monster in this scenario, triggering someone for no other reason than better understanding them for your own personal gain. But in both instances, you’re entering the mind of victims that went on to become victimizers themselves, ones who wielded their trauma as an excuse for the horrific abuse they went on to enact on others.
At the core of The Medium is the idea that there are usually always two ways of perceiving something or someone. The puzzles, dual reality gameplay, and overall story support this central theme, revealing instances of human behavior that showcase how bad deeds can occasionally have good motivations (or vice versa). In most instances, The Medium leaves it up to player interpretation as to whether someone was good or bad. The aforementioned sections where you dive into the psyche of abusers are the game’s acknowledgement that there is an exception to how much agency you have in how you judge someone, even when there are two sides of a story. In both cases, Marianne outright rejects the use of a miserable or abusive upbringing to forgive evil actions. You can feel bad for a villain on account of what happened to them, but that doesn’t mean you should ever forgive what they did. It’s an important distinction and one I’m glad the game makes, utilizing both an example of an abuser who accidently shielded their guilt with their trauma and one who purposely did so, in order to make the point that both instances are not okay. The latter is far worse, but neither is inexcusable.
And I think therein lies why The Medium works as well as it does. It’s a horror game–no doubt about that. I have a whole camera reel of screenshots of the times the game scared me so bad I tried to pause it to compose myself, only to hit the screenshot button by mistake. But if anything, it feels more like a game about the aftermath of horror, and how living with unresolved trauma can create nightmares as damaging as the initial event. As scary as it is to be chased by a monster, it’s the terrifying display of how one traumatizing act–even after it’s been justly punished–can still create such a ripple effect that, years later, it continues to affect the victim, those around them, and even complete strangers. The Medium posits that there is no single victim in a traumatic event, and then through its characters and environmental storytelling, builds proofs to its hypothesis that are difficult to disagree with.
Horror In Design
Eventually The Medium’s narrative threads begin to weave together, even connecting to the original goal of discovering Marianne’s origins. The promise that everything somehow connects in some unforeseen and fascinating way is a thrilling reason to see the game all the way through. The connections to real-world events of Polish history make many of the revelations even more poignant–even if the supernatural aspects are fictional, it’s deeply unsettling to think about how some of the evil present in this game did actually occur.
And to that end, The Medium’s conclusion sticks with you; it’s one last horrifying reminder that trauma may not define a person, but it can have consequences we can’t even begin to foresee if it’s not adequately dealt with and simply left to fester over time. I can’t say I enjoyed the ending to The Medium, but I am deeply satisfied with how it sets up the inescapable nature of its horrifying conclusion.