Abuse in The Medium

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JasonR86

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There’s an aspect to the game, The Medium, that I’m not sure has gotten quite enough attention. Nor am I sure exactly how I feel about it. Specifically, how the game’s narrative handles abuse of children. Obviously, I’m going to mention spoilers so if you haven’t reached, say, the 75% mark in the game maybe come back to this post later. But if you have, or simply don’t care about spoilers, here’s a quick recap of what I’m referring to.

SPOILERS

So, there are two abusers that get a focus in the game. The first is a Stepfather who is verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive toward his wife and stepson. This person is handled in a manner that you’d expect; he’s a villain who eventually gets his comeuppance. The more complicated story of abuse involves the stepson. The story of the Stepfather takes place in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. The stepson becomes a character, albeit as a ghost, in the game’s present day, in the late 1990’s. The stepson, named Richard, becomes an abuser himself, which we as the audience learn prior to hearing his backstory. Richard grooms and sexually abuses a young child, who the main character meets in the present day, the child also taking the form of a spirit. We learn about Richard’s abuse prior to learning about his backstory, which doesn’t just focus on his Stepfather.

During the time of Richard’s abuse by his Stepfather, while he was a child, the game also tells a side story about his relationship with a young girl. It isn’t explicit, but you get the idea that Richard falls in love with this girl, but she is ultimately taken from him (the details of which aren’t particularly relevant to Richard’s development, so I’ll leave that out). Richard’s behaviors as a child with this girl he loves mimics some of his behaviors with the young child he groomed as an old man. Details like this plant ideas in the audiences’ mind, like how he is reliving his childhood love with young girls as an adult. That, along with the story have sympathy for young Richard, who is abused by his Stepfather, does the work of rounding out that character and, in some ways explains, though doesn’t excuse, his later bad behavior, namely grooming and abusing a child.

The game doesn’t take a hard stance on how it views Richard and his abuse aside from letting to characters, the two playable characters, give their opinion. One essentially suggests that Richard’s backstory is irrelevant and that he’s a bad man that is deserving of punishment. The other essentially says the same but when asked by Richard’s ghost if she would forgive him (and if she thought the child he abused would forgive him) she replies that it isn’t her place to forgive, just to move his spirit on to wherever it is sprits go.

So, I’m curious what you all think of this. I don’t think the question is whether it is advisable for a game to round out their villains with backstories. But, rather, does the type of bad behavior warrant different types of rounding out? I guess, was it advisable for this game to make a sexually abuser sympathetic? To give a profile of the person to explain his later actions?

For my two cents, I’m a bit biased. I’m a mental health therapist who has worked for about ten years now. One of the concepts that every therapist must come to grips with is how do they relate with and support a person who has done bad behavior and are their certain behaviors where you simply can’t do that. For me, I have worked with abusers of all types, including sexual abusers of children. Frankly, it is hard for me to look past it. I’m able to do it in the moment, using techniques like identifying with the person rather than their behaviors, seeing my role as helping to stem the bad behaviors from happening again, and so on. To do that, I do have to round out my clients, so to speak. It helps me to know how they got to where they are today. In part, knowing an explanation for a bad behavior makes me understand the person behind the behavior. But I always keep in the forefront of my mind that an explanation is not an excuse. That’s where I think The Medium succeeds in this. They make it clear that sympathy you may have for Richard as a child doesn’t have to relate to him and his behaviors as an adult. Further, the profile they make of him for his bad behavior seems well defined as an explanation for the behaviors, not an excuse that makes the bad behaviors justifiable or allowable. But I’m not sure if there’s a place for this sort of character development in games, or film. Though I appreciate it because it is a risky thing to do, it also so easily can make survivors of abuse feel badly, you know? It feels to me like the downsides are so extreme and the upsides so minimal that I’m not entirely sure that there’s a place for character development like this in games or media in general. Save it for the real world, for therapy and such. But that’s just my take. What do you all think?

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tds418

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#2  Edited By tds418

I skimmed through a lot of your post because I was trying to avoid spoilers, but I don't think there is necessarily anything wrong with tackling abuse in fictional narratives. It just has to be handled with care. Whether The Medium handles the topic appropriately can obviously be debated.

I've been watching a fair amount of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for the first time lately because I like to put a TV procedural on in the background while taking care of stuff and I finished my rewatch of House. If you're unfamiliar with the premise of the show, it follows a police unit that investigates sex crimes. Obviously, that means most episodes involve abuse in some way (and often child abuse). Some episodes handle it better than others. Ultimately though, one of the recurring themes of the show is trying understand why people do bad things, in the hope that understanding can help prevent it from occurring in the future. I think there's something to that.

That said, I think it is 100% appropriate and a good thing for games and shows that tackle topics like this to put up blaring warnings up front about the topics that will be addressed, so victims of abuse aren't unexpectedly in a position of reliving their abuse.

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JasonR86

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@tds418:

The Medium does give that warning. I should have mentioned that.

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LapsarianGiraff

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I thought The Medium handled that character rather well. It doesn't go out of its way to sympathize, it just shows what happened from a distance, and as you said, the closest it gets to a "verdict" is one person mad enough to kill his soul over it, and another disgusted enough just to say "I'm not forgiving you, I'm just getting you out of here."

As to the potential benefits of this rounder characterization, I think it was worth it. Given that his abuse is what kicks off the events of the entire game, creating The Maw within Lily, it's a good idea to round that out from a story perspective. Even from a socially conscientious "is this worth showing in games" framework, it works. If every abuser or murderer in media is some comical "dude hanging out in a bush late at night", it ignores the reality that most abusers know their victims, intimately. Portraying the reality for what it is, while uncomfortable, is always worthwhile in my book.

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Serryl

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I agree with LapsarianGiraff that it was handled well. The moment where the story really grabbed me was when Richard gave Lily a ribbon, offered the tie it on her, and then hesitatingly withdrew the offer. It seemed like a moment where he knew both what he was plotting and that he was capable of carrying it out, but a part of him was still resisting. I was shouting at my TV, "Walk away and get some help, dude!"

That moment also recontextualized all the "Mentor's Diaries" I found, highlighting the inappropriate investment in or fixation with young people. I got the sense that he quietly fought against his urges when mentoring Thomas, only to give in years later.

To see him finally cross the line and then to quickly dive into his backstory was a powerful and tastefully executed moment, but it was appropriate that it never eclipsed the story of the victim or her family.

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Pezen

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I can't speak to the game, as I haven't played it, so I'll just answer your general question. I think we're well past having bad people in fiction just be bad because they're bad. Especially if we're talking media directed at adults. Lack of depth reinforces the assumption that peple are bad by nature and not something anyone can become given the right (or perhaps wrong) circumstances or chain of events. But it also makes them a lot less interesting because if someones motivation to do bad is just 'because I'm bad and I want to do bad' then it's lacking some substantial meaning. If we can empathize with where someone's bad behavior stems from, we will also understand their motivation while simultaneously disagree with their action or point of view, they become a more interesting presence in the game. I also think it's healthy to understand and deconstruct why certain people become abusive and discuss that, even in media, as I think we all don't want people to be abusive. So there's value to not just make an abuser into a boogeyman but a person that has an experience that made them into who they are.