There is a moment in The Medium where the protagonist, Marianne, comments on how sunshine doesn’t translate well into text. Now whilst I’m sure there are numerous literary examples of sunshine, described in all manner of eloquent splendour and beauty, she has a point. There are things that just cannot be fully appreciated without experiencing them first-hand. Being able to see the sun, to feel its warmth and light upon you, there are no words that can really do justice to those who have never had the opportunity.
It is a shame then, that The Medium often fails to grasp this, and instead is happy to relegate some of its most revelatory and emotive moments to text documents and audio logs. For a game as imaginative visually, there is a peculiar reliance on tell rather than show, and a general failure in storytelling that left me frustratingly unmoved in light of its distressing subject matter.
It’s doubly a shame when so much else is so very competent and clearly the result of great effort and care. The Medium is easily Bloober Team’s most ambitious and accomplished work to date, and manages to craft what is otherwise a very well made adventure game, pitching its puzzles and obstacles at a level where there is just enough complexity to rise above walking simulator but without the maddening logic of more orthodox fare.
The Medium is set in Poland during the 90's, where Funeral Home Assistant Marianne is in the process of saying goodbye to her adoptive father. She is soon called away by a mysterious message to Niwa, a rural cold war era holiday retreat that has long since been abandoned, where she must piece together what happened and find the source of the message itself.
So let's put the clichés out of the way first; Marianne has amnesia about her past, and so what chance do you think there is that she has a connection to the place she visits? The obviousness of the answer need go unstated; however the game spends far too much time concerned with anyone but the main character, leaving her relatively undeveloped and uncharacterised for much of the adventure. Instead most of your time is spent learning about Niwa's former residents via notes you find and ‘echoes’ left on objects, essentially audio logs by another name.
The constant need to stop and read or stop and listen would perhaps not have been so much of a problem if the content was engaging, but it never feels that way. Simply stating that bad things happened doesn’t in of itself generate, or more to the point, merit an emotional response. Like so many other games The Medium is far more concerned with exploring its backstory and lore as opposed to creating any real drama with character motivations and conflicts that occur in the moment. The resulting lack of jeopardy and tension is something the story struggles with until maybe the last 20 minutes, where all it has to offer until then is the occasional jolt of physical threat.
Marianne doesn’t help matters either, who like the rebooted Lara Croft, is just a little bit boring. The voice acting is very one note and she comes across as emotionally barren, so even when she raises her voice there is something unconvincing in the delivery. Her tone is sedate rather than sombre, and I never got the impression that she was hurting inside or carrying some weight of emotions, rather that she simply didn’t have any.
In fairness, many may find more than I did in the narrative, but the storytelling felt poor and ill-thought out if the intention was to grip the emotions. The content is there, with its themes of loss and trauma, but they are let down in the telling and the absence of a convincing showing.
On matters of gameplay, as the title gives away, Marianne is a medium, and as such has the power to interact with the spirits of the dead, specifically those who are yet to find peace beyond the grave. She can also visit the spirit world where these tormented souls dwell, and through her powers help them find a way to a more serene oblivion.
This drives the chief gameplay idea where you often move through both worlds simultaneously, where interactions cross over in terms of their effects and where the environment is mirrored in interesting ways.
The spirit world is certainly striking, presented as this dusty hell-scape, where everything appears to be in perpetual decay. Spirits are absent limbs and their bodies too appear afflicted with the same eternal rot. Masses of flesh abound and it’s never quite clear if things are truly alive or dead. It’s visually arresting and does provide an engaging contrast to its material world equivalent.
By manipulating objects in both worlds you progress and the puzzles you encounter are pretty straightforward for the most part, often using a power to access one area to get an item to unlock another. Too easy? Perhaps, but the pacing does benefit from their lack of convolution. Likewise it never feels like the game is repeating itself as it tends to add subtle twists and changes to each obstacle as it goes.
That it has taken so long for me to mention the horror perhaps gives away the point that The Medium isn’t particularly scary. It certainly has a rich atmosphere and the audio design is suitably unsettling, but it’s hide and seek gameplay never really frightens or catches you off-guard. Mercifully there is no endless waiting in closets here, rather a simple game of sneak around the maze of chest-high walls to escape, with each encounter adding new elements to keep things from getting stale.
And that characterises much of the gameplay, it never gets boring despite the mechanics being pretty familiar outside of the dual world setting. The constant little switch ups and changes keep things moving nicely and overall are somewhat greater than the sum of its parts. The game looks fabulous so exploring always carries with it some enjoyment, it’s just the story that ultimately fails to fire and do justice to the quality on show elsewhere.
The Medium is then a fine game, with great visuals and gameplay that would usually put it among some of the better adventure games. It's not scary, but on reflection that probably was a positive for my shredded nerves. However its the lack of a compelling narrative experience that hurts it most, ill-served by its underwhelming characters and lazy storytelling, where the potential glimpsed only makes the disappointment all the more maddening.