It’s October, gang: spooky season cometh. May I interest you in a fun, surprisingly intricate, delightfully creepy interactive ghost story?
Man of Medan—the first instalment in The Dark Pictures Anthology—tells the tale of a group of American tourists (and their intrepid, impatient captain-for-hire) whose diving holiday to French Polynesia gets unfortunately interrupted when they’re kidnapped by pirates. The pirates’ attempt at ransoming the rich twenty-somethings are also interrupted, however, when their boat crashes into the side of a World War II freighter that seems to be anchored, abandoned, in the middle of the ocean. With the boat damaged and the legend of “Manchurian Gold” in the vicinity, the motley crew climb aboard the ship and descend into a shadowy, haunting space lost to time, and… well, it’s safe to say everything begins to go pear-shaped from there. But how, exactly, is up to you.
Note: the first section of this is a spoiler-free review. When we dive (no pun intended) into the deeper stuff, it will be marked. For now, enter if you dare…
You control five characters: nerdy Brad, his serious big brother Alex, Alex’s reckless and excitable girlfriend Julia, Julia’s chill-vibes-having, floral-shirt-wearing little brother Conrad, and aforementioned intrepid captain Fliss. They’re all surprisingly delightful, presented with just the right amount of depth to get you to understand them before the action truly begins, and they’re thrown into horrifying situations together (or apart… that also depends on you). Across the game the perspective shifts between them, and you have many opportunities to sway their fates, from dialogue to quick decisions in action scenes to broader narrative choices that may influence how a scene (or later, unforeseen events) plays out.
And, visiting you occasionally between narrative arcs, is the mysterious figure known only as The Curator: a well-dressed, genial-yet-menacing fellow who hangs out in a library and waxes poetic about how your choices are shaping the narrative, playfully implying a level of omniscience and quiet, quizzical judgement. I imagine The Curator is going to be a mainstay of the series, serving as our framing device in each new piece of the anthology, and I find him fascinating (but then, I have a big place in my heart for Trickster characters and this kind of metatextual playfulness). He also likes to pop up in the background of Man of Medan’s story, always very swiftly and never when you expect him… adding a spicy extra layer of uncertainty when you didn’t spot him, but your friend yells “That was him! Did you see him? The snazzy waistcoat guy!!”
And uncertainty is very much this game’s bread and butter. For that very reason, I’ll keep this section spoiler free: there is a wonderful chilling quality to playing this story blind and piecing together the nature of its horror yourself. The fear factor is increased, of course, by the fact this is a narrative you have some control over: who, if anyone, makes it out alive at the end, is mostly up to you. While the plot has a solid overarching framework, there’s a pretty amazing amount of intricacy to the details that can change within that structure.
There are many possibilities for different ways things can go, different outcomes to certain events, different character combinations, different locations, and multiple very different climaxes and ending sequences—and, because this is what we’re all really here for, deep down, so many ways for people to die. It gives it a lot of replay value: my housemates and I are three playthroughs in at time of writing, and each time we’ve managed to have a significantly different experience based on which characters are present, what their relationships are like, what directions we choose, and, of course, what mistakes we make along the way. We’re still coming across scenes, bits of information, and dialogue that are entirely new, which I think is very neat from a narrative-building perspective, and also pretty thrilling to play.
Being made by the same folks, the Until Dawn comparisons are inevitable, so let’s get them underway. I’ve seen multiple complaints that Medan was too short, to which I’d remind people a) it’s billed as a short story; and b) while a full playthrough of the game may only end up clocking in at four or five hours (much less than Until Dawn’s nine to ten hour run), there are considerably more variations available, so the amount of content is much the same (if not more!). Which game is “better” is, I feel, kind of a moot point, since they both do different things with a similar formula—it ultimately depends what you’re in the mood for, both in terms of game experience and in terms of narrative (Man of Medan is aiming to be a ghost story in its own right rather than rolling around deliberately and artistically in well-worn tropes; and maybe you just prefer high-seas hauntings over “cabin in the woods” type shenanigans, or vice versa).
Because it’s a step up in terms of the intricate possibilities it can account for, I might even say Man of Medan has more replay value, but in the end they’re both still fun to revisit and mess around with to see what kind of tale you can weave this time. I feel like Man of Medan is an improvement on the tools and tricks I loved from Until Dawn, giving me even more opportunities to play with the narrative and make it my own, and giving me characters I got attached to far more easily than the schlocky stereotypes that make up Until Dawn’s cast. And, again, Until Dawn is meant to be schlocky, so that’s not a critique necessarily; it just means that when I realised I was legitimately fretful about keeping Man of Medan’s cast alive because I legitimately liked them, it was a (pleasant) shock to the system and a difference I noticed. They’re good kids, Brent. And, since none of them seem to have the plot armour afforded to characters like Mike and Sam, there are so many more ways they can perish in my hands. Oh God.
It’s a fun horror romp, with a good balance of spooks without being unnecessarily nasty or gory, and its gameplay is simple enough that it’s accessible to basically anyone who wants to take a turn playing in and with the ghost story (but watch out for those quick time events—they’re a doozy). It’s a delightful improvement on what I already enjoyed about its predecessor, and a promising start to The Dark Pictures Anthology. I’m excited to see what they turn out next… but also afraid. Y’know, in a good way, though.
And now, spoiler time.
All we have to fear is fear itself. Isn’t that the bedrock idea of horror as a genre? Man of Medan has great fun playing with this, in any case.
One of the things I enjoyed so much about Until Dawn’s story was that mid-point switcheroo where the very human threat (the “psycho”) was usurped by a supernatural threat (the wendigo), twisting your genre expectations and throwing you into something entirely new. Man of Medan makes a similar play: the very real threat of the pirates is usurped by the supernatural threat of the ghost ship, which, in turn, is revealed to not actually be supernatural in nature at all. The “Manchurian Gold” of legend is not pirate treasure but the codename for an experimental toxic gas that induces paranoid hallucinations—a deadly weapon to use against your enemy in times of war, but not so convenient to have leak throughout your ship. I’d call that hubris, except that (as we see in the game’s prologue) it was the poor unwary foot soldiers who had to deal with the consequences rather than the seedy higher-ups who commissioned the stuff.
As the present-day cast get deeper into the Ourang Medan and get more of the “gold” in their systems, they begin to be plagued by oddly specific terrors: flirty Conrad is menaced by the spectre of a ‘40s pinup girl who turns into something resembling a Hagraven, superstitious Fliss wanders into a vision of an occultist group’s headquarters, Julia starts seeing sinister copies of her boyfriend everywhere (whether this is more or less terrifying if their relationship is on good or bad terms, is up to you), Brad is confronted by bloody visions of his dear big brother dying, and Alex—strangely squeamish and suggestible for a medical student—is so horrified by what he thinks is a two-headed mutant skeleton that he starts to see multi-faced monsters everywhere.
This kind of tailored terror is fun twofold. Firstly, it gives us a glimpse into their individual psyches and shows what they’re afraid of, and reflects what subliminal images have wormed their way into their freaked-out heads. Secondly, it builds tension fantastically: playing as each character, you’re only privy to their point of view, so you only see what they see. If other characters begin jumping at shadows, but you ostensibly don’t see the source of their fear, you begin to wonder what exactly you’re missing. Likewise, the limited perspective to your currently-selected character means that other characters don’t see what you see, and may get caught outside—or caught up in—your version of reality in terrible ways. Case in point: a monster is not always a monster. It might be your friend trying to calm you down, and attacking them might not be the best idea. Likewise, though, your friend may be having a hallucination of their own and see you as something that needs attacking. Things can get hairy real quickly, and you may only realise the error of your ways later.
The idea of the unreliable visuals (i.e. the perspective of each character as their own unreliable narrator) is one I find fascinating, and one that leads to a lot of internal tension. It plays with your reflexes: your instinct is, immediately, to do something about the threat in front of you, out of both a sense of self-preservation and out of the logic that you usually fight monsters when they attack you in video games. Your impulse and your rational brain butt against each other: yes, I know that we’re all huffing Fear Gas and that monster isn’t real, but it sure does look real, and also I’m very stressed and primed to do something, press something, react after a game full of QTEs. I damn near made Alex stab Fliss, is what I’m saying, even at the end of the game when the mystery had been uncovered and we all knew the nature of the ship and its visions. This made for a fun communal experience, in that I also had four friends in the room with me shouting “NO IT’S FLISS, IT MUST BE FLISS, DON’T STAB HER, DON’T MOVE, DON’T DO ANYTHING”. Friends that (don’t) slay together stay together.
And it is a fun game to play as a group: there’s even a “movie night” mode designed so that each player takes turns with the one controller, and each has custody (as we put it) over a different character. I thought this was especially neat, since we’d made up our own version of this playing Until Dawn anyway—now it’s just officially integrated. Will your squad cooperate, or will you endeavour to ruin (and perhaps end) each other’s lives? The same question is at the heart of the remote multiplayer mode, and, though I haven’t had a go at that myself, seems to hold even more intricacies and interesting possibilities, resting again on that concept of the fixed perspective and unreliable “narrators”. What you see is not necessarily what your co-op companion sees, even if their character is in the same space as you, and that has some very intriguing potential for both the future of co-op gaming and for general spookiness.
To reiterate my point from above, Man of Medan is a heck of a lot of fun, for both its intriguing and thrilling horror plot and for the exciting new innovations it presents in terms of narrative-driven games. I imagine I’ll be playing it again soon, even now, just to snap up those last few remnant possibilities… and I imagine I’ll be keeping a healthy distance between me and any kind of ocean-faring vessel for a while, too.