I really love the spirit of what Supermassive Games is trying to do with Man of Medan. The first episode in The Dark Pictures Anthology, a compendium of short-form video game horror stories, Man of Medan is cut from the same cloth as Supermassive’s 2015 effort Until Dawn but shrinks its scope and scale to better fit its new ideas.
Man of Medan follows a group of five beautiful young men and women of varying star-power aboard a chartered boat. They are hunting for the wreckage of a downed World War 2 plane, lost but never recovered. They think they’ve managed to track down its specific oceanic co-ordinates — all that remains is to dive in and find the thing.
This subject material is a massive freak-out hot button for me. There aren’t that many things in the world that genuinely scare me silly, but shipwrecks are one of them. I’m aware that my phobia is wholly irrational, but the knowing does me no good. I feel like I’m looking at something truly malignant, the weirdly shaped coral growing on their skeletons looking like it has been taken by a horrible corruption. I struggle even looking at pictures of shipwrecks, that’s how bad it is. Those pictures of the Titanic’s ongoing disintegration that trended on Twitter last week? Absolutely no thank you. Keep them away from me. Let it rot for all I care.
Anyway, all of this to say if you, like me, are wildly triggered by creepy-ass shipwrecks, you may want to sit this one out.
Man of Medan‘s highs and lows are almost exactly the same ones I felt in Until Dawn. Supermassive’s presentation, with its clever horror film aesthetic and painstaking attention to detail, is very nearly peerless in the industry. A prologue section has a character exploring a Navy vessel corridor by corridor. The camera jumps positions from room to room, reorienting itself in ways that recall classic survival horror like Resident Evil, games that also sought to recreate the feel of a horror film. As I moved slowly through the ship and the scene came together and the lighting was just right, I still got those moments where my brain struggled to tell the difference between game and film.
Immersive as they are, in Until Dawn these moments were regularly undercut by poor character work and it seems things have not improved at Supermassive in the interim. Four issues continually tore me out of the immersion, three of them related to character: truly odious dialogue, stilted performances and an overall lack of strong direction. Shawn Ashmore (X-Men, Quantum Break), in particular, seems to relish the opportunity to play a classic horror movie dickhead but he’s not getting the reactions from his co-stars that would help him sell it. They all feel like they’re doing different things, living in their own heads instead of reacting to each other, and it made me wonder if all the mo-cap had been recorded separately.
The fourth issue was one of scale and budget. It’s clear that Supermassive did not have access to the kind of crazy funding they were able to secure on a platform exclusive like Until Dawn. Moving to Bandai Namco, creating a smaller, episodic game and going multiplatform has clearly meant making a few concessions. The biggest of these are apparent right away and most often have to do with character faces — moments with big expressions or smiles that swerve wildly into the uncanny valley, odd rictus grins that look like no expression a human being would ever make. Supermassive are obviously doing their best with what they have and, like I said, when Medan works its utterly gorgeous which makes it that much more jarring when it doesn’t.
With those three paragraphs of griping out of the way, we can focus on what the game was quite good at, and that’s scaring the hell out of me. From classic, slasher movie jump scares to creeping dread and sustained orchestral strings, Man of Medan has a lot of ways to spook you. It uses its quick time event-based mechanics in do-or-die moments to stress you out and asks you to make crucial character decisions on the fly, creating systemic narrative ripples that pay off later in the story. I was always worried about every fork in the conversation, how and when any given choice would come back to bite me down the line.
Until Dawn did this too but Man of Medan looks like it wants to double down on it. Not only are you able to build rapport between each individual character, choosing dialogue options that play into or against their personality type, but you’re rewarded for multiple playthroughs with new material or scenes you didn’t get last time. The consequences of your actions in each run fill in the edges of a larger narrative web, strand-by-strand. Little hints are dropped through The Dark Pictures themselves, paintings strewn throughout the world that offer seconds-long glimpses of some future event. The bigger picture work, like scenario building and narrative design, is where Supermassive seems to excel — the individual character writing and other macro suffers to to elevate the broader themes.
Man of Medan also introduces a new multiplayer component. This was very exciting for me as my Until Dawn playthroughs were a co-operative experience with my housemate at the time, each of us taking runs or making snap decisions for the other, and I’m glad it seems I wasn’t the only one who played it that way. Man of Medan embraces this ethos with two modes — online, two-player co-op in Shared Story mode where the choices one player makes affect the other, and five-player couch co-op in Movie Night mode.
Movie Night mode allows each player to punch their names into the game and pick one of Medan‘s five leads to control. When that character’s scene arrives, simply pass the controller to that player. This too-many-cooks approach almost guarantees a unique run every time you play, with different views leading to different choices, different experience levels leading to different mistakes. It’s such a simple design solve that I can’t help but marvel at its genius. That Movie Night is the mode Man of Medan was most built around shows Supermassive were aware of the way people were already playing their games. (An additional shout out to the menu designers who went with “Don’t Play Alone” and “Play Alone” to delineate multiplayer and single-player modes, chef’s kiss, very good).
Man of Medan is an uneven start to The Dark Pictures Anthology, but one that shows a lot of promise. Its quirks and downsides are easier to swallow when the couch co-op experience is this strong, and the story it tells is genuinely scary at times. It revels in the details but still can’t quite get the character work down. Nevertheless, a very interesting new phase for a developer with a ton of great ideas and a niche that is increasingly their own. I look forward to the next installment.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Gets an extra star for Movie Night mode alone; Some truly dazzling visuals
Lowlights: Some clunky dialogue and performances
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: August 30, 2019
Review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro with pre-release code provided by the publisher.