Video games! I like them. Bonus points if they are not first person shooters, and even more bonus points if they’re horror games. A while back I did a Twitch stream of Supermassive’s Until Dawn. Although there were things that I didn’t love about it, I enjoyed it enough that I made a mental note to keep an eye out for anything else Supermassive might put out in the future. And lo and behold, they’ve announced an anthological horror series called “Dark Pictures”.
The first installment, Man of Medan, came out on August 31st. My birthday just happens to be in August, so I bought myself a copy as a present. Because I’m an adult and I can do what I want. (I would have bought it even if it wasn’t my birthday.) I have played it through multiple times already, and I’m well on my way to the platinum trophy. (Note: All of these photos came directly from the game and therefore credit for them belongs to Supermassive itself.)
First things first: this game is very short. A playthrough will only run you five hours or so – more if you’re as thorough as my roommate, less if you’re a speedrunner. This is both a good and a bad thing. If you’re like my roomie and I and you’re a completionist, having a shorter game means you can make more runs through to get the extra content, trophies, alternate endings, and alternate deaths that a story that branches the way Man of Medan does offers. If you just want to play a game, five hours has to pack a lot of punch to be worth paying original game price.
The game starts off in the past, year not provided, and the prologue-slash-tutorial has you follow two soldiers on an unnamed ship after some cargo is loaded and they set off to sea.
An unspecified amount of time later, we meet our five main characters, who are heading out on a diving trip on Captain Fliss’s boat, the Duke of Milan. They get the same treatment that Supermassive gave the characters in Until Dawn – the game lists their name, the relevant starting relationship or position, and their defining traits. Apparently each person only has two.
Various things happen throughout the first couple chapters, including the dive, and then the surviving characters end up on a rusted, busted, apparently abandoned old ship.
But is it abandoned? The rest of the game follows the characters around as they explore in an attempt to escape.
The game itself is based on the story of the Ourang Medan, which is a legendary ghost ship. At least, according to Wikipedia. Which I think is pretty cool.
Guys, I really like the interactivity of this game. I liked it in Heavy Rain (not a Supermassive game but oh well, it’s along the same lines), I liked it in Until Dawn. I like it here. To a certain extent, the writers did it really well. There are a lot of ways where you can change what happens later in the game by making one or two decisions early on. There are a lot of potential dialogue options that cascade, so even on my eighth (yes I admit it) playthrough I was still seeing dialogue that was new to me. I’ve killed each character at least three different ways.
Here’s the problem, though. While the characters in Until Dawn were very clearly the high school stereotypes that we’re all used to hearing about writ large, the characters in Man of Medan are just…blah. There are only two characters I like in the game (Fliss, the badass captain, and Brad, the nerdy little brother). One character (Alex, the older brother) is neutral. The other two I hate (Conrad and Julia). And when I say I hate Conrad, I mean my roommate and I actively attempt to kill him in every playthrough of this game, and insult him through the other characters whenever possible. But even though I have differing feelings about each character, I have to say I was never really upset when any of them died. I didn’t really care if they survived. And that’s kind of… the opposite of the point of a survival horror game, isn’t it?
The characters were stereotypical (badass ship captain in it for the money, athletic and smart but horribly insecure boyfriend, super-rich and spoiled girlfriend, nerd, and super-rich entitled sexist playboy). That’s something I can get behind – I certainly did in Until Dawn – but they didn’t lean into the stereotypes enough to entertain me. They are paper doll versions of the archetypes that Supermassive wanted to put into play. And it also felt like Man of Medan’s writers were trying really hard to insert witty and memorable dialogue, but unlike Until Dawn, most of it just made me cringe. (The only exception was Julia shouting, “Come at me, shark!” The writers get points for that, because I remembered it.)
Following directly on that problem is the issue of character and scene continuity. Play through the game a couple times and you’ll see that you don’t always get the same scenes in the same order – or at all. Obviously this is based on who is alive and what choices you’ve made in the game. I think that the flexibility that Man of Medan’s team gave this game is phenomenal, but it’s also a weakness. They very clearly didn’t spend enough time filling in all the gaps between choices. You can choose to have two characters fight, and suddenly there’s a cutscene and they’re casually smiling and chatting with the group again. Occasionally characters will pop up with conversational non-sequiturs that you’ll only realize on a later playthrough are clear responses to a dialogue choice that either you didn’t pick or wasn’t available to you (probably based on your earlier decisions). It’s not how normal people talk. It’s not how they interact. And it makes things really awkward and hard to get invested in. When you combine this with the glitchiness I mentioned earlier, you end up missing things that transition you between conversations or chapters in the story. One playthrough Julia crashed into a room and we had no idea why, or where she’d come from, because for some reason the game just didn’t give us the chapter that explained that information.
Also… there are some choices you can make that don’t really seem to impact the ending, or the story overall. For example, in Until Dawn, if you as Chris made a particular choice in a trap with Ashley, she would later refuse to let you in the house, which meant that you died. I saw literally none of that here. Sure, the choices you made changed the dialogue options later on, but you were kind of shoehorned into the same plot regardless. If you weren’t playing a particular character, they wouldn’t make a choice that could get your character killed. I found that kind of disappointing. You could make characters snipe at each other, but in order for one character to abandon or fail to help another you have to directly choose for them to do it. That means I really have no reason not to make everyone verbally aggressive towards Conrad. He’ll never do anything about it.
Then there’s the Curator. Who is he? Why is he? Some snippy old guy with a lot of books and portraits. Why does he want us manipulating the people in these stories, and why are we even able to? Is there a reason he is giving us hints? Why does he even care? What is the point of him? The game answers none of these questions, and some of that is on purpose – we’re meant not to know whether the Curator is being helpful or tricky when he tells us things. But the 4th-wall-breaking narrator in Until Dawn actually had a purpose – he was the therapist that we, the player, were talking to as we played out our game. I was kind of annoyed when I finally beat Man of Medan and found all the secrets and only then was I given more information about him.
And finally, my last plot gripe – there’s not enough of it. I’m not putting any spoilers in this section, but what I will say is that this five-hour story about a ghost ship takes about an hour and a half to actually start on the ghost ship shit. That is ridiculous. I absolutely understand that the Man of Medan team wanted us to get a handle on the relationship system, the choices system, and to make choices that would affect how the characters interact later on in the game. I’m actually okay with spending two hours on it. But not in a game that only lasts for five hours. This is a survival horror game, not a game about making conversation. And for a survival horror game, it’s not actually that frightening. You can figure out the plot twist fairly early in the game, and that basically negates everything except your startle reflex for the duration.
I don’t want you all to think that I seriously hated this game. I absolutely did not, and you can tell because I’ve spent approximately a billion hours playing and replaying it. It’s a decent game. The problem is, Until Dawn was just so. much. better. And the flaws in Man of Medan are so glaring that it’s hard to mention them all and not sound like you’re ranting.
Having said that: this game has got some shining moments. First, it’s got some phenomenal area design.
Man of Medan also has some phenomenal framing shots, clearly meant to be unsettling.
There are also a couple places where Man of Medan produces really well-placed scare shots – not jump scares, just frightening images.
The game’s flexibility makes some interesting distinctions here, too. It’s possible, on different playthroughs, that you will be a different character in a given chapter based on who is alive. Sometimes the scares are the same for all characters, but not always. Julia will have experiences that Alex doesn’t. Conrad will see and hear things that Brad won’t. That significantly increases the game’s replayability, which is necessary because it’s so short.
The gameplay format for Man of Medan is pretty much the same as Until Dawn. In each chapter, you control one of the characters in third-person, and you can go around and interact with things and other people.
Each character has a tab that measures the character’s main traits and relationships with the other characters.
When you interact with the other characters, or the plot requires a decision, you can sometimes choose between the available options. (Sometimes they’ll decide for you.)
There is also a tab where you can access the secrets that you’ve uncovered so far in the game. It’s is updated as you find each secret, and occasionally an old find is annotated with new information as your characters draw conclusions based on their discoveries.
You can track the choices that you have made – or that other characters have based on your choices. They use the nautical term “bearings” to describe these decision sets. (If you played Until Dawn, you’ll remember these as the Butterfly Effect.) They update whenever a critical decision is made, whether it’s by the character you are playing or one that’s reacting to choices you’ve made.
Finally, the game also provides in-game hints in the form of “premonitions”, which you experience when you see certain paintings throughout the game. These are also stored on their own tab. You can go back and re-watch them if you need to.
Like the totem premonitions in Until Dawn, these visions are cryptic at best. The one in the middle, A Little Hope, is actually just a teaser for the next game in the series, and it’s the hardest one to get.
At several points in the game, you (the player) will speak with the Curator, who is this game’s 4th-wall-breaking chronicler.
He will provide you with hints, as well as some snide commentary on your choices and progress.
So, having covered the basic mechanics, here are some things we noticed while playing through Man of Medan.
First off, the controls are really clunky in a way that directly competes with the game’s requirements for precision in interaction. You need to be standing in exactly the right position to interact with an object on a table. That means you may have to spin your character in circles and slide back and forth against the table in order to get where you need to be. The game changes viewing perspective often so you will frequently find yourself accidentally walking backwards, or into the wall just beyond the door you went through.
Man of Medan also suffers from a frightening problem with framerate and lag and glitching. I’ve had the game stutter during quicktime events, causing me to miss them. The game has glitched through scenes so that I’ve missed important story or expository dialogue. In fact, in the eight times I’ve played through this game, there have only been two playthroughs where I’ve gotten through the game without a bug triggering an application shutdown. I’m sure that Supermassive will patch at least some of these issues, but they’re incredibly frustrating. There are also moments where it seems like the scene itself is playing, but the texture rendering is a second or two behind, which makes the viewing experience a little jarring.
Man of Medan introduces a hidden timer system in a few places. This is never explained to you in-game; it just happens. You’re have a certain amount of time to wander around someplace and discover or interact with things before an event happens, and how much or what you have done can determine later events in the game. Or just how much you learn. If you’re like me, an ADHD speedy gamer, you’re likely to get everything done that you want to. If you’re like my roommate and you’re incredibly thorough, you absolutely will not. It’s a mechanism that works okay your first time through the game and then just becomes burdensome in later playthroughs.
Unlike Until Dawn, Man of Medan offers two different multiplayer modes. The online multiplayer mode does not randomly match you with someone; you have to have a friend who has purchased the full game, which kind of defeats the point. What if your friends aren’t horror gamers or don’t have the cash to outlay at the same time you do? The other multiplayer mode is called Movie Night, and means that you and one to four other people, sitting in your living room (or whatever) can choose which characters you control. The game will tell you when to pass the controller and who to pass it to. This is less of a true multiplayer because you will still only play the same storyline that you play in single player mode.
Whether you play single or multiplayer, there are two different storylines you can play. Theatrical Cut is the original version. If you pre-ordered the game, you can play Curator’s Cut right away. If you didn’t, it’ll be available after November. Curator’s Cut basically allows you to play the game from the point of view of a different character. So if you’re playing as Brad in Theatrical Cut, you might play as Alex in Curator’s Cut. It gives you an entirely different set of dialogue choices. I think this is clever, and I enjoyed playing Curator’s Cut even after I’d played Theatrical Cut several times.
Finally, a lot of the gameplay involves quick-time events (QTEs). About half of the QTEs either don’t do anything, or their effect is so small that it’s basically unnoticeable. For example: one quicktime event ends in a character being injured. The injury is depicted throughout the rest of the game, but never seems to actually change anything. It doesn’t weaken you. Later QTEs aren’t harder because of it. It doesn’t do anything. There are QTEs during chase scenes where, if you fail, another character picks you up so you don’t die. But there are others where, if you fail, you die. There’s no way to tell the difference, and it’s frustrating as someone who likes the “consequences of your actions” framing of these games that sometimes there are no consequences to failing. Then why give us the option to fail at all?
Nitpicking and Appreciation
Here are some minor things that popped up as I played. They aren’t make or break to the game, and may not be relevant for you, but I wanted to say them.
First, there are three different languages spoken in this game. English (the majority of the game), Cantonese or Mandarin (I’m not educated enough to be able to tell the difference when listening), and French. Any character that is present when the non-English languages are spoken understands them, and we’re never given a reason why. For some, it’s obvious (Fliss lives in French Polynesia, and we actually see her speak French herself). But other characters just seem to understand it with no explanation.
Second, I really wish people in general would stop using Mozart’s Lacrimosa to create an ominous tone in a scene. It just feels overused and trite to me. Heck, it even popped up in the Simpsons once. Just don’t. There’s plenty of dark-feeling classical music out there. For a game where the developers appeared to be so thematically detail-oriented (they did a whole feature on the Curator’s outfits and the embellishment on his desk, for goodness’ sake) they really got lazy with that musical choice.
Like it says in the title, I feel like this is in several ways an inferior game to Until Dawn. Especially since once you figure out what’s going on the scares stop being, well, scary. And isn’t being scary the whole point of this? The controls are clunky, the story’s scattered, and the dialogue and scene continuity is a little… off. But Curator’s Cut is a great choice, the story is way less culturally appropriative than Until Dawn, and Man of Medan has great replayability.
So here’s my recommendation: I’d buy it, but I’d absolutely wait for a serious reduction in price. Like, it would have to be at least 30% off.