Supermassive Games have been a refreshing influence in horror games and interactive dramas in recent memory. Until Dawn in 2015 was a great take on an interactive horror movie that reveled in the tropes and cliches of the genre, but also gave players the ability to subvert expectations by allowing them to play as the doomed teenagers in the story. This lead to multiple endings that just wouldn’t happen in more formulaic productions.
Now, the studio is attempting something I’m surprised hasn’t happened sooner with The Dark Pictures Anthology: a series of smaller horror games meant to tell interactive horror short stories based on urban legends and folklore released at reduced prices; gaming’s version of Tales From The Darkside or The Twilight Zone.
And as a premiere installment, Man of Medan, loosely based on the disappearance of the Ourang Medan, has some fascinating quirks and features to it, which help gloss over some paper-thin characters and ho-hum narrative direction.
Man of Medan’s plot is outlandish but serviceable. You play as five different characters, four well-off young adult deep sea divers and their captain, as they venture out into the sea to scavenge old WW2 wreckage for treasure. Their expedition is cut short however as they are attacked by pirates and wind up bumping into an old abandoned freighter. But the freighter has a dark, possibly supernatural past as horrific things start rising out of its dark corners to terrorize the cast. Spooky, scary shenanigans ensue until the credits roll.
Right off the bat I can say that Man of Medan nails its atmosphere. The performance capture of all the main cast is fantastic, Shawn Ashmore turns in a lovably annoying turn as an entitled young adult out of his depth, and the visuals combined with the camera work do a great job of keeping you uneasy and anxious. There are jump scares peppered throughout that feel a bit forced, but the air of dread that permeates the entire experience helps hide some of that artifice.
The gameplay also helps this atmosphere breathe thanks to how minimal it is. Much like Until Dawn, you will spend most of your time selecting dialogue options for whatever character you are controlling at the time, occasionally hit buttons during multiple Quick-Time Event sequences, usually chase sequences or nail-biting struggles against some monster, or walking around exploring your surroundings. Depending on what dialogue you choose, the characters’ traits will change, including their moral compass, which will determine whether or not they act selflessly or not during more chaotic moments.
What can’t exactly be hidden is some of the inherent issues that come with Man of Medan’s presentation. While the cast of Until Dawn eventually felt fleshed out thanks to its ten to twelve hour runtime, a single playthrough of Man of Medan clocks in at around five or so, leaving the cast feeling like cardboard cut-outs with vague ideas of motivation and arcs. There is some snappy dialogue that helps bring some humanity here and there, but after two different playthroughs I cannot remember any of the characters’ names or any defining features other than The Nerd, The Ice Queen, The Rich Girl, etc..
Also, the story itself is peppered with contrivances and hokey moments. While there is a big major reason for the crazy stuff going on in the haunted ship, there are plenty of scenes that try to hide the big reveal that go nowhere. Certain characters pop up in one scene, then randomly show up in another, and there is at least one red herring introduced that goes absolutely nowhere and stops the story dead in its tracks.
Yet, I don’t really hate Man of Medan’s patchwork plot; in a way it makes the experience more authentic. Making the whole thing play out like one of those bargain bin horror movies you watch with friends with a lot of hard alcohol that turns out a lot better than the cheesy low-quality trappings would make you believe.
The only time this masterful atmosphere of schlock is broken are during these interludes with The Curator, the narrator and “host” of The Dark Pictures series. After key chapters of the story, you return to the Curator’s repository where he comments on the current situation the characters find themselves in, and he gives you hints or clues as to what is actively going on. Thankfully, the Curator is played with absolute posh properness by Pip Torrens, making these fourth-wall breaking asides feel natural and intriguing.
Dude, Get the Popcorn!
As written, it might seem like I didn’t care for Man of Medan, but it is in the game’s co-op features that something spectacular is found. There is a Movie Night mode, which is meant for local couch play. You and up to five of your friends select one of the five leads, then you hand the controller off to them as the scenes play out, seeing what decisions and actions your friends make to move the story along. It’s a cute idea that does add a needed social element to things, and thanks to the five hour runtime makes for a perfect evening of horror fun with friends. But due to how the narrative is paced, it can lead to certain players waiting impatiently for scenes with their character to pop up.
The real spectacle however lies in the online Shared Story mode. You and a friend online play through the entire story start to finish, with each of you controlling two key characters in each scene. Both you and your friend are free to move and act on your own, completely independent of each other, and various scenes will continue to play out in real time even if you aren’t in the same location. This lead to some thrilling situations like where my partner wound up saving my life during an insane chase sequence, or me getting us caught because I messed up a button prompt during an escape sequence. It adds an unpredictable twist to the entire game that gives it a lot more replay value.
My only real issue with the mode is that it requires both you and your partner to both own a copy of the game, no buddy pass implemented here. But given that Man of Medan is going for thirty bucks at retail rather than the standard sixty, it’s not as big of a hurdle.
Man of Medan is a solid horror experience that relies on the strengths of the developers’ past success. It’s admittedly trashier than its campy predecessor, but the prospect of playing through it with friends feels like the ultimate evening of entertainment. A great mix of creepiness, suspense, and just the right amount of genre silliness.
The next installment of The Dark Pictures, Little Hope, will premiere next year, and if it is anything like this debut, consider me an eager fan.