An anthology: what a sublime idea. As the world of Netflix shakes up the film and television industries, and Black Mirror brings self-contained stories back into the spotlight, why shouldn’t game developers follow suit? Digestible bite-sized tales delivered in a timely fashion? Sign me up. And who better to deliver on this promise than Supermassive Games, the creator of the memorable and often wonderful Until Dawn.
First up in a trilogy of horror stories is Man of Medan, loosely based on the real mystery of a World War II vessel that went missing along with all of its crew. Fast forward to the present day: a group of twentysomething kids has set out to make their riches by finding the forsaken boat, but get more than they bargained for when they run headlong into a band of pirates who have the same idea.
Aboard the Medan, the dank interior screams despair, and the cramped, claustrophobic corridors help you navigate between major parts of the ship. Movement is slow going (there’s no option to run), and for much of the time, you’ll be waving a flashlight in search of clues that pop on screen. Premonitions are brought over from Until Dawn, giving you a short view of a grisly fate that awaits a wrong turn, while a philosophizing “Curator” drops hints between major breaks in the story while watching from afar, like a lab technician inspecting mice in a cage. The game is designed in such a way that there’s no way to fail — even missing clues and fobbing your way through the action will produce an ending, albeit not a very desirable one.
Then again, do you really want to save the fivesome at the heart of this tale? Brothers Brad and Alex; Alex’s girlfriend, Julia; and Julia’s brother, Conrad are all on the hunt for the Medan under the watchful stewardship of Captain Fliss, but you’ll have a hard time caring. You’ll take control of each character, deciding how to respond to conversations with one of three dialogue prompts (say nothing or veer off in two different directions). Personality traits morph as you make these decisions, affecting relationships, future choices and ultimately whether characters live and die. It’s a neat gameplay loop. But because of it, the protagonists never feel like real people. They feel like ciphers, in part because they are. They’re talking heads, there to be molded as you see fit. Useful in a game concerned about the butterfly effect of decisions, perhaps, but problematic when you consider that story and characterization are the central elements of the game.
Worse, Man of Medan is never as deliciously memorable as Until Dawn. Everything here is a bit safe, a bit predictable. While the 2015 surprise hit was a serving of shlocky horror fare served up with a grin, here, a shorter development window and a shorter narrative arc has robbed Medan of something. Is it personality perhaps? Like watching a masterful but overtired orchestra, you’re impressed by the spectacle but aware that the entertainers are going through the motions. The cut and thrust of the narrative aren’t quite there either. The game only lasts a few hours but a lengthy prologue weighs down your maiden voyage and makes subsequent playthroughs slow going too. Major jump scares are surprisingly infrequent, and while there’s a limit to the number of new tricks a storyteller can pull, I did expect more.
Supermassive makes up for this in a big way with its Movie Night mode. Here, you play locally with up to four friends, with each person controlling a specific character in the game. You wait your turn to take a bow, and off you go. Like a Monopoly player moving up the board, the roll of your dice has dire — or wonderful — results for whoever’s next in line. You even get to see a score at the end of an act to see how each of you did. Brilliant stuff, and a wonderful way to entertain friends, especially if you have a large screen at your disposal.
Man of Medan is impressive on a technical level, offering almost photorealistic visuals that sell the fiction onscreen. Facial animations are excellent, entering the uncanny valley at times, and environments are appropriately moody on a 4K HDR TV. But blow the picture up on a projector and it’s transformative: your very own interactive film, yet one where control can be wrested away from you by an online companion. Yup, like Movie Night, playing co-operatively with a friend is a blast. Knowing that someone else has a hand in the story you’re going to see adds new wrinkles to the fold and gives Man of Medan its real bite. The option to play solo is also there, though it’s the least dynamic way to enjoy the story on screen.
Serious gamers will be annoyed by performance issues and wonky collision detection, but perhaps Medan’s real appeal is to a different audience entirely. One not reared on razor-sharp framerates and twitch challenges; rather, an audience who wants to engage in an interactive drama told with polish and precision. If you’re new to this genre, start with Until Dawn, but as the progenitor of a new chapter in a new anthology, Man of Medan is a solid if uneven start. More personality wouldn’t have gone amiss, but as a small slice of self-contained horror, it’s an enjoyable way to lose an afternoon.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Bandai Namco.
While Until Dawn was a serving of shlocky horror served up with a self-referential grin, Man of Medan has less personality, in part because it's a smaller slice of story. That said, its online modes will be game-changers for the rest of the series.