Over the course of the last decade, Poland’s Bloober Team has built a reputation for making atmospheric and well-written horror games. Layers of Fear and its sequel (released in 2016 and 2019 respectively) created a Gothic sense of slow-build dread worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.
Observer (2017) was a compelling mix of horror and cyberpunk. Even the licensed title Blair Witch, although flawed – we awarded it 60 percent in issue 23 – constructed a convincing mid-nineties era of chunky phones, Polaroid cameras, and haunted forests.
Bloober’s next game will continue in the same vein, with a plot that once again places an emphasis on mystery rather than gore. The Medium’s title character is Marianne, a psychic plagued by the vision of a child’s murder. Eventually, her investigations lead her to an abandoned hotel – a labyrinth of hidden clues and supernatural threats.
Marianne isn’t, in the words of producer Jacek Zięba, a “demon slayer”, and there are moments in the game where she’ll simply have to use stealth to avoid the hotel’s ghostly inhabitants. But her main ability is what separates The Medium from Bloober’s earlier games: she can see both everyday reality and the spirit world at the same time. For us sitting in our comfy chairs at home, this is represented as a third-person, split-screen perspective, with the game’s ‘real’ world rendered in one part of the screen and the supernatural plane in another.
As we guide Marianne through the grubby corridors and lodgings of the deserted hotel, we’ll simultaneously see the twisted version of that reality: what looks like a rotting desk in one viewport looks like an organic, plant-like morass in the other.
It’s a concept that Bloober has been playing with since 2012, but it’s taken years of prototyping – and the advent of next-gen PC and console hardware – for the team to make these dual realities run smoothly next to each other. “The Medium is set in two worlds at once, so we had to render two levels together at the same time – in a way it is like creating two games that work simultaneously,” Zięba tells us.
“The next-generation consoles were the only way we could do this… it presents a production challenge because there’s double the workload when creating specific levels and cutscenes, but it’s totally worth it when you can give players something unique and new.”
The Medium’s dual realities also make for some satisfying puzzles: as a July gameplay video revealed, Marianne can use her powers to spot switches and passageways that are invisible in the earthly realm, and disconnect her spirit from her physical form to explore locked rooms.
“We’re quite satisfied with how we use the dual reality to create innovative puzzles,” says Zięba, but adds, “I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a puzzle game – some players could misinterpret it and expect something different than what the game actually is.”
Bloober Team has come up with two distinct visual styles to help orient the player in The Medium’s twin worlds, and the same is true of its music: Bloober’s Arkadiusz Reikowski is providing the soundtrack for the everyday realm, while the ghostly domain is being scored by Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka. “The worlds in the game are also in a sense, two soundtracks,” Zięba explains. “Thanks to this, we have a unique combination of two specific approaches to creating music and sound in the game, which we mix together throughout.
Yamaoka’s work mainly focuses on musical paths to the spiritual world, which in many cases [are] the darker places we will visit in the game. Then we have the work of [Reikowski] composing music for the real world – Poland in the late nineties. So we have two worlds, two composers, two different approaches and styles, but everything is created in such a way to be connected at the end, that in our opinion is the perfect combination.”
Put it all together, and we have the makings of a fascinating chiller; one that mixes puzzle-solving, stealth, action, and that intriguing split-screen mechanic. For Zięba, it’s all part of the studio’s aim to think beyond the usual tropes of horror cinema, and come up with new ways of telling scary interactive stories. “Horror’s a tricky genre, because the tricks you use to scare people get old pretty fast and you have to constantly come up with new ones,” he says.
“Horror in games is different; thanks to interactivity and player’s agency, games have long moved away from movies and come up with their own unique ways of storytelling. I think in the horror genre, filmmakers and game developers can and should learn from one another, because the need for new tricks is so great.”
Format: PC / Xbox Series X/S
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Release: 28 January 2021