The next project from horror game specialists Bloober Team, The Medium, feels like its most personal. It is highly referential, drawing influence from the developer’s native Polish culture and a love for classic survival horror series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. (Bloober Team even recruited famed Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka to pen the game’s soundtrack with musician Arkadiusz Reikowski.)
The Medium also exudes ambition, building on the psychological horror foundations laid by the studio’s previous games, Observer and Layers of Fear, with a bolder, more polished presentation.
In December, Polygon previewed a gameplay demo of The Medium over Discord. Lead game designer Wojciech Piejko and producer Jacek Zięba walked us through how their new psychological horror game plays, and how its dual-reality mechanics allow protagonist Marianne, the eponymous medium, to explore two worlds at once.
Bloober Team began its demo in the lobby of an abandoned Polish hotel, which is based on a real location. It’s more than just a creepy setting, it’s a nod to late communist-era architecture that’s simultaneously grounded and surreal. Drawn to the hotel by terrible visions, it’s here that Marianne tunes her supernatural senses to hear messages emitting from another world, and where she meets a masked girl — a lost spirit from the spirit world — named Sadness.
Marianne can visit that spirit world, sometimes while simultaneously exploring the real world. When she explores both realities at once, The Medium goes split-screen (either vertical or horizontal, depending on the camera). In the case of the lobby, that split-screen view showed real-world Marianne in the decaying hotel lobby on top, and spirit-world Marianne in an otherworldly reality on the bottom. As Marianne searches for Sadness in the spirit world, the real world presents a problem: The stairs the girl just ran up, while intact in spirit form, are destroyed in the real world. Marianne must take the elevator to find her.
It’s here where one of The Medium’s simpler puzzles presents itself. While the elevator works in both worlds, Marianne cannot exit the version in reality due to a malfunction. Spirit-world Marianne can, however, exit her elevator car to locate an energy source to free real-world Marianne. This requires an out of body experience, which Piejko and Zieba likened to a deep dive underwater. Stay under too long, and the spirit world will drown Marianne.
The Medium’s spirit world is horrifying and beautiful. Marianne looks like an inverse of herself; her dark hair and black leather jacket whiten in the spirit world. The man-made architecture of the hotel is transformed into something vaguely organic, overgrown, and alien. Bloober Team looked to the painted work of Polish dystopian surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński for influence in designing The Medium’s spirit world, giving the alternate reality a distinct, distorted look.
During Marianne’s out of body experience, she encounters a hostile creature known as The Maw (voiced, naturally, by Troy Baker). But she’s limited in her combat abilities, and cannot defeat this metaphysical entity, merely avoid it. A later sequence set in the real world showed that spirit-world entities can cross over to normal reality. And these beasts, which are both invisible and blind, must be overcome with careful stealth maneuvers, astute observation of the environment, and Marianne’s psychic abilities.
The Medium, which is coming to Windows PC and Xbox Series X on Jan. 28, feels evocative of some of my favorite games, including Konami’s Silent Hill series and the dual-world exploration of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. The game’s puzzle-solving mechanics and investigation-driven narrative, combined with Bloober Team’s intense artistic direction, makes it one of my most anticipated games of 2021.