Take our mittened hand and let Polygon’s Winter Games package for 2021 guide you through the playground of wintertime games — what’s great, what’s not, and what exciting features await you in the games coming out in February and March.
The Medium, Bloober Team’s latest psychological thriller, might have arrived at just the right time. In a month with few major releases outside of Hitman 3, The Medium had a surprising amount of hype behind it when it came out on Jan. 28. I ended up disappointed in it overall, surprised by its nuance early on then let down by how it squanders its potential. But even as that disappointment set in, I couldn’t help but think that it’s exactly the kind of game Microsoft needs more of right now.
The story of Xbox in the last few years has been about how the platform doesn’t have the exclusive games it needs to compete with Sony, which is known for big-budget franchises from first-party studios like Sony Santa Monica, Naughty Dog, and Insomniac Games. Instead, Microsoft’s big draw is Xbox Game Pass, its game subscription service boasting over 100 titles at any given time. In a way, Xbox Game Pass — which is available on both Xbox and Windows PC — is the platform now, with the Xbox hardware acting as a way to get into that ecosystem.
Following the delay of Halo Infinite, Microsoft marketed The Medium as one of the first big exclusives for its latest round of consoles, but it isn’t the kind of game that you’d think might entice people to buy one system over another. It’s not a sweeping open-world action-RPG, nor a lengthy prestige game, nor is it a multiplayer mainstay that can eat up dozens of hours. It doesn’t have a skill tree to fill out, side quests to complete, or a giant map to cross off objectives on. Instead, it’s a psychological thriller that you can complete in just under 10 hours.
But that’s why it fits into Microsoft’s game plan for this generation. The Medium’s length makes it perfect for Game Pass. The Ultimate version of the service isn’t exactly cheap at $15 a month, but it’s a good enough deal that if you’re playing something on it regularly, you’re saving quite a bit of cash over buying games individually. Larger, more expansive titles may last longer, but that also means you might end up spending at least two months playing, say, Dragon Quest 11 S, effectively spending $30 on it alone. By contrast, you can see what The Medium is all about in just a handful of hours, whether you stick with it or bounce off it for something else.
That scope is an important part of why The Medium is perfect for Game Pass. I was disappointed with it, but it seems to be picking up a particular kind of word of mouth. For one, it’s a notable game in a dry season. And it’s easily accessible if you have a subscription. Why not give it a try? Even if it ends up being bad, you got it for “free,” so you’re not losing much by playing it. It can succeed for the same reason people might watch the latest Netflix-exclusive movie just because it popped up when they launched the app.
Microsoft has been scoring all kinds of exclusivity deals with smaller and independent games like this, but The Medium also serves another purpose. Although the Xbox Series X can make games like Gears 5 run better than on the Xbox One X, we haven’t seen an Xbox-exclusive game that shows off the power of the new console just yet. The Medium isn’t quite that showcase, but its wonderfully dense forests, tragically decayed interiors, twisted spirit world, and surprisingly lifelike real-world objects all make you feel like you’re kicking the tires of the new console you just paid $500 for.
The Medium’s release is also well-timed for horror fans. It takes quite a bit of inspiration from Silent Hill, a series with a tumultuous history and a lack of recent releases. The Medium picks up Silent Hill’s vibe and runs with it, even including a few obvious references to Konami’s franchise. Its environments are split into fixed angles (which also makes it easier for the whole experience to look nice); you’re regularly thrust into an oppressive spirit world; and it’s even scored, in part, by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka. It’s scratching an itch that other games with this kind of exposure aren’t.
That’s exactly what Microsoft needs right now: games with a unique identity to help buoy Game Pass from month to month. The company has bet big on the service, scoring deals with third parties like Electronic Arts and Square Enix to make it an enticing deal. Right now, Microsoft’s own first-party games, like Minecraft, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves, lead the charge when it comes to downloads on Game Pass. However, major upcoming titles outside of Halo Infinite are slim, and most of the studios that Microsoft recently acquired, like Ninja Theory and Bethesda, probably won’t bear fruit for a couple more years. Even Bethesda’s upcoming Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo are both timed PlayStation 5 exclusives.
In the meantime, Microsoft needs games that will keep people looking at Xbox for the rest of the year. If it wants to round out its portfolio, it should also look to develop an identity, one that users can easily associate with Xbox and Game Pass. In the long term, indie games like Twelve Minutes, Sable, and Tunic might help establish Xbox as a go-to platform for wilder, more experimental titles, but for now, graphical showcases like Scorn, The Gunk, and Warhammer 40K: Darktide offer the impressive “next-gen” look and feel that people want from an exclusive.
With Game Pass, Microsoft has changed the conversation about what makes a game console stand out. It’s about more than just tech or exclusive games. If Microsoft wants that distinction to stick, however, it’ll also have to rethink how an exclusive game fits into the Game Pass ecosystem. Snatching up titles from studios big and small helps distinguish Microsoft’s output from that of Sony. But in the long run, its best bet might end up leaning into being the “Netflix of video games,” including games that might not be the grandiose, big-budget exclusives of the past, but which are a tempting way to fill an afternoon or two just because they’re so easily accessible. While we wait for Halo Infinite, The Medium is right there.