We’ve all been to places that feel haunted; the places that give you the heebie jeebies, your gut screaming to get out of there. The Medium is a psychological thriller game recently released on PS5 that takes the idea of psychogeographies—places that absorb collective memories—and follows Marianne’s journey through the ruins of the Niwa Resort, a former Communist holiday park that holds hidden secrets about her past. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t reach its ambitious goals, but there are several narrative devices in the story that are worth looking at.
Spoiler and trigger warning: sexual abuse
I wanted to play The Medium as I really enjoy psychological thrillers—so much so, my new book is a psychological thriller. I find this genre one of the best for straddling the supernatural and the criminal in that sweet spot between crime and horror. The set up intrigued me: as a medium, Marianne can bridge the gap between real and spiritual worlds, solving problems in both.
But about half-way through The Medium, I was wondering what I was playing. It didn’t feel like a game—the dark themes and storyline removed it from being considered something ‘fun’ to play. And while games don’t need to be fun, there still needs to be an element of play in a game. I began thinking more of The Medium as a narrative experience, over that of a game. The puzzles in it are not overly complex and left me feeling more like I’d taken part in an escape room than a console game. And when you shift the focus to narrative experience above and beyond a game, it makes more sense.
What’s the story of The Medium?
The Medium deals with strong themes of sexual abuse and institutional trauma. While these scenes are not explicit, it is not a game for people who are sensitive to these issues. It taps into a trend of recent horror and dark supernatural games which deal with trauma and memory, usually with female protagonists, such as Returnal and Control.
The game itself includes a trigger warning at the start, with the caveat that the developers are trying to address the topic seriously. I found that the ambition of the game’s story outpaced the execution. What could have been powerful didn’t hit home for me emotionally, partly because the game was trying to do too much, and partly because I didn’t connect with Marianne’s character.
I was trying to figure out why I didn’t connect with her, and one reason is that her skills as a medium are confused with her characterisation. Having supernatural skills is not a character trait, and apart from the uneven use of her snarky tone, I’m not sure who she is as a person. I found myself more interested in Thomas’ narrative and the conflict he faced within himself, the spiritual and real selves seemingly in conflict with his desires and responsibility.
At one point, Marianne says to the abuser, “I’m not your judge. I’m just the ferryman.” But shouldn’t a story like this contain some form of judgement on what is so evidently wrong? It put me at arm’s length from Marianne that she wasn’t willing to make judgements on the sins of those she ferried beyond the spiritual purgatory she walks.
There are too many mixed ideas here to be a consistently powerful story. Early in the story, Marianne encounters a young girl called Sadness in the supernatural side of the world, and it’s unravelling Sadness’ story that is the core of The Medium. There are hints at demonic influences, political corruption, dual personality disorders from trauma, but none of these are fully fleshed out. We’re left at the end of the game wondering what really went on, and the ambiguous ending will leave many gamers dissatisfied.
Dual world puzzle solving is an intriguing concept
But there is one thing that The Medium does well, and that is the concept of dual world puzzle solving. It’s interesting to look at from a design perspective, as it’s something that could have been pushed much further as a narrative and gameplay device. Seeing how Marianne interacts with both worlds is a unique aspect of the game.
One of the best puzzles is where you use a grandfather clock to go back in time through memories of place and open up new doors that your spiritual self can access in an out-of-body experience. Likewise, activating the power in a garage requires some creative thinking about her skills. I only wish the game had more of these types of puzzles, using both worlds to solve her problems.
The star of the show: sound design
The game also has its sinister moments; one of the strongest aspects of The Medium is the sound design, which contributes to the sense of creepiness. Throughout the game, you examine objects which open audio memories and expand the story of the Niwa Resort. I was drawn into the story by examining these objects and wanted more alongside the parallel narratives in both spiritual and real worlds. The narrative is expanded through the audio bites from the haunted objects and the sinister voices that haunt the Niwa Resort.
The environment design enhances this sinister tone, inspired by Polish surrealist artist Zdzisław Beksiński. The psychological spaces Thomas examines, including the mind of Henry and the Red House evoke the creepier elements of David Lynch’s direction. The supernatural world is also an organic one; you cut through walls of skin to access memories and walk along paths surrounded by coral-esque formations. Swarms of moths can kill you, so you rely on your spiritual barrier to protect against their onslaught and access new locations.
What doesn’t work in The Medium?
But the biggest flaw in this game is the monstrous antagonist, who stalks the levels of both your mental and physical worlds. Conflict with the monster feels almost pointless, and a significant point of frustration in the game comes from trying to avoid it. At some points, it seems no matter what you do—hold your breath, hide, stay still—you are captured by it repeatedly.
It’s worth mentioning that the PS5 haptic controller doesn’t play nice at points with The Medium, particularly in examining objects. It feels unnecessary to look around with the controller when there’s not much to look at. The game also uses the well-worn feature of ‘spidey senses’ where you press a button to see trails or clues. But it fit here that Marianne could detect other worldly signatures.
Another issue with the game is that it’s still providing instructions on how to do things late in the game. Even when exploring the ultimate levels of the Red House, it was telling me to use a certain button or controller motion like a tutorial level. It would be worth leaving the gamer to their own devices and memory, rather than handholding them for so long.
Despite a few moments of intriguing parallel storytelling, The Medium aims too high in its ambitions. Unfortunately, the player is left with uncertainty as to what they are experiencing, and the story itself. It’s worth playing for those interested in seeing how the multi-world storytelling works, but for those wanting a narrative experience examining trauma through a horror lens, you’re better off spending time with Until Dawn or Control.