Like listening to someone else tell you about their dream.
Supermassive Games’ “Until Dawn” is one of my favorite experiences of the ‘10s with a controller in my hand, and a perfect example of the increasingly blurred line between gaming and filmmaking. The 2015 Sony game was so deeply influenced by the world of horror films that it was co-written by Larry Fessenden himself, an actor/writer/director who fans of the genre know well (and most love). The game was a riff on the slasher film genre and featured motion capture work by Rami Malek, Hayden Panettiere, Nichole Bloom, and Peter Stormare. It wasn’t a typical video game experience in that your decisions and reflexes decided who survived to the final scene of the game. Most games are based on an “Edge of Tomorrow” aesthetic, in which one dies over and over again in an effort to master a level and proceed. “Until Dawn” was more of a movie that you could control than a game that felt like a movie.
Four years later, the same team, including Fessenden, has developed a series of short film/games under the banner “Dark Pictures,” and the first title, “Man of Medan” has been released for PS4, Xbox One, and Windows. Sadly, it’s nowhere near as thrilling as “Until Dawn,” hampered by bland storytelling and repetitive action. There’s reason to hope this series could produce another great adventure, but this is a disappointment, a game that I kept wanting to fulfill its potential but that gets as lost as its characters.
“Man of Medan” is a ghost ship story inspired by the real mystery of the SS Ourang Medan, an urban legend of a sailing vessel that disappeared in the mid to late ‘40s somewhere near the Dutch East Indies. Basically, a group of adventurous tourists finds their way to the Ourang Medan (which roughly translates to “Man of Medan”), allowing the developers to play with ghost ship tropes like creaky doors and bodies falling out of lockers. Four people—two brothers, a girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s brother—charter a ship to investigate an underwater crash site of a plane. The bulk of the game takes place after the quintet is kidnapped and find themselves aboard a massive ship filled with bodies, mysteries, and ghosts.
The gameplay of “Man of Medan” alternates between conversation choices and what are called QTEs (or QuickTime Events), which require you to hit the right button or move the controller in the right direction to survive an encounter. So you basically do three things—investigate your surroundings, make conversation choices that impact relationships between the characters, and encounter action-heavy moments in which you try to keep these poor souls alive. For the record, I did the latter all the way until the final encounter when I lost one, although I suppose it made the entire narrative feel like it had a bit higher stakes than it otherwise would have, and I lost way more than one hapless idiot in my “Until Dawn” playthrough.
The story of “Man of Medan” just isn’t as engaging as it needs to be to justify around four hours of wandering around a rundown ship, much of which looks exactly the same. You spend at least half of this game’s playtime walking the ship's halls, picking up “Secrets” that offer little more than “something creepy happened here.” The use of a space like the Ourang Medan should allow for tons of atmosphere and dread, but all we get here is repetition. I kept hoping something would attack me just to alleviate the repetition of walking the length of a giant cargo ship in what feels like real time.
There are moments that hint at the game that “Medan” could have been, but it’s just too thin in its final form, at least in the single-player mode. There are multiplayer modes in which you can help craft the story with a friend and that allows for a more a unique experience, but most people will play “Man of Medan” in the same manner they played “Until Dawn,” with the lights off and on their own, waiting to be scared and thrilled. And waiting and waiting. The most exciting moment for me came with the preview at the end for the next installment, which looks like a riff on “The Witch” and/or “The Village.” Sign me up for that one. Hopefully, this dull, glitchy adventure is just the way for “Dark Pictures” to get its worst installment out of its system. I still love games that try this hard to merge narrative storytelling that’s more like filmmaking with traditional video game structures, and I’ll play every chapter of “Dark Pictures.” But while “Until Dawn” lingers in memory as a fun gaming experience, “Man of Medan” is already disappearing into the mist.
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