Every story has two sides, but the viewer hardly ever gets to witness both of them at once. The Medium is a compelling psychological horror adventure that divides your focus between a depressing alternate spiritual realm and a grim real-world setting, with actions performed in one having substantial effects in the other. It is a chic and clever strategy that consistently amuses, allowing for some excellent puzzle design and exciting occasions of reality-hopping cat and mouse with a marvelously unusual beast.
The environment of the Medium needs to be investigated and combed for minute details that start to imagine monsters as being something comparable to people. Being aware of these similarities can be just as frightening as coming face to face with a genuine horrible creature. It is uncomfortable to be forced to consider the evils that people may do one another and to understand how terrible sexual assault, acts of racial or religious intolerance, and physical violence rarely, if ever, culminate in a single trauma. An uncomfortable reality that is frequently ignored is the fact that the effects of such atrocities can remain in the hearts and minds of victims for years. The Medium’s compelling narrative finds its starting point, one that will stick with you for a very long time.
In The Medium, you play as Marianne, a powerful psychic who visits the Niwa Resort (voiced by Kelly Burke, who does an excellent job). She goes there in search of Thomas, a man who has left her a peculiar message instructing her to locate and assist him in exchange for the explanations she seeks about her past. Marianne discovered the ability to communicate with ghosts and assist them in their transition to the afterlife while serving in her foster father’s funeral home. As a result, The Medium takes place on two planes of existence: the normal world and the spirit realm, with the latter acting as a warped mirror of the other.
The spirit realm, which was inspired by Zdzisaw Beksiski’s fantastical futuristic paintings, is a nightmare hell hole with gates made of human flesh that you must painstakingly slice open with a rusted knife, and occupants that are either terrible monsters or scary mask-wearing spirits. When Marianne navigates the spirit realm, the sleeve of her killer jacket and trouser leg fray, as though this incarnation of her is a less-human person. These two perceptions of the universe, however, are not diametrically opposed. Instead, the game suggests that they exist as mirrored images of one another, with one expressing literally what the other simply implies symbolically. The Medium is able to examine the pain of its characters through puzzle-solving and riddles thanks to this unified window into both viewpoints.
Of course, practically every chamber in The Medium is dimly lit, and the situation only worsens. The screen will split at predefined intervals along the main story line, revealing the spirit realm alongside the material world, and you’ll find yourself commanding two versions of Marianne at the same time. On one side of the screen, Marianne’s flesh and bone form will be walking down a dimly lit hotel corridor; on the other, her silver-haired spiritual form will be stalking through a hollowed-out passage to Hell.
The landscapes on both sides of the divide are remarkably well-realized, but the spirit world is especially eerie to discover, with ghostly tentacles springing up from the floors, fully extended hands trying to claw at you like stalactites from the roof, and your overall scenery resembling a haunting landscape not normally seen anywhere outside of a heavy metal album cover. On that point, you regularly unveil new places in this parallel world by slicing away sheets of human flesh with a bone sword.
Displaying both realities at the same time serves a practical purpose as well as a stylistic one. Marianne is able to induce an out-of-body experience during these times, losing control of her earthly self for a brief amount of time in order to transport her spiritual form to parts of the mortal realm that are ordinarily unreachable. In fact, combining mortal and spiritual powers is crucial to solving the majority of The Medium’s riddles, which were done while never slowing down the story, nonetheless required a significant amount of lateral thinking on each side of the divide.
The Maw, The Medium’s main villain, was also a driving force behind people continuing to play this game. While Marianne and the rest of the small supporting cast (both human and spiritual) deliver good performances, Troy Baker’s unusual and unnerving portrayal as The Medium’s main antagonist steals the spotlight. The Maw is an evil entity that follows Marianne throughout her journey, initially in the spirit realm but finally returning to reality.
The Maw, like the monstrous pursuers in Resident Evil 2 and 3, can’t be killed; you can only avert him, which keeps the pressure high as you switch back and forth between realms, not understanding how or when he’ll appear; he could show up in his imposing devilish form in the spirit world, or as a heavily cloaked astral silhouette in the real one.
Baker’s hulking presence, coupled with spooky background sound design and an anxiety-inducing score, had people forging their way towards The Medium’s riveting conclusion while always having to look over their hypothetical shoulder. Baker brings genuine threat to The Maw’s deranged ramblings as he tries to attack you through each setting, fluctuating among both throaty growls and traumatized whimpering.
The Medium explores what makes a person wicked, as well as the differences between those who are born with a cruel nature and those who are transformed into monsters by cycles of violence—though it makes no apologies for anyone. It delves into domestic abuse and even genocide in the process of untangling these ideas, but these ideas aren’t brought up just for shock value. It’s some of the most incisive writing seen in a videogame in a long time.
With overgrown, post-Soviet ruins in the actual world and a morbid, yellow-tinged spirit world as its surreal reflection, it also looks fairly lovely. Intrigue, discomfort, and pure dread are all evoked by the textures, color balance, and lighting. From the ceiling to the paving stones, Niwa Resort is packed with little elements, such as crinkled vintage Polish magazines from the 1990s.
The grimness of an empty classroom on the other side of the screen contrasts with walls of human flesh and ghostly moths when Marianne is separated between realms. It gives the impression that you’re never truly safe—how do you know what’s going on the other side when the split screen illusion fades away and you’re simply staring at the classroom?
The story lines of The Medium eventually begin to entwine, even relating to the primary purpose of understanding Marianne’s origins. The promise that everything will somehow connect in some unexpected and wonderful way is an exciting cause to finish the game. Many of the disclosures are made more painful by the game’s connections to real-world events in Polish history—even if the supernatural components are imaginary, it’s terribly frightening to consider how some of the evil shown in this game truly occurred.
The premise that there are always two ways of perceiving something or someone is at the heart of The Medium. The puzzles, dual reality gameplay, and overall story all complement this fundamental concept, presenting examples of human conduct that demonstrate how even wicked crimes can have good reasons on occasion (or vice versa). In most cases, The Medium leaves it up to the player to decide whether or not someone was good or terrible.
The game’s admission that there is an exception as to how much agency you have in, how you judge someone, even when there are two sides to a story, is the aforementioned portions when you probe into the psyche of abusers. Marianne rejects the use of a traumatic or abusive childhood to excuse bad behavior in both circumstances. You can feel sorry for a villain because of what happened to them, but you should never forgive them for what they did.
It’s a key distinction, and one people are happy that the game emphasizes, using both an example of an abuser who unintentionally masked their guilt with their pain and one who purposefully did so to demonstrate, that both are unacceptable. Although the latter is significantly worse, neither is unforgivable.
To that end, The Medium’s ending lingers in your mind; it’s one more chilling reminder that tragedy may not identify a person, but it can have far-reaching implications that we can’t even imagine if it’s not properly addressed and allowed to fester over time. The audience generally loved The Medium’s ending, and was very pleased with how it set up the unavoidable nature of its terrifying finish.