You go about your life thinking you’re the architect of your destiny. That your decisions matter, that you can change your circumstances by making smart calls and putting in the graft. Life would be a bit depressing otherwise, wouldn’t it? So you wake up every day and you do your best, hoping for a better tomorrow.
Then you fail to fend off the third of three rats during a QTE and you and your mates are dead. Dead, pal. No reloads, no mercy. That’s you done.
Such is the knife-edge on which Man of Medan’s characters live for the duration of its five-hour story, following on in form and structure from Supermassive’s big dumb fun interactive horror Until Dawn. Like Until Dawn, it focuses on the lives of a group of improbably adventurous young people trapped in unfamiliar surroundings. But unlike the 2015 PS4 title, the exact flavour of horror doesn’t lean quite so heavily on the corny teen movies of yesteryear. Out with ‘I Know Which Button You Didn’t Press In Time Last Summer’, in with a more original and involving story about an ill-advised (aren’t they always?) diving expedition whose participants wind up on an abandoned WW2 naval vessel after being kidnapped by pirates.
They’re likeable characters at the heart of this story too, and that’s not an easy thing for an interactive horror writer to pull off. Each character will, by necessity, make silly decisions that you’d never make in real life, like venturing further into the Scary Place, for example. Otherwise the credits would roll 20 minutes in when they hear about an incoming storm and decide to pack in the whole dive, just to be on the safe side. Despite these necessary leaps away from authentic human behaviour, you know and care enough about everyone to feel a nurturing instinct towards them.
The setup: millennial power couple Alex and Julia bring along their respective brothers Brad and Conrad and hire Fliss the surly boat captain to sail out towards a wrecked bomber plane on the ocean floor. And naturally they give you a handy snapshot of their personality the first time each of them opens their mouth. Alex the quietly self-confident med school student. Brad the anxious little brother. Julia the rich girl who doesn’t like to go on about it. Conrad, the – hang on, that’s Shawn Ashmore! And Fliss, the designated ‘Never should have come here’ doomsayer.
Their interactions with one another – or rather your choices about how they talk with one another – carry subtle knock-on effects on their relationships, and personalities. The former’s pretty to easy to follow – act like a dick towards a particular character and their dialogue towards you becomes frostier. Demonstrate that you’ve got their back, and you’ll fill up that relationship bar and they’ll be kinder with their words to you. As far as I’ve been able to tell though, relationships don’t play any significant role in the major story beats or variables that decide who lives or dies. As for personalities, frankly I’m baffled. For most of my first playthrough with Brad, two of his personality traits were truthful and deceitful.
This time there’s the opportunity to buddy up and play through it all in local or online co-op, too. The experience doesn’t vary wildly from solo play if you do – since many scenes happen simultaneously in Man of Medan you just play one or the other in co-op rather than both sequentially as a lone player. Conceptually it works, but in truth it’s a real atmosphere-sapper having someone else in the game. You’re more inclined to take the piss out of every bit of hammy dialogue, and less likely to let the foreboding seep in. Plus, it’s a bit of a nightmare to move around in tight spaces with arty camera angles when there’s two of you. In short: play alone for your first run through to get the best experience.
Reviewing a game like this is, of course, to walk a tightrope between spoilers and unhelpful fuzziness, because the particulars of the story are the whole experience. And I’ve already given away the rat QTE, haven’t I? What I will say is that this isn’t nearly as silly as it at first seems. Man of Medan’s twists and turns are intelligent and satisfying, even if they’re telegraphed a bit too flagrantly – you’ll always be a few steps ahead of your cast of hapless pawns in figuring things out, particularly if you take the time to read the letters and artifacts dotted throughout the game. Nevertheless, it feels like a more mature effort than Until Dawn, taking itself more seriously and inviting you to do the same. There are jump scares, yes, but the slowly accumulating atmospheric dread is the real accomplishment in Man of Medan’s scary stakes.
It’s also helped along nicely by interludes featuring The Curator (Pip Torrens). Here Man of Medan shows an appreciation for classic horror anthology presentation, harking back to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Veil, and The Twilight Zone. Like the presenters in those shows, The Curator knows more than you. He knows more than the characters whose lives you’re toying with. And as the conservator of dark happenings in what feels like a dream or another realm, he’s faintly amused by it all. Excellently acted and presented, it also serves, you suspect, as a throughline between this and other Dark Pictures Anthology episodes.
You already know what the problems are. Flipbook-level frame rates (on PS4 at least), seemingly incidental QTEs that end up having a massive impact on the story, and too much uneventful walking around. These were the real perils of Until Dawn, and they stick to Man of Medan like glue. What’s especially frustrating is that double-team effort from the low fps and deceptively high-stakes QTES: it’s so easy to fuck up a timed button press in the beat-matching ‘stay calm’ sequences because the rate at which button prompts appear onscreen is wildly off from the heartbeat audio cues you’re supposed to be syncing with. Because it’s all happening at about 15 frames per second. The same goes for simpler QTEs where button prompts call you to swift but simple action, but they’re especially troublesome in the former sequences.
But the first playthrough’s really more of a trial run. It’s Bill Murray’s first day in Punxsutawney. Ashton Kutcher’s college dorm before he starts reading out those journals. The ‘game’ is in figuring out all the permutations of your actions and engineering your desired outcome. Man of Medan throws you a bone in this regard via Life Bearings, accessible in the character menu. Here the game spells out what the big variables are, and how your actions affected the outcome of them all. So if Character X died in your first playthrough because you made Decision Z in Life Bearing Y (forgive me, I’m trying really hard not to spoil anything), you just hop back in for a second playthrough and make a different call when that situation comes up again.
Much like the tragic heroes of Groundhog Day and its inarguable equal for quality, The Butterfly Effect, though, you soon find that going back in time to fix one mistake often leads to a host of new ones. That’s again down to the lack of signposting – or look, let’s just call it wilfully deceptive QTEs – dotted throughout the game. I wasn’t joking when I said that one rat did for me and all my surviving buddies because of a single mis-timed button press. Five minutes before the end of the game.
Once you’ve completed one playthrough you can select specific chapters to jump back in on a specific point, but doing so feels too much like hard work if you go in feeling like you were cheated out of an outcome you’d carefully planned for in the first place. Things like the inability to skip cutscenes or speed passages along that you’ve already played several times really start to grate.
So is it… y’know – good? Yes. In spite of its technical and interactive mis-steps, the journey within Man of Medan is well worth embarking on. If you have even the slightest soft spot for Quantic Dream’s press-X-’em-ups this is ambrosia – cinematic styling and engrossing pace without a SWAT team or gratuitous nude scene in sight. If the very mention of David Cage’s self-proclaimed interactive dramas has you drafting a tweet that you’re fairly sure will earn you a temporary ban, this won’t sway you. Personally, I’m genuinely excited for future Dark Pictures instalments. And I’m still playing Man of Medan, figuring out its hidden traps and machinations, despite my frustrations with it.