By Ronald Gordon
The boundary between the living world and the Spirit World isn’t easily breached. But a few gifted people can learn to tiptoe across this line at will. That might not always be a good thing.
Such is the setup within The Medium, a psychological horror game developed and published by Bloober Team in Krakow, Poland. Here, you play as a woman named Marianne who was born with a special gift that allows her to be a medium, a person who bridges between the worlds of life and death. Though this gift might seem like a benefit, Marianne sees it as a burden because of how it’s affected her. She seems to be in literal pain when she deals with people on the other side. However, she has yet to realize just how much of a threat her power can be.
While on a search for a man named Thomas, Marianne finds herself in a sprawling, abandoned hotel resort named Niwa in Poland, where a terrible tragedy led to most of the inhabitants dying horrible deaths. The tragedy’s toll on the Spirit World manifests itself in a terrifying entity called The Maw, which Marianne must avoid at all costs if she values maintaining the connection between her spirit and living forms.
In The Medium, you can use Marianne’s powers to traverse the two worlds she inhabits. Her insight allows her to peer past the veil of death and see things that other people can’t. For instance, if a phone has some lingering energy, you can hear a conversation with a connection to the spiritual activity around the area. This power provides a lot of contextual clues as to how some spirits died, and helps Marianne better understand the portion of the Spirit World she bears witness to. But that’s not all her powers can do. The Spirit World is dangerous for someone like Marianne, who is only a visitor and isn’t supposed to be there yet, so she needs some self defense to protect her Spirit from the various threats she encounters. By collecting energy from Spirit Totems, artifacts of strong emotions left by the dead, Marianne can use a Spirit Blast to stun any spectral attackers, or create a Spirit Shield to deflect any incoming damage. She can even power up generators that seem broken in the Real World with her Spirit Blast, allowing her to operate seemingly unpowered elevators or unlock mechanized locks when all ordinary options seem to be exhausted.
I enjoyed how interesting The Medium made the divide between the Real World and the Spirit World. Instead of throwing you completely into one or the other, the game splits the screen to show you what Marianne sees and what her body is actually doing. This tactic reveals the drastic difference between the two worlds, since to someone like Marianne who can access both, they’re two different worlds that require different mindsets to fully process. It even reveals the ways in which the two worlds diverge, like a broken stairway in the Real World that’s completely fine in the Spirit World, or an open door in the Real World that’s closed shut in the Spirit World.
I loved the artstyle of The Medium for this same reason. Most of the Real World is gloomy, with a color scheme of washed-out blues and greys, emphasizing Marianne’s dim outlook and the dreary, lifeless nature of Niwa. In contrast, the Spirit World’s coloring is richer, all oranges and browns, since unlike the Real World, the Spirit World has entities still living within it. The Spirit World has power and energy, something that the Real World lacks because nothing is there to provide it. The music offers a similar mood, with most of it sounding somber or ominous, to communicate that Marianne really shouldn’t be delving into a world that’s not her own, even if she has no choice.
The Medium is a thoughtful, engaging horror game. In addition to setting the tone precisely right, it puts a new spin on an established spine chilling story. You already know that the world of Spirits and Specters probably isn’t populated by ghosts that have passed on peacefully and entities that want to be your friend. Escaping the Spirit World might sound like the best option, but sometimes escape is only a temporary solution. What if an otherworldly horror pursues you through the realms of both the dead and the living? What hope would you have of escaping when the beasts and monsters of the Spirit World come crawling into the Real World to hunt you down? In Marianne’s case, her best and only option is to run as fast as she can, so that The Maw doesn’t catch her. In The Medium, your only option is to make sure that her encounters with it are nowhere near as permanent as her eventual escape from it.