Upcoming horror game The Medium is about a psychic trying to solve a crime. Developers at Polish game studio Bloober Team tell me it’s also about breaking down player’s preconceived notions about the world.
“The game is about points-of-view,” lead designer Wojciech Piejko explained during a recent interview with Kotaku. “Nothing is black and white, nothing is simple. At its heart, The Medium is about thinking for yourself and finding the best perspective to judge something. Hopefully, after finishing the game, someone will think before judging someone because [of something they did]. The real question is why he or she did it.”
This talk of differing perspectives struck me as funny because, from a certain angle, The Medium can be looked at as Bloober Team’s first horror game, even though they’ve developed games like Blair Witch and Layers of Fear in the meantime. Its development pre-dates those games, having first been teased in 2012 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U. Between then and reintroducing The Medium earlier this year, Bloober Team has iterated and refined the game’s core premise: exploring two worlds at the same time via a splitscreen mechanic, with an aesthetic focus on the surreal works of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński.
The Medium follows Marianne, a psychic haunted by visions of a child’s murder. Her search for answers leads to the ruins of the abandoned Niwa Hotel and the surrounding countryside, which was the site of some unspecified tragedy. In the two small snippets of gameplay I was shown, Marianne traverses the resort in the physical and spirit worlds, swapping between the two and even investigating both at the same time by way of a neat splitscreen effect. During these moments, Marianne’s movements are duplicated between the two worlds, which means The Medium often has to render both at the same time for its puzzles and exploration.
Prior to this, Bloober had only developed first-person games. “Jumping into the third person changed everything,” Piejko said of the divergence. The team didn’t just put a character in one world; they had to develop two separate worlds that could be shown at the same time. “At the very beginning, displaying two worlds at the same time was crazy,” Piejko said. “No one knew what to do at times.”
“It’s a little tricky because all your knowledge that you have of how to create games is, in a way, going into the trash,” Zieba added. “You know how to create games in the one world, but when there are two worlds, most of your ideas and references don’t work.”
While The Medium may be different than anything the studio has released in the past, forcing Bloober Team to learn new skills and techniques, the developers also learned a lot in the years between its conception and now. 2017’s Observer gave the studio experience with investigation-style gameplay and dialogue choices. 2019’s Blair Witch taught them how to implement an AI companion. But where those games might be considered big steps, the devs said The Medium represents a “leap” in terms of overall scope.
“Good horror needs to have a topic, so each of our games have a topic,” Zieba said. “If you finish the game, it needs to stay with you. We want to scare you but we also want you to think.”
“I believe that the best horror movies, books, and stories are done in the same way,” Piejko said. “They are about something; not just about the monster or the blood and killings but about the human psyche, about ourselves. For us, the best thing that can happen after finishing our game is that the player thinks, ‘What would I do in this kind of situation?’”
The Medium would probably still be in development hell if not for the upgraded power of next-gen platforms like the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, for which the game is a console exclusive. (When pressed for further details, like whether this was timed exclusivity, Bloober Team’s chief marketing officer Tomasz Gawlikowski stepped in and said they were only discussing the announced Xbox and PC releases at this time.)
When the game was first announced in 2012, technology couldn’t keep up with what the devs wanted out of The Medium, specifically the ability to play in two worlds at the same time. Getting it to work on platforms like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 would mean sacrificing their vision, something the team wasn’t willing to do. The idea sat in the studio’s vault until the arrival of new consoles and Unreal Engine 4.
Another new development in the time since work on The Medium began is the popularity of Microsoft’s various Game Pass memberships and the importance of such subscriptions to the company’s overall Xbox strategy. For just a few bucks a month, Game Pass subscribers gain access to a wide array of games, some of which arrive on the service the same day they launch. The Medium, being one of the few releases with any sort of exclusivity on Xbox Series X/S, will do the same.
While many developers have nothing but nice things to say about their games being made available through Game Pass, the folks at Bloober Team were open about the possible drawbacks. There’s no doubt that getting your game in front of players who might not have checked it out in the first place is a good thing, they said, but you run the risk of getting lost in the crowd.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Zieba said. “It’s an awesome entry point for anyone that wants to come back to games or start gaming, and it’s really cool for the developers to have this group [of players] they might never get. The downside is the range [of games] can be too big. It’s like a Netflix series or movie versus a movie in cinema. We still don’t know, even with this, [which option] is better.”
Any discussion about game development in 2020 would be remiss to neglect the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. Bloober Team, which has over 100 employees, took a work-from-home stance when the Polish government enacted a nation-wide lockdown in March, which was part of the reason The Medium’s release date was pushed back over a month. A small percentage of the studio has since returned to its Kraków-based headquarters.
Even in the face of an unprecedented crisis, Bloober was able to get everyone up and running in just two days, Piejkoso said, thanks to the tireless work of the studio’s producers and IT professionals. Still, there were challenges.
“The most difficult thing was recording motion capture,” Zieba said.
“Oh yeah,” Piejkoso said. “We’ve done remote mocap sessions.”
“We pull it off mostly because we record every cutscene live action as developers,” Zieba said, drawing comparisons to behind-the-scenes videos from the making of Death Stranding. “It pays off doing it remotely because we can then go to the actors, [show them] what we’ve done, and say, ‘Now, do this like a professional.’ It can really help us connect with the actors.”
“Of course, it’s harder to, you know, finish the game,” Piejkoso said. “The last months are more difficult because normally you get a bug and go to a programmer’s room or designer’s room. You’re talking with someone [face-to-face] and it takes like 5-10 minute if they’re in the room.”
“And now it’s like five hours,” Zieba said.
The shift to remote work also allowed producers like Zieba to reexamine the studio’s development pipelines, improvements he says will carry over into Bloober’s post-pandemic workflow.
The road to The Medium’s release hasn’t been pretty, but the folks at Bloober Team have deftly avoided the rocks and potholes peppering the path, even in the face of a worldwide pandemic. I’m excited for The Medium, and it has nothing to do with its developers’ pedigree, the grimy, haunting aesthetics, or even the contributions of legendary Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka. The game’s release marks the fruition of an idea that was so ambitious that it needed to wait for the physical world to catch up. That said, it remains to be seen if The Medium lives up to the inspiring story of its development when we actually get to play the game later this month.