Boo! There’s an art to making an effective horror story. Coming up with some scary concept is, at best, only half the process; you need to frame it correctly, use appropriate language, build the right atmosphere for the right kind of scares, pace the exciting moments so they don’t become routine, the list is endless. And unlike, say, an action narrative, where you could argue confusing plots and mediocre craft don’t entirely destroy the experience, one small mistake in horror can unseat everything you were trying to achieve. It just won’t be scary anymore.
There’s a second wrinkle, nestled right on top of the first: because good (and bad) horror is often predictable, the audience becomes harder to affect as they become more aware of the genre. A watched pot never boils over with blood. This means the more people enjoy horror, the less it will scare them. You can see this jading effect in microcosm when a film series goes on long enough that folks in charge begin to suggest putting the characters in a futuristic space station or making it so the possessed doll can assume human form.
What’s fascinating about Man of Medan, and Supermassive Games’ previous spookfest, Until Dawn, is they enthusiastically lean into their origins, leveraging the audience’s knowledge to create a more effective narrative journey.
The Dark Pictures Anthology is unapologetically composed of very filmic, character-driven, trope-friendly stories that would be perfectly at home in the never-heard-of-it horror section of Netflix. They’re well written and acted, with a recognisable face here or there, but they aim for B-movie very deliberately, and in a very different way to something cheesy like Resident Evil. Positioning Medan as a film-to-game proposition opens up a lot of opportunities to warp expectations, and to import them to the new medium in interesting ways. It’s very good at messing with you, basically.
There is a moment very early on in the game where two characters are deep under the ocean, attempting to explore the crashed wreck of a WWII aeroplane. I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that the plane contains rotten corpses. While searching, the characters come upon what looks like the remains of the pilot, one arm dangling portentously over the back of the cockpit, a pistol still gripped in his dead hand. The camera holds on this view for a moment, giving the player time to worry exactly how long it will take before the skeleton jumps up to frighten them. Then it happens; the corpse does nothing, but a moray eel abruptly barrels into frame, with accompanying musical sting and character shrieking. It’s a nice fake-out moment familiar to anyone who dips into the horror genre often.
The real soft kicker to this scene, however, comes much later, and is a stroke of subtle genius. While on the delapidated and very-haunted-probably Ourang Medan, the group of Young People again have to dive underwater to find an escape route. In the background, during one of these sequences, a moray eel swims by. Goodness, you might well think, this reminds me of that time in the plane when I-
Bam! It’s a corpse floating through the murky water, right across your vision. That’s right, they fooled you with a moray eel twice. You can argue with the brow level of the content but you can’t deny that level of craft. The average player won’t know why this scene throws them off so much, but their psyche will be unbalanced.
Many of the sneakiest touches in Man of Medan reveal themselves in the co-op mode, where two or more hapless players simultaneously wade through the story as different characters. Supermassive reportedly built much of The Dark Pictures with this cooperative action in mind, and it shows in the extra care it seems to get over single player. Since characters move through their storylines independently, you frequently split away from your real friends and have to fend for yourself, at best gibbering unhelpful keywords into the voice chat like “oh god a zombie” or “holy shit, so much blood.” The feeling of being together in a group and then suddenly isolated is bread and butter for horror films and games, but Medan uses the interactivity and cooperative mechanics to actually replicate the feeling of wandering off alone, away from the safety of numbers. But it goes one step further than that, and incorporates one of my favourite narrative concepts in an exceedingly video game kind of way.
Unreliable narrators are characters or perspectives in a given story proven, at some point, to be providing false information to the audience. They are often used to trick a viewer or reader into thinking a story is going in a particular direction, or that a certain character has different motivations.
In Man of Medan, the player themselves becomes the unreliable narrator, both for themselves and for anyone they happen to be playing with. On my first playthrough, my companion was spooked by a sinister child running through the hallways of the ship; on several occasions he yelped rather loudly and muttered about a “spooky kid.” after a few instances of this, I came to realise I wasn’t simply missing the event, failing to spot the spook; it wasn’t even happening to me at all. There was no child on my screen, they were only being rendered for the benefit of my partner, and the added unease of not having your friend confirm that horrible thing you just definitely saw only increases the feeling of dread. It’s another classic horror trope—the character who can’t even believe their own eyes, the one everyone thinks is crazy—played out in interactive terms. You know you saw a ghostly woman standing in the corner back there, who cares if nobody believes you; you could go back and check, but maybe it’s actually worse if she is there. Staring. Waiting.
Once the players have been presented with the idea that they can’t trust their own eyes, or the reports of the other participants, they can truly inhabit the mindset of a character inside a horror story. Instead of acting based on mechanical efficiency, they can make snap decisions based on second-guessing information. Rather than picking door number one because it seems safe, I can wonder if door number two is a trap because my brother says we should go that way, and he’s been acting very strangely lately. By connecting the thoughts and actions of the characters with those of the players, you create a synergistic relationship where each can inform the other. And this, I think, is where Supermassive really shines with their horror offerings. No matter how scared I get in Alien Isolation, I’m never going to feel like I am Amanda Ripley, or that I have any responsibility for her choices outside of strict mechanical action. Even though Leon Kennedy does a lot of outrageously stupid things in Resident Evil 2, none of them are my direct concern and they don’t inform my decisions as a player.
But when Conrad is chased down by a manifestation of his own masculine insecurities, I will absolutely fumble the QTE to prevent him plummeting to his death, because I care about him enough to make stupid mistakes. When Ashley from Until Dawn hears a suspicious noise down an empty corridor (in the opposite direction of all her friends) I will stupidly follow that noise, because that’s the sort of stupid thing people do when they’re in these situations; and yes, Ashley will die, and I won’t feel cheated by the game because it was my bad decision that made perfect sense.
Horror is a popular genre not just because we like to be scared, but also because we enjoy the act of empathising with others. That’s why you’ll see more mid-range, bargain bin horror films than pretty much any other type of movie. We like to watch relatable human beings go through awful experiences so that we can put ourselves in or near their shoes and gauge our own feelings and reactions. Man of Medan will never be viewed as an intellectually stimulating masterpiece, or one of the truly frightening legends of the genre like Silent Hill or Amnesia, but it deserves a lot of credit for cleverly bringing a lot of the tricks and techniques of film and TV horror to the interactive realm in a way that enhances the experience. It understands that horror is about archetypes—of character, plot, scene—and that you can be just as successful flowing with the tide as pushing against it. It’s a game that knows how to play dumb, like any good horror monster.
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