The interactive movie is a difficult genre to execute well. Such games require huge amounts of dialogue written for the branching paths, expensive motion capture technology for convincing in-game performances, and a tricky tight-rope walk of making choices feel important while still guiding the story enough to tell a cohesive tale. Even with such a high level of polish, the end result of these games can often be a bit cheesy, especially upon a second playthrough. Heavy Rain was an engaging murder mystery on the first playthrough, but a repeat attempt makes the enormous plot holes difficult to ignore. I love the genre all the same, and the first episode within The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan was one of my favourite gaming experiences of 2019. While little is known about the follow-up, Little Hope, Supermassive Games’ track record of embracing the silly nature of the interactive movie has me excited for the year ahead.
For those unfamiliar, Supermassive Games is best known for 2015’s critically acclaimed Until Dawn. Boasting astoundingly detailed motion capture and wonderful performances (particularly by Rami Malek), the game really shines with a shlocky slasher storyline and a strong weight to player actions. The eight teenagers trapped in a snow-covered cabin can all be killed over the course of the game, either by making poor choices or failing quick time events. Playing as a foolish horror movie protagonist, the strange flow of cause and effect in Until Dawn‘s universe makes perfect sense: Shooting a squirrel in the prologue will cause a deer to attack the player later in the story, the essence of nature having been angered by your actions. Gamer instinct tells you to search every container, but reaching into a trap door might prove to be a poor decision. The game perfectly nails the balance of horror and comedy, emulating the experience of sitting down to watch a B-movie with a group of friends.
Following the success of Until Dawn, Supermassive Games went on to create smaller, experimental experiences that received mixed critical reception. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood was a fine VR rail shooter but was only related to Until Dawn in the most tangental of ways. The Inpatient was a short VR prequel to Until Dawn that demonstrated impressive voice recognition technology but lacked the fun personality of its predecessor. Hidden Agenda tried to combine a serious murder mystery with party game mechanics, elements that worked well separately but made no sense together.
All this experimentation is put to good use in The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, as the title is both a strong return to form—featuring teenagers stuck in a horrific situation—and comes replete with a clever implementation of multiplayer. Control of the five main characters is divided up between the players, with each person solely responsible for their character’s actions. Almost immediately, the players are given an opportunity to distrust one another—Fliss, the boat captain, seems to have a dodgy licence, and Conrad is determined to party no matter the consequences. As they explore a rusting ghost ship, the friendships the teenagers forge and choices they make will be key to their survival. The campaign is shorter, and a little less fleshed out than Until Dawn, but even with the diminished scale Man of Medan is a grand adventure.
Looking after a single character rather than the whole cast makes it easy to get attached, and every quick time event is a heart-pounding life or death test of reflexes. The game is not without its flaws: The intricate personality system is only utilised in a handful of occasions, and the excessive winding corridors of the ship slow down the pacing at times. The bad guys are underdeveloped, especially compared to the great villain of Until Dawn. Despite these issues, however, the game weaves a compelling tale full of intrigue and surprises.
Playing through Man of Medan in single player is fun, but this is one of those experiences that is better with a friend or two. The multiplayer is simple enough to entice the non-gamers in your life to have a go, although they may struggle with the late game quick time events. Sharing in the panic of life and death choices strengthens the story overall, and offers a unique experience in the co-operative gaming space.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope is teased at the end of Man of Medan, a short trailer depicting a small town with people in old-fashioned clothing and a monstrous hand emerging from a hole. A story based on witchcraft is implied with the depiction of a hand-made voodoo doll and individuals dancing around a fire, but nothing is known for sure at this stage. After such an impressive showing with Man of Medan, however, I am excited to see what Supermassive Games will bring us next.