The Medium proves that horror games don't always need jump scares

The Medium review
(Image credit: Bloober Team)

I don't like Marianne in The Medium. I feel bad saying that, as though I'm betraying an old friend. It's like she's a girl I grew up with – someone I've spent a lot of time with, Been Through Stuff With – but have discovered I dislike in adulthood. Once we were inseparable; now, however, I fear our friendship was forged on foundations too shallow to support a lengthy relationship. 

On a surface level, I admire who she is – strong; capable; pragmatic – but the more time I spend with her, the more I'm sneaking glances at my watch and desperately reaching for an excuse to leave early. It's not even that she's a clever facsimile of a character that's meant to be irritating, I don't think; she just is one. But within minutes of The Medium, it's clear Marianne has had a hard life, one that saw her abandoned as a child and later fostered and brought up above a funeral parlor. Even I have to admit that if anyone's allowed a little bandwidth to be annoying, it's her. 

It's curious, then, that despite The Medium's irritating lead and peculiarly stiff approach to gameplay – the antithesis of open-world gaming in every way, you can't even move the camera lens, let alone go explorin' off the beaten path – I was fascinated by Marianne's unusual tale right up until the end. Apparently, not everyone felt the same, though.

Medium rare

The Medium review

(Image credit: Bloober Team)

Few games have polarised critics and players alike in quite the same way as The Medium has. Some, including our own Leon (as you can read in our The Medium review), felt it was so middle-of-the-road you could get run-over playing it. Others were so impressed by the supernatural adventure, it garnered flawless marks. Me? I enjoyed it, but as a horror enthusiast who isn't typically a fan of Bloober's bombastic approach to horror, it's little wonder some fans of Layers of Fear and Blair Witch were left feeling… well, unsatisfied. 

I've been a reluctant critic of Bloober for some time now. Prior projects in the studio's rear mirror were all a tad glitchy and inelegant, bursting with tropes and spooky corner-of-the-eye shenanigans that, while initially effective, grew ever more tiresome. Furthermore, it feels like issues in one Bloober game are over-corrected in the next; Layers of Fear 2 responded to criticism that its predecessor was little more than a haunted house simulation by stuffing it with a parade of irksome insta-deaths. 

Marianne's endless chittering in The Medium feels as though she's trying to make up for the brooding silence and astonishing lack of emotion of Layers of Fear 2's mute protagonist. The fact she can concurrently exist in two spiritual plains? Pft, so what? It felt like a gimmick when it was announced, and even more so afterwards. Yes, it's technically impressive, but it did little to better anchor the player in Marianne's plight.

The Medium review

(Image credit: Bloober Team)

"The Medium signals a budding maturity in Bloober's storytelling and confidence in its abilities to be scary without jump scares"

And that's the problem here, isn't it? Video games are a unique storytelling device that immerses the audience in ways movies and books can only hope to emulate. Typically, the player controls everything the character does, and the story cannot progress without their direct input. But in The Medium's case, there are few, if any, meaningful choices. No pathways or dialogue options to agonise over. It's yet another Bloober walking simulator, but this time without the jumpscares that made Layers of Fear such a thrilling ride – and I suspect it's this lack of agency and jumpscares that have disappointed some. 

Me? I don't mind walking simulators, providing I'm walking through a world – even a supernatural one – that feels authentic. I don't need to shoot a gun, or read a memo, or do any of the hundreds of mechanics now found in countless games, because if a story properly grips me, that's usually sufficient to keep me invested. 

For me, The Medium did achieve this. Sure, the chase sequences were tiresome, and yes, Marianne's endless commentary on everything she saw was grating, but it's to Bloober's credit that despite those flaws, I remained riveted and keen to take the story through to its (sadly unsatisfactory) conclusion.

What's next for Bloober?

The Medium

(Image credit: Bloober Team)

The Medium signals a budding maturity in Bloober's storytelling and confidence in its abilities to be scary without jump scares. It hints at a newfound faith that players can still be unsettled by the environment and storytelling alone, not least because it draws so heavily from old-school survival horror and a time when the emphasis was very much on letting the player's imagination conjure up the horrors waiting in the next room. By further employing old-fashioned tropes liked fixed camera angles, The Medium masterfully controls both its narrative and its cinematography.

And of course, it's that cinematography – the props and backdrops and the delicious vignettes in both the spirit and material world – that undeniably makes The Medium special. There's that early, shadowy shot of Marianne pulling her foster father out of the morgue refrigerator. The first time you stand before the abandoned Niwa complex; the sickly red glow that touches everything and everywhere as you scramble over impossibly colossal filing cabinets and papers. Even the muddy, brown tones of the other world – inspired by the gorgeously grim work of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński – are strangely beautiful, a place that's simultaneously both dead and yet able to sustain lush crops of alien fungi and flora. 

Couple the visuals with the soundscapes of composers Arkadiusz Reikowski and Akira Yamaoka – yes, the same Yamaoka who crafted the sound effects and scores of almost all Silent Hill games and movies – and you can perhaps begin to understand why Bloober so wisely chose to break away from its tired formula and experiment with something new.

The old adage goes that storytellers should show, not tell, but I believe the opposite is true for horror. I've always been more affected by spooky tales set against the humdrum – a stool moved by unseen hands in an ordinary, all-American kitchenette; the shadow darting between the bars of a child's climbing frame – and while The Medium's own brand of horror admittedly goes a touch beyond that, it's all the more unsettling for holding some of its darkest secrets back. Well played, Bloober. 

Bloober Team's dual-world system in The Medium is so technologically unique that the company sought to protect it with a patent. Here are eight other video game patents that might surprise you

Vikki Blake
Weekend Reporter, GamesRadar+

Vikki Blake is GamesRadar+'s Weekend Reporter. Vikki works tirelessly to ensure that you have something to read on the days of the week beginning with 'S', and can also be found contributing to outlets including the BBC, Eurogamer, and Vikki also runs a weekly games column at NME, and can be frequently found talking about Destiny 2 and Silent Hill on Twitter.