Review copy provided by Supermassive Games. Reviewed on PC.
Daedalian and sombre, wrapped in a tangle of confused matter, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan‘s first episode is an unnerving seaward odyssey gone awry, illustrated with life-like animations and visuals. Picture-perfect as it may appear on the screen, its flaws materialise in the very heart of its most fundamental component — an adventure marred by bedraggled controls. I shall be proceeding in a methodical manner lest I be taken for some misanthropic video-game hater who turns his face at the sight of narrative games, bathing in self-assured hubris. Therefore, I shall begin to expound my findings in the most systematic manner possible without spoiling the contents of this beautiful experience which I am about to so painfully malign.
A Well-Written Narrative Experience
It starts off pretty well for soldiers Joe and Charlie, members of the American Navy, enjoying a drink at a sea-side Chinese market when their eyes meet a Chinese lady behind the counter of some odd stall. Charmed by her allure, they decide to take turns in a few street-side games. It acts as an introductory tutorial for the game, teaching the players how basic controls work. Quite an abrupt beginning which needs no introduction as information is passed on through the animation itself, shortly afterwards they call it quits and return to the ship soused and get into a fight over fifty cents that one borrowed from the other.
This is the weakest part of the story that I found to be quite repulsive. Although deliberately unnatural and stomach-churning, it effected the crux of suspense, guiding the story-line into the heart of the psychedelic plot. The disruption was noticed and a superior officer soon stops the fight, mimicking the most absurd military inflection that could only be attributed to bad voice acting. Soon afterwards, they are taken to the brig and booked for intoxication.
Now, before we venture any further, it is crucial to question the purpose of their stoppage. Why did a US Navy ship stop at the Chinese coast to haul coffins draped in blue and red, containing the mortal remains of American soldiers; an ostensible act maybe? Maybe there is an ulterior motive? The cause is not explicitly mentioned, but we know it’s 1947 and that everything occurring in the game is Post-World War 2.
While most of the data is transferred to us through animation, a lot of information is left out of the scene to be simply guessed or discovered later in the game. A similar indirect approach can be found in many RPG games where a systematic method of delivering information (through letters or notes or dialogue) is adopted in lieu of throwing everything at once to the audience. This is to eschew an easily avoidable info-dump which renders the mood dull. Appreciable.
Suspense is evoked in the latter part when the two friends who fought over fifty cents, thus creating a cringe-worthy scene that I had to sit through and watch, escape from captivity and stumble upon the same officer who had imprisoned them for impropriety. They hide from him, sensing fear and as it turns out later, he was influenced by some unknown agent or appeared to be possessed if not demented, sprinting, gun in hand and shooting soldiers at random.
Everything past this point is pretty well arranged as it cuts to a different setting altogether. A group of friends out on a sea adventure, looking for a bit of luck, clinking bottles merrily, satiating lust. It is a quintessential story like any other horror blockbuster flick from the 80s or the 90s; an adventurous mishap waiting to happen. A single turn of event which will bring forth a disastrous opening, leading up to a climax where many of the characters will end up giving their lives to save or be saved. Or is it? The answer is ‘NO’. As heart-wrenching as it may sound, a word of advice: every single disaster which can bring upon death can be eluded in Man of Medan if correct choices are made. This requires constant communication between the players as it is unequivocally made to be played with friends.
It is not the tragedy of a single character where he experiences a downfall due to an error of judgement but rather a tragedy that is waiting to happen to several.
There’s display of hubris, arrogance and ignorance but all of it is latent. In many ways, the game attempts to counter the cliché using a simple choice system where characters can flirt, be rude, arrogant or understanding with each other. It is this single essential component which helps arouse in the player’s feelings of excitement, rage, lust, greed and mischief. Every time you play it and make different choices, you will end up with different results.
A Game With Limited Substance
What it lacks is substance. There is a huge debate surrounding this particular genre of games. Many are of the opinion that these do not qualify as games. To some extent, it is true but at the same time, one must look for other niche genres like text-based games, or perhaps, visual novels. Do they qualify as games? The answer may vary from person to person. In this regard, narrative games have limited substance.
A game’s focal point is gameplay. If it does not have that, it does not qualify as a game. Surely, you won’t be calling Netflix’s famous Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch a game even though it presents you with choices. So where is the difference? A game allows you to control a character, it is meant to be played using a controller or a keyboard. It allows interaction and action. Therein lies the distinction.
There may be a conflict of opinion and by all means, you can disagree with me. But my understanding of games does not solely depend on a choice-based system, nor in narrative only. To narrow down the confusion, let us assume that the story-line is a thread. This is the plot or the primary focus of the game or an interactive movie. Now imagine it has knots of other threads leading away from the mainline but running parallel. This is the branching which is precipitated by the choice of the players. For me, the existence of this single system is not the qualifying factor for a ‘video game’.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan qualifies as a game because it has overcome these hurdles. Even by simply allowing you to control a character it has transcended the status of an interactive movie. Hence, it is unfair to be sardonic and pass mean comments calling it a movie. What can be criticised, of course, is the limited substance. Games like these do not confer much freedom to the players in terms of gameplay.
There isn’t much room to explore or interact with the environment. It is as empty as it can get and there isn’t much to do other than picking up a piece of paper or some random objects or staring at splatters of blood on the wall. Most of the time it feels like a boring walking simulator. The graphics, however, are awesome. It’s beyond anything I’ve seen. But then again, the atmosphere is disappointingly claustrophobic– less in the sense of fear-provoking, and more in the sense of uncomfortable.
The Flaws That Certainly Meet the Eye
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is a narrative game, and even for that it has plenty of flaws, and all of them feel like a hard hit on the head. From clunky controls to in-game glitches where the characters stop dead and do not move even on command, it is ridden with flaws that can easily be fixed with one patch. The most repulsive one is the looping music which gave me an impression of a rushed release. At a certain juncture, my partner faced issues where the screen played a looping animation of the face of one of the character as I carried on with the dialogue, and when his turn came the game did not present him with the choices.
We waited for a few minutes before we decided to restart the game but surprise surprise, it happened again. After frantically trying to get past this point numerous times, we finally managed to fix it and all I had to do was to be lightning quick to choose an option so that it can seamlessly proceed without activating the bug. Tricky business. Another pestiferous error in game design (for the PC version at least), we felt, is how the cursor appears on the screen during a cut-scene like an unwelcome trespasser.
More infuriating is how the game developers saw fit to insert it during gameplay as if it has any great role to play. I would have been lenient had it been a point-and-click adventure game to begin with. But so does not appear to be the case. It feels odd and extremely unnecessary at the same time. Sometimes the characters do not obey commands, simply keep turning round and round when I want them to move forward. It becomes exhausting. If a game is being made for PC they should keep in mind that the controls need to work well with a typical PC setup. Since many of us do not use a controller, we want the game to function just as well with keyboard and mouse.