The Dark Pictures is something that I never expected to see in mainstream gaming. It’s a choose-your-own adventure horror anthology series along the lines of Hulu’s Into the Dark franchise.
Each installment of the game is like an “episode” or “movie” that tells a contained story. The thing that connects these different episodes is the “host” of the series. In the case of The Dark Pictures, the host is an older gentleman who seems to curate a library, or gallery, of sorts.
The first “episode” in The Dark Pictures is Man of Medan. It is the story of a long-lost U.S. battleship and the group of college students who–for lack of a better word–discover it.
What I find so interesting about the premise of The Dark Pictures series is how closely they are adhering to the anthology format. Telltale Games became known for releasing games in a series of episodes that they would eventually call a “season.” However, to my knowledge, no one has ever approached a game–or series of games–in the same way that The Dark Pictures does. The closest would probably be the season pass that some games release so that future content is tacked on to the original game.
Adding to all of this is the use of the mechanics from Supermassive’s previous jaunt into horror adventure, Until Dawn, which was pretty well received. I personally loved Until Dawn, so I was pretty excited to get an entire series along the same vein.
A Tale to Tell
As The Dark Pictures is, at its core, a choose-your-own-adventure game, the story is always going to be front and center, and Man of Medan does a pretty good job of that.
It starts off in 1947 at a port city in China, where two off-duty sailors are coming back from an evening of drinking. They get into an altercation, and their commanding officer promptly cites them with conduct unbecoming of an enlisted soldier. One soldier is sent to the sick bay (because the CO punched him in the face), and the other is being held until paperwork can be filled out.
When the soldier in the sickbay wakes up, he finds that something is very, very wrong. There are gunshots and explosions coming from all over the ship, and several people are already dead, including the doctor who was treating him.
Now, I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, so I’ll just say that eventually things get really dark and the game cuts to the curator of The Dark Pictures. He lets you know that you are going to be the one who decides how the story progresses and eventually ends.
I will add that Man of Medan’s story, while entertaining, wasn’t necessarily a tour de force. I literally guessed the twist, or shtick, about a minute and a half into the game, and most of the story beats were pretty easy to deduce. That said, it was still completely enjoyable.
The great, and often terrible, thing about the choose-your-own-adventure genre is that you–for better or worse–are in charge of the story. Who you chose to do each task, and in what order you choose to perform them, can affect your entire experience. You might have everyone survive the story… or no one (the latter is literally an achievement). This means that every playthrough could be drastically different, giving Man of Medan a ton of replayability.
What I really enjoyed–and often cursed–about the decisions I was making, was the amount of time I had to make them. Some decisions let me linger for several seconds, allowing me to take my time and evaluate exactly what the ramifications might be. Others were… less magnanimous with the amount of time they allotted. These decisions were often made within a split second and entirely relied on instinct.
This timed aspect is made all the more anxiety-inducing because you can’t go back to a previous save. You have to live with each decision you make… even if it gets someone killed.
Now, I’m the kind of gamer who will reload a map in a tactics game if any of my characters die. What can I say? I hate to lose my party members. However, this finality really helped keep me engaged in the story.
Please Stand By
One of my least favorite aspects of Man of Medan was how often the game would skip or stutter.
It usually happened immediately before or after a decision, which, generally, wasn’t terrible. However, if you needed to perform an action immediately after making a decision, it could lead to some deadly consequences. This was most evident around the quick time events (or QTE for short). I would make a decision, and my game would freeze for a second or so, and then my QTE timer would be half gone before I could even understand what was going on. It was especially rough if the skip happened in the middle of several consecutive QTE’s.
I also noticed some issues where scene changes occurred. Sometimes the game felt… floaty… for lack of a better word. The cuts between scenes, or even when a character dropped from a platform into a different section of the ship, would have poor framing, or something. It was bad enough that there were occasions where I wasn’t sure who I was playing, or where they were.
I’ll admit, this was pretty infrequent, and I usually recovered quickly enough that I managed to get back to playing within seconds. Still, it was unnerving, and it took me out of the story, which is less than ideal.
Oh, also, the controls were a little wonky sometimes… so look out for that.
Tea for two, or more
I’m not going to get into this in great detail, because I have no first hand experience with it, but Man of Medan can be played cooperatively. There are two ways to do this: Shared Story mode, which allows you to directly connect with a friend (who must also own Man of Medan), or Movie Night mode, which you can play offline with friends couch co-op style.
In shared story mode, you and your friend can each play a different character during each chapter of the game. This could potentially lead to outcomes you were not expecting, which, in turn, could be endlessly entertaining–or entirely frustrating–depending on who you’re playing with.
Movie Night mode allows you to pass the controller to friends (or family) who are already in the room, and allow you to enjoy the story together.
Despite not having partaken in this particular aspect of the game, I think that it is a massive (or supermassive) step forward for the choose-your-own-adventure genre, and could possibly be the game’s biggest selling point for people who enjoy a more social gaming experience.
A Thousand Words
Overall, The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan was a lateral move for Supermassive on both narrative and technical levels. However, I think the anthology aspect, along with the multiplayer capability, elevates the game conceptually. Hopefully we’ll see some improvements with the former two, but even if the rest of The Dark Pictures games remain unchanged, they would still make for good gaming.
I’m giving The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan an unsettling 7/10, with room for improvement.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and play back through it to see if I can keep everyone alive this time.