Supermassive’s 2015 release, Until Dawn, was a massive success because it was able to translate the feeling of a subversive and silly horror film like Cabin in the Woods into a video game. When the Dark Pictures Anthology was announced, it looked as though they were setting themselves up to bring another media style over to games: the short story collection. However, the care and attention to detail to genre that was present in Until Dawn is nowhere to be found in the first of the Dark Pictures’ installments, Man of Medan.
Man of Medan is meant to be a spooky nautical short story that introduces players to the mechanics that will permeate this new anthology. Instead, it’s a plot that’s clearly trying to replicate the depth of Until Dawn, all while smashing it into a much shorter playtime.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the form knows that short stories have a specific structure that allows them to convey their plots with a limited amount of time, and while there’s no one set way to approach how this structure is tackled, prolific writer Kurt Vonnegut did lay out some points he found essential to the form in Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. He laid out eight tenets he felt were essential for writing short fiction: use the time of a total stranger in a way that doesn’t feel wasted; give the reader at least one character they can root for; every character should want something; every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action; start as close to the end as possible; be a sadist: no matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they’re made of; write just to please one person; and give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.
Of course, writing a short story doesn’t map exactly to writing for a game, but when a game is so clearly based on another form, it’s hard not to judge it based on those same metrics. Now to give credit where credit is due, Man of Medan does check off some of these. The “be a sadist” one, for example, as a litany of terrible things do in fact happen to all of the game’s characters. And while many of the main cast are selfish and insufferable, there are enough redeeming, or at least interesting, characteristics in the crew that it becomes feasible to root for Fliss or Brad or Conrad.
But there are four key items on this checklist that Man of Medan drops the ball on, and these whiffs make the work suffer as a whole. The old adage states “last but not least” so let’s start with number eight: give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. This, combined with the idea that you should start as close to the end as possible really embodies the pacing issues Man of Medan suffers from.
The game wants to give you a bunch of background information about the titular warship and the chemical weapon it houses, but does so by forcing you to play through an extended prologue sequence. What short story have you ever read that has a prologue? The whole point is to jump into the main action and reveal the stakes as you go. This is especially baffling given the fact that the game still relies heavily on documents and files you can find around the ship to fill in what happened that fateful night. Considering this, it’s confusing that they still made the choice to have a prologue sequence, when those same gaps could have been filled using those collectibles and would have honestly added more suspense and an air of mystery, while still providing information fairly quickly.
This creates too much to keep track of and be invested in for a story that’s only supposed to last at most a few hours. Which brings us to our third unheeded guideline: use the time of a total stranger in such a way that they will not feel the time was wasted. Because Man of Medan asks the player to digest so much information in such a short amount of time, the pieces feel disjointed, and the overall experience becomes less compelling. Video games have to be much more mindful of how they use their time, especially in something like Man of Medan where the player is responsible for most of the movement and traversal in real-time. This game’s format is begging to be given the room to breathe that Until Dawn had, but in its finished state, it’s mostly just frustrating to see so much potential wasted.
And that’s honestly the biggest sin this game commits: it ignores our final Vonnegut point by disregarding who this game should be written for. Until Dawn was such a success because it understood the audience it was trying to engage, and did the work to not only cater to these fans, but to genuinely play in the genre while still creating something new. Man of Medan, on the other hand, seems to want to replicate its predecessor more than it actually wants to continue the heritage of creating well-crafted, subversive horror in a specific format.
There’s an interesting story here that could have really done the work to set up future installments, but because it’s so messy, and not in a fun or interesting way, it falls completely flat. Certainly, playing with a friend adds a much-needed layer of fun to an otherwise lackluster experience, but for those who were eagerly awaiting a new horror home run, this is nothing but a disappointment. If Supermassive doesn’t want to see the rest of its anthology sink like the abandoned ship they’ve depicted, they’ll need to take the form they’re working with more seriously, and adapt their games to it, instead of just chasing the highs of Until Dawn.