Man of Medan comes so close to greatness. Imagine you’re playing a game with a lot of meaningful choice, like an RPG or an adventure game. You play through it alone, and come away thinking it’s pretty cool, but that’s it. You did your best with what you were given and the end result was… fine. You feel the slight twinge to go back and see how your choices would play out in another playthrough, but you’re pretty sure the general experience will be the same. After all, there are only a set number of dialogue options that affect the game.
Now, imagine that this game has multiplayer. Imaginative multiplayer. In Man of Medan’s case, there’s a novel mode called Movie Night, where players are assigned certain characters and only pick up the controller when that character’s part of the story comes up. It’s essentially playing through the single player story again, but by passing a controller around players can see how their friends and family react to certain situations, and make decisions together. In lieu of a companion app like Sony’s PlayLink (which was used in Supermassive Game’s previous title Hidden Agenda), where players could vote for dialogue choices together, this is a decent way to keep your friends on the couch engaged. However, unless everyone is super committed, the more people there are, the more likely someone’s going to be bored waiting for their turn at the controller.
Thankfully, there is another multiplayer mode: online co-op. Imagine again that you’re about to start this co-op mode with a friend. You see your first option is to choose between two prologue characters. You’ve only had the option to play as one of them up until now, so the choice is strange, but the full impact doesn’t hit you yet. Play a little bit more however, and you realize that you and your partner will control two different characters at the same time throughout the game. This means at least one of you is going to experience cutscenes and dialogue options that weren’t playable in the single player mode. There’s a whole other part of the game you didn’t even know was there.
This difference suddenly blows the game wide open. What seemed like clear-cut decisions are part of a larger web of choices. You’re now able to play the other sides of conversations you’ve had before, and you have the power to change the topic entirely. Whole new avenues open up as the you and your partner deviate further from what the single player campaign offers while still staying within the bounds of the story. You can coordinate which characters fall in love, or not communicate at all and hope your partner’s looking out for your best interests.
You double-check the single player again to see if you can take part in any of these new scenes, but you can’t. You’re still playing as Brad in the scenes when you’d love to see what his brother Alex has to say instead. These scenes, which are arguably vital to the whole experience, are locked behind a wall of online co-op, and there’s no real explanation why.
By locking offline players out of these scenes, Supermassive is robbing players of the real Man of Medan experience. Sure, it’s meant to be played in online co-op, and it makes sense that the most robust experience is in that mode, but for people who don’t have friends into games like this, or who can’t play online, it’s frustrating. It makes the single player campaign feel like a demo, whereas the online co-op is the true malleable horror experience that changes every time you play.
Giving the player more freedom would only benefit Man of Medan. It has a ghost ship plot, a cast of characters that’s just interesting enough to work, and the likeness of actors like Shawn Ashmore to keep player’s attention, but there’s a lot of potential that could be utilized to flesh out the experience further. It might not be a bad idea to let players have more choice about which character they play and when. A cool twist on Movie Night could involve having the next player choose from a list of playable characters in the next segment instead being assigned to one. If the single player campaign story is the way the game is supposed to go, fine, but that shouldn’t prevent players from unlocking a second campaign that takes them through the scenes they missed.
I don’t claim to be a game developer, I know suggestions like these can take a lot of work and might not be possible with the amount of time and budget given. Though, with only three modes and a handful of extras, Man of Medan strains to feel like a full experience, especially when there’s a more complex game hiding underneath. The extras are great, including a short documentary on the history of anthology horror I highly recommend, but it’s a small consolation for the weird gatekeeping Supermassive and Bandai Namco have at play here.
As it stands, the first edition of the Dark Pictures Anthology series feels like a TV pilot. You get the gist of what it wants to do, and it makes the case for why you should follow it, but the writers haven’t hit their stride crafting these experiences in a wholly satisfying way. Man of Medan has some interesting ideas, but its biggest enemy right now is itself. Cutting off people from the real experience just because they’re not playing online is strange. If they make any improvements to the series before the next installment, Little Hope, launches in 2020, they should really focus on making each mode an equal experience across the board.
The Dark Pictures intrigues me. For now, I’m willing to follow along to see where it goes. But if the rest of the installments take on Man of Medan’s shell verbatim, then I’m going to lose interest long before it’s over.