I’ve played demos of Man of Medan, the first installment in a five-story anthology dubbed The Dark Pictures, on a couple of occasions. But this week, in a spooky setting aboard the World War II ship USS Hornet, I got a nice surprise.
The developers of the game at Supermassive Games — the makers of Until Dawn, my favorite game of 2015 — revealed a multiplayer dimension to Man of Medan, which debuts on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on August 30.
In the multiplayer mode Shared Story, you can play in the same story with another human player, who controls a different character among a group of playable characters. The game also has a Movie Night mode, where up to five human characters can pass the controller around, taking turns controlling one character each.
These new modes could make the game a lot more social and live up to the legacy of innovation at Supermassive Games. I played the game for about 90 minutes with another journalist colleague who was also playing it for the first time. And I also played the Movie Night mode and recorded about 18 minutes of gameplay, viewable in the video embedded in this story. Warning: this story has some spoilers.
A haunting story
The game started with a sequence where a man with a British gentlemanly look walked down a hallway of pictures to a very strange rock song. He introduced himself as the Curator. He is the narrator of the story, and he will appear as such in each of the five or more stories in The Dark Pictures Anthology. The Curator tells us how important our decisions will be, and how pictures hanging on a wall can give us a little premonition of what will come next in the story.
Pete Samuels, CEO of Supermassive Games, told me in an interview that the game is based on a “true story,” or rather a myth, about a ghost ship called the SS Ourang Medan, which was said to be a derelict ship floating in the South Pacific with a dead crew.
The game is loosely based on this story. It starts with a couple of drunk U.S. Army soldiers who are celebrating their shore leave at a port in China. You learn how to control the characters in a short tutorial where the soldiers interact in a kind of street carnival. Then the soldiers rush aboard their freighter ship, which may or may not be called the Man of Medan. (Ourang translates in Indonesian to man, and it presumably means a man from the city of Medan).
The soldiers get into a fight with an officer aboard the ship, and they’re thrown in the brig. They wake up and find that the ship is in a very bad state. Some mysterious acid has leaked and formed a gas that affects the crew and the bodies of some soldiers in caskets. The two soldiers — now controlled by each human player — discover that the crew has gone mad and has begun shooting each other.
The soldiers try to escape and start wandering through the ship. You can hide, and then you have to control your breathing as another deranged soldier runs by. You have to tap the controller at the right time, a la Guitar Hero, to control your breathing. I managed to do this successfully. I continued to roam until I found a dying soldier, who whispered to me, “Hide.” I could have chosen “investigate” instead.
So I decided to hide in a locker. Bad move. Somebody fired a bunch of shots into the locker. As I lay dying, I saw a man in a Chinese or perhaps Malaysian outfit — maybe the Man of Medan — approach me and show his ghoulish face. Then I died. Apparently, during the tutorial, you can’t survive.
Hands-on gameplay in Shared Story multiplayer mode
The story flashed forward to the modern day, as a group of young adults boards a tour boat at a dock. They include the beefy Alex, his nerdy younger brother Brad, the tough captain Fliss, the spoiled rich woman Julia (and girlfriend of Alex), and her annoying brother Conrad. Alex is thinking about the right moment to do something important with Julia, and this moment may or may not come during the game scenes.
As with Until Dawn, Man of Medan is rendered in a cinematic art style, with amazingly realistic, motion-captured human faces and bodies. It’s almost like being inside a supernatural horror movie, where you can play the characters in the film. But in contrast to a film, you get to make choices that determine the sequence of events and the ultimate fate of the characters.
They board the boat and take off on the open sea. You start making small decisions during the journey. Playing as Alex, you can decide whether or not to accept a beer from Conrad. You can refuse and watch Conrad get moody. Or you can accept, and pay the consequences of getting sick on the board, in addition to being seasick, later. You can view a couple of pictures during the next couple of scenes, and those pictures give you premonitions of things to come.
Those premonitions can help you make better decisions. With these small decisions, you set up the relationships between the characters. These lead to bigger decisions as well as action sequences with QuickTime events where you have to mash the correct key on the controller at the right time.
You have to make your decisions as if your life is at stake. But there’s no obvious right question to either answering sincerely or flippantly. In this game, all playable characters can live or die. In fact, there are 69 scenarios where characters can die in Man of Medan. The story forces you to make choices that can mean life or death for your character.
You can wander through the boat in search of small clues, like why Fliss’ identification seems sketchy, and why there is a creepy guy with a hood on a book in a closet.
Of course, the game developers steer you into making some bad decisions. Brad has figured out where they might find a World War II airplane wreck. They go to that spot and an underwater camera shows that Brad’s calculations are correct. Julia and Alex plan to dive down to the wreck. Fliss warns they should go by the book, reporting the find and not disturbing anything.
But Julia insists on diving, and, as Alex, you can agree with her wholeheartedly or sympathize with Fliss. In any case, the duo dives down to the wreck. They find the intact rescue plane from the World War II era. They dive inside, disturb a lot of the innards, and make some discoveries. As they emerge, Alex has a moment where he wonders whether to tell Julia his big secret.
But they see an explosion on the boat from below, and they have to decide whether to rush up or not. If they rush, they run the risk of decompression sickness, which can be life threatening. I chose to go up fast. When we got up there, a motorboat sped off. Conrad says sheepishly that they had a barbeque mishap, which caused the explosion.
The boat carried some thug-like guys who were insulted by Conrad. You can see what happens next in the gameplay video.
At night, the group is sleeping in the tour boat, still on the open sea. A storm approaches. And the three bad guys return, board the boat, and take our sleepers by surprise. (Yes, there was no choice to post a guard at night.) They pull out guns and knives and tie up the five crewmates. They step outside and leave the tied-up youngsters inside the cabin.
That’s when I had to collaborate with my co-op player. I controlled Alex, and he controlled Conrad. We had to make decisions quickly, like figuring out how to untie a character. I had a choice to talk or untie. I chose to untie, and then a bad guy walked in and took Fliss out and then Conrad out. The bad guy beat up Conrad, which was distressing for Julia.
We tried to push out the window of the cabin, but I forgot to time it to the sound of lightning. So the guard heard us and came in. We had some chances to fight and gain the upper hand, but I failed about half of the QuickTime events, which came and went fast. I finally wrested a knife from one of the guards, but I was discovered. Then the chief bad guy pointed his gun at Julia. I had to back down and give up my knife.
My co-op player had to choose, as Conrad, whether to go for a gun or try to escape over the side in the motorboat. He chose to stay with me and try to grab the gun. He failed, but the guards didn’t shoot us. With that, the gameplay session came to an end.
I found out later that Conrad could have died if he made it to the boat and if I also failed to distract the shooter.
Movie Night mode
I also played the same scene in Movie Night mode, where up to five players can play one character and pass the controller around as other characters become active. Several of my human colleagues played with me. We talked over the things that happened in our first playthrough, and we got started on a second. We talked about the decisions we made and how the outcomes in our second playthrough were different.
Movie mode definitely showed me how fun it could be to play in a group, as it was with Until Dawn.
After playing Until Dawn in 2015 and Hidden Agenda in 2017, I was wondering if Supermassive’s single-player horror games were going to become stale. But with the multiplayer mode in Man of Medan, the game seems much more fresh, as you now have to figure out if your human comrade is going to stick with you or screw you over. If your colleague is a coward, you may die.
I think this is much more fun and takes advantage of the fundamentally social nature of the choose-your-adventure style gameplay in Man of Medan. I think this is going to be a much better game than I previously thought.