How The Medium uses next-gen technology to deliver dual-layered horror

By Brian Crecente |
September 3, 2020
The Medium is a next-gen psychological horror game designed to examine the duality of perception. While the game was initially announced in 2012, it wasn’t until this year that developer Bloober Team felt the technology available was powerful enough to allow the team to deliver on the experiences they wanted to explore.
 

The game was reannounced as an Xbox Series X title in May, with plans for a release later this year. In The Medium, players take on the role of Marianne, a psychic medium who can shift into the spirit world. The third-person game uses that shifting ability to aid in Marianne’s puzzle-solving and to help create the game’s powerful vision.

We interviewed Wojciech Piejko, Lead Game Designer at Bloober Team, about the studio’s decade-long history in game development, what inspirations they drew from in creating this new experience, and how next-gen technology and Unreal Engine helped them turn their concepts into digital reality.
Bloober Team has been around now for 10 years, but it wasn’t until the past five or so that the studio started creating horror games. What made the team decide to shift its focus to horror?

Wojciech Piejko, Lead Game Designer at Bloober Team:
Some may not recall, but we made the absolute worst game for PS4 called Basement Crawl! However, we fixed our mistake to give all players that purchased the game a revised version, a new BRAWL game. This was a turning point for us to consider what to do with our team and how we wanted to change our focus. We made a joint decision as a team to focus on what we wanted to do together. We didn’t just want to make games. We wanted to arouse emotions and tell stories, and we all agreed that the horror genre was perfect for that.

We are all huge fans and geeks when it comes to horror movies, not just games, but horror movies in general. We made an attempt to create something original, and by doing that, we all felt good with ourselves. Our first psychological horror game was Layers of Fear, and as of today, that game has over 5 million players. This has enabled us to become one of the most recognizable and experienced teams that create horror games.

Each of Bloober’s last four games was tied to specific themes or styles of horror. Layers of Fear dealt with sacrifice, Observer with body horror, and Blair Witch with PTSD. What will the central theme of The Medium be?

Piejko: We at Bloober specialize in creating psychological-horror games, but we are not doing it only to scare the **** out of people, but also to tackle a specific subject. The Medium is built around its central motif: how your perspective changes your perception. 

Nothing is what it seems; everything has another side. As a medium existing in two realities, you have a wider perspective. We can say you have two perspectives at the same time. You can see more clearly that there are no simple, objective truths.

How does the story, setting, and characters play into that theme?

Piejko: Everything is built with duality in mind - two worlds, two different art styles, two versions of Marianne (the game protagonist), two composers, and so on. The story itself is designed to constantly challenge your perception by throwing you new leads and information about what really happened in an abandoned vacation resort.
What existing horror properties inspired or influenced the design of The Medium?

Piejko: I think most people from Bloober Team are inspired by the Silent Hill series. I would say that Silent Hill 2 is my favorite horror game ever because of its great story, atmosphere, and music. I can even say that our approach to every game we’ve made is inspired by Silent Hill 2 because with SH2, we are not judging our characters or players. Everyone who finished the game knows what James did, but the game is not judging him—it’s up to the players, and at the end of the day, it tells us more about ourselves (how we feel about James). So our big inspiration is definitely Silent Hill along with other Japanese horror games like KuonForbidden Siren, Resident Evil, etc. In terms of moving pictures/films, we are inspired by The Shining (because of the hotel and psychological approach), Stranger Things (because of two realities, nostalgic vibe), The VVitch (great story, artistic art style, atmospheric instead of jumpscares), the Chernobyl TV series (not horror but tv-series with a great sense of dread with an Eastern European setting along with a great visual art style).

Bonus: musicians that kicked my imagination or was listening to while designing The Medium: The Haxan Cloak, Lingua Ignota, Chelsea Wolfe, and, of course, Akira Yamaoka, who is composing the spirit world soundtrack for our game.

This is Bloober Team’s first next-gen game. What were the technological advances that brought the biggest changes to the game, and what did they bring?

Piejko: The game is 4K, supports ray-tracing, and also uses the SSD for a single seamless and cinematic experience. But in my opinion, the most advanced and unique feature of our game is displaying and rendering two worlds at the same time. This feature requires a lot of juice from the hardware, and The Medium would be too challenging to bring to current-gen platforms. Of course, you can downscale any game idea, but it wouldn’t be the same game.
Horror as a genre, both in film and video games, often rely heavily on lighting to create atmosphere and deliver scares, how were technologies like ray-tracing and 4K resolution used in The Medium?

Piejko: In my opinion, technology is not horror’s best friend because the scariest things are happening in the players’ heads. Of course, lightning is helpful, but it’s still better to dwell in darkness and imagine what may hide there instead of seeing it. Add a little grain effect, and black areas are starting to move. Your imagination kicks in, “OMG! is something there?!” Of course, because of that, I love HDR (black is finally black!). Think of the first Alien - the movie itself becomes less scary when you finally see the alien, and your imagination stops.

What sort of design techniques did the team use to develop and sustain the player’s immersion in The Medium?

Piejko: Since the game happens in two realities, all design decisions were made to comply with the two worlds. The game mechanics, puzzles, and even monster encounters have been designed to flow between worlds - you often have to do something in one world to get something in the other one and vice versa. The semi-fixed camera angles that the game takes advantage of are not only there to provide a cinematic experience but also to help players focus on both worlds at the same time. Of course, the game is not happening only in two worlds - we want to surprise our players so sometimes you are only in a normal world, sometimes in a spirit world and sometimes you have two worlds displayed at the same time.

The Medium will feature two different soundtracks—one by Bloober Team’s Arkadiusz Reikowski and the other by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka—how were those dueling soundtracks used to empower the game’s themes and aesthetic?

Piejko: I would rather say that The Medium has one soundtrack, but it’s composed by two genius composers. Akira Yamaoka-san is taking care mostly of the spirit world music, and Reikowski-san is composing mostly for the normal world music. It’s a perfect match that continues to push the duality of the game. Of course, the composers are working together, so their music may sometimes blend (we are using adaptive music), and they are influencing each other just like the worlds in our game.
What gameplay elements were enabled by the new suite of technology provided by Xbox Series X and Unreal Engine?

Piejko: Again for us, the most important is the power of the hardware that lets us render two realities at the same time. We are very excited about having the ability to develop the game this way.

What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Piejko: We believe that putting hands on new hardware will result not only in better graphics but also in unique and crazy game ideas that weren’t possible in earlier generations. Technology is just a door—give it to the right people, and then the magic happens.
Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.

Piejko: Existing in two worlds is our most unique feature but also the biggest challenge. I mentioned that we are using semi-fixed camera angles to help players focus on both worlds but also our Art Director helped us with completely different color schemes for each world. For example, the normal world is mostly bluish (which bumps up the Eastern European atmosphere) and Marianne is wearing a red sweater, which helps the human eye to quickly spot her when camera angles are changing. A reddish environment in the spirit world plus Marianne’s spirit avatar’s white hair does the same trick. I would also like to mention Zdzisław Beksiński—our spirit world is inspired by his paintings. Zdzisław Beksiński was a Polish dystopian surrealist, known especially for his paintings. Sadly, he died tragically several years ago, but his paintings have given us a lot of inspiration.

His art, especially the period in his career that we are inspired by, can only be described as disturbing, gloomy, and surreal. The paintings are usually detailed scenes of death and decay, often depicting skeletons, dead bodies, and equally dead landscapes. It’s a perfect match for our spirit world, a hostile and sad place where the dead linger. I really encourage you to take a look at Beksiński’s paintings.

As a Polish developer, we’re also proud of our culture and try to use our games to spread it worldwide. That’s why many of our games, including The Medium, are set in Poland, or feature Polish architecture or art.

Thanks for your time. Where can people more learn about Bloober Team and The Medium?

Piejko: You can find us on Blooberteam.com and TheMediumGame.com. Thank you for having me!

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