Man of Medan started going wrong straight away. I'd invited a co-op buddy to join me on this voyage through Supermassive's nautical horror game, and he was not being helpful at all. I was bound and gagged in the bedroom of our boat—some uninvited guests had snuck onboard and tied us up—and unlike an NPC he was absolutely not following my instructions to untie me, even as I pleaded down the mic. Human companions add a whole other level of unpredictability to an already uncertain misadventure. Especially if they're assholes.
The brief PC demo I played through takes place very early in the game and is largely devoid of context, but as a fan of Until Dawn, it felt immediately familiar. Like the PS4 exclusive, it's a choice-driven horror game featuring multiple protagonists, all of whom can die. Where Until Dawn evoked classic revenge and slasher flicks, Man of Medan draws its tropes from films like Ghost Ship and Triangle, but it's also based on the story of the SS Ourang Medan, a ship that allegedly was discovered with all of its crew mysteriously dead.
Mythology, folklore and urban legends are all great sources for the kinds of stories that Supermassive wants to tell. Stories that are half true or even completely fabricated that people know about, but not too much, are fertile ground for adaptations.
"Ourang Medan is a good example of that," says game director Tom Heaton. "It's out there, you can look up stories about it, but nobody really knows the truth about what happened."
The ship allegedly set sail in the '40s and there are various accounts of what happened, some grimmer than others. It might not even have existed at all, however, giving the studio loads of space to create their own ghost story with a classic pairing of attractive young people on holiday and menacing pirates.
Multiplayer is where it really departs from Until Dawn, though it probably wouldn't have multiplayer at all if it wasn't for its predecessor. Despite being singleplayer, it became a social game that might as well have been made for group.
"We've heard all sorts of things about how people played Until Dawn, and we also saw how people played Until Dawn, because they streamed it," Heaton says. "We saw a lot of people playing together, on the couch, playing as a group, talking about the decisions and egging whoever had the controller on. And people play in different ways."
Man of Medan, then, has two multiplayer modes. Movie night formalises the party co-op that sprouted around the first game, letting players pick a character and pass the controller between them. There's also a full co-op mode where you can play simultaneously with a friend online, which is how I ended up waiting for my mate to decide to set me free.
Grouchy, I decided to play the tough guy when I was set free. At every opportunity, I tried to flex my muscles, insult our captors and generally be a jerk. I didn't have enough time to really get to know any of the characters, but they do lean towards certain tropey horror archetypes. That's what I want in this kind of pastiche, but they'll also grow across the story, depending on the choices players make.
Ten minutes in and I'd been beaten, lost my part of my ear and one of my friends had been shot. Maybe taunting our captors was a bad idea, but someone has to do it. There's a web of relationships that determine how characters will react to you in different situations, and my tough guy act was quickly making them reassess our friendship.
Anthology of horror
Man of Medan is the first in Supermassive Games' Dark Pictures anthology. After Until Dawn, the studio wanted to capture the diversity of horror's sub-genres, and an anthology lets them do that. While there will be some common threads, including the Curator character who introduces each episode and occasionally chats to players, each will have a different tone, cast and setting.
So far, Supermassive is keeping the rest of the anthology a secret, but we won't have to wait too long to see the rest. The studio has said new ones should be released every six months.
I could have taken it further. I could have even left the boat and my friends to their fate. Heaton won't tell me what happens after a player chooses to escape, they might come back, they might not, but the player will still have someone to control. The perspectives switch a lot, so if you're just playing with one other person, you'll be jumping around a bit and developing friendships and rivalries between different characters.
"We call this co-op mode because that's what people call this type of mode, and a lot of the time you are cooperating to get out of this hellhole with your lives in tact, but sometimes it's not as simple as that," he says. "People have their own agendas, sometimes you know things the other person doesn't know, sometimes you have to work out if you can trust characters or not, so there's loads of stuff like that for us to play with."
Because everything happens simultaneously in co-op, you never get the whole picture. While I was being interrogated by our new pirate friends, for instance, my co-op buddy could only watch from a tiny porthole while he chatted with another character. Neither of us knew what was happening to the other. Since things were happening so quickly, we didn't have much time to catch each other up, making it really feel like we'd been split up. Most of our communication came in the form of shocked yells.
It wasn't until after the demo that I realised how impressive it was that everything had synced up so well. During one scene when we were separated, a huge wave struck the boat, causing chaos for the both of us, on deck and below. Despite all the conversations, QTEs and choices, everything always seemed to match up. Even with just one player, managing the branches is hard enough, says Heaton, and throwing more players into the mix makes the difficult job tougher, especially when they can go in completely different directions.
"Everything you do in the game changes the narrative, to some extent. Sometimes it's very small, sometimes it's massive. It can be anything from changing the way a character feels towards you, up to and including killing a character. So that's already a complicated thing. When you have shared story co-op, you have a second player making choices at the same time, that exponentially increases the branches."
Supermassive uses a tool developed in-house to help it test all the branches. All the basic elements of a shot can be put into the tool and the entire game can be created as a playable flow chart. The developers can even plug in controllers and play with two players. It's a very low-fi version of the game, apparently, but it lets the team test out scenes and see how they work in co-op. There's also a lot of playtesting and trial and error, trying to find the timing sweet spots for everything from QTEs to dialogue choices.
The one place it feels a bit awkward is when two players are in the same scene, working together or having a conversation. While one player is making their choice, the other player just gets treated to a shot of their character's expressionless face. We're only talking a few seconds, but the rest of the demo is so quick and kinetic that these strange pauses feel out of place.
I didn't get to do much investigating, given that I was being held at gunpoint for most of the demo, but once everyone ends up on the titular ghost ship, there will be time for exploration. After all the QTEs and beatings, wandering around a spooky ship at my own pace sounds quite nice. Players can investigate things together but also split up, which is always a terrible idea but should ensure some horror thrills.
The demo ended right when it was getting interesting, of course, but I saw enough to make me eager to continue my co-op nightmare. I enjoyed it solo, too, but it's with a friend where it really got its claws in me. It just feels like such a natural fit when the game is about a group in peril, not just one person. I have a feeling, however, that with a friend in tow, the list of fatalities is going to be a lot longer.
Man of Medan is due out on August 30.