I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Jacek Zięba (game producer) and Grzegorz Like (writer) from Bloober Team about its upcoming psychological horror game The Medium. As one of the few titles launching this year exclusively for Xbox Series X/S and PC, I was curious to get some insight on what these new pieces of hardware unlocked for their team.
In addition to some exciting revelations about next-gen console capabilities, we also discussed whether or not The Medium will incorporate a traditional combat mechanic, what players can expect from the nuanced storytelling, and how incredible it was working with legendary Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka for the game's soundtrack.
The duality of the gameplay and storytelling
Miles Dompier, Windows Central: From a gameplay perspective, The Medium is looking like an incredibly unique experience. What was the core inspiration for the simultaneous dual-reality gameplay mechanic? What ultimately led to this bold design decision?
Jacek Zięba, Bloober Team: You know, this is a really old idea in Bloober, from the beginnings of our company. Our CEO had an idea in his mind... and was like "OK, I want to talk with developers"... and see if this is possible to do this. And we had a couple of iterations before and they went in all different directions, but the tech was created all the time, in some way. Then, Unreal Engine 4 appears and we thought this could be the engine that can help us with it, but we also heavily modified the engine to do a dual-screen you can play.
And then we thought, "can this generation of consoles like PS4 and Xbox One handle it?" It can be tricky and we need to have some shortcuts, etc. Then new generations come along to developers and we thought, this could be it. We could do this now, of course, on the Xbox Series X. This is our place to fulfill our dream, in some way, about that kind of gameplay.
It's kind of a legend in our company about this project and how it changed, shifted, and then created a new team to create a new iteration. We thought, "now's the time to fulfill this idea from a couple of years ago — from a gameplay perspective."
Grzegorz Like, Bloober Team: The game is called Medium so we want to go big on it (laughing). We wanted to make a story that really corresponds with the fact that the gameplay is shaped by those two worlds. So we really wanted to make a story that is dual in many different aspects and many different ways to talk about characters and about stories that we incorporate in the game. I think the way you will play Medium will also echo in how the story is told and how the characters are built.
Jacek: It's important because you asked us about gameplay, but of course, for us, half of the game is the story and how it's shown to the player. And we also have fun with this two worlds approach towards gameplay and how we can show you environmental storytelling, story cutscenes, etc. So we start from the gameplay side and then, of course, think about what we can do more in regards to the character creation, cutscene creation, story creation, and so everything in some way is dual in this game.
Grzegorz: Duality is the brimstone of everything right now. So I think you can double your anticipation (laughs).
Jacek: Or double your fear.
A truly next-gen experience
Can we talk a little bit about what the Xbox Series X specifically allows you to do? You touched on this, saying that previously with the PS4 and Xbox One you just couldn't make this game happen. So what makes The Medium possible on the Xbox Series X and S?
Jacek: The most crucial thing for us was hardware. On Xbox series X or S, there's the ray-tracing, higher resolution, and it's all important stuff, but we created a new approach of how to play a game on two screens at the same time. So with Xbox Series X, we finally have the hardware to do it. Then, we start developing on the X and of course, we start thinking, "OK, what can we do on the S?" So it's mostly optimization.
...with previous generations it was impossible and now on the S and X it's possible.
So the only downside, I think, will be the resolution for most of the games... But the most important thing for us was really good, powerful hardware in the console to not only be close in the PC world but to get this game to a broader audience.
There's been this discussion on the internet whether the Xbox Series S will hold back next-gen development. And from your experience, that doesn't seem to be the case, really, outside of resolution?
Jacek: Yeah. Sometimes we'll need to do more shortcuts, but with previous generations it was impossible and now on the S and X it's possible. So we know that the X is easier because it's more powerful, but the S isn't a really, really weak version of the Series X. It's different versions, so you need to have a different approach. You don't need to end up cutting things or something like that. I don't think they'll any problems.
Focused on psychological horror
This next question is more for Grzegorz. For fans who played previous Bloober titles, what can they expect in terms of psychological scares and storytelling compared to previous projects?
Grzegorz: We wanted to create an experience that will not be a collection of jump-scares or a story of finding a killer. It's not a slasher. It should be psychological horror. We wanted to create a story that's set in a world that actually makes you wonder what's the nature of evil. It's a lot of questions and maybe fewer answers.
We just wanted to ask the audience "who's the bad guy?" because there are a lot of people and a lot of characters you will meet and all of them are somehow broken and are victims of the demons of the past. But you will have to decide who's really the antagonist of the story. Maybe there is none, really. We didn't want to point fingers, but make it something to experience.
Jacek: We don't want to create a festival of jump-scares, as Grzegorz said, but what we wanted to achieve with the story is an experience that will get under your skin. We're aiming for something where you play the game, then you have some rest or do something else, but it's still there. In your head. You're processing what you see, what you hear, what you read, and then it can get under your skin. So this is the psychological side, the more horror side.
The second side is to achieve some kind of recollection. As Grzegorz said, we ask a lot of questions in this game, in the story, and the player can think, "what will I do?" What should I do in the situation? Or maybe I was in a similar situation in some way. We don't want to create any psychological treatment, but psychological horror games can also sometimes help people fight with trauma or something else. So maybe this game can also close some doors for somebody or open some, as well and change their perspective.
Grzegorz: Right. The topics we touch on in the story, they're not simple topics like murder. They should be treated with a certain gentleness and care to develop them well and deliver a really good story and not one that is in any way offensive to the player or their intelligence.
Fight or flight?
Will there be any traditional combat mechanics incorporated in The Medium?
Jacek: For us, it's more like a sneak mechanic. The Medium is also compared to the Silent Hill series and for us this is awesome, but we think more about Amnesia when we think about The Medium because the main problem sometimes in horror games is it stops being scary when you have a gun.
Grzegorz: Yeah. Imagine Ripley in the first Alien with the flamethrower from the second movie at the start of the first movie. It's not fun anymore.
The Medium is also compared to the Silent Hill series and for us this is awesome, but we think more about Amnesia.
Jacek: The best example, I think, is Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Brilliant horror. The first hour is awesome, then you get the gun. We are aiming more for sneaking and how to avoid the monster, how to survive, and how to use your powers to survive the encounter. We understand that combat and heavy combat can be fun for gameplay and can be really cool. We are not known for that kind of gameplay, but what we want to change here is change how we approach the horror, how we approach storytelling, but of course, how we approached the campaign.
Grzegorz: In some games, you have this feeling that the mechanics of combat are really absent. You feel the void screaming "I should be able to kill this guy, why can't I?" And we also crafted the answer to why it should be this way, story-wise.
Jacek: Yeah. You don't fight with anyone or anybody. The thing that Marianne will meet in the game, it's something special and it should be treated in a special way.
Working with a horror icon
**I know Silent Hill 2 is a big inspiration for a lot of people on your team. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working with Akira Yamaoka for the soundtrack on this? **
Jacek: Man, it was like a dream come true. I just need to keep myself from swearing. It was really crazy to have him on board and to meet him. He came to our conference in Kraków, Poland several times. I'm speechless in some ways. To meet somebody from the Silent Hill team and then to work with somebody from that team on your game when you're a Silent Hill 2 freak... this is crazy. In some ways, you're working with a legend.
You are inspired by this legendary game and then you get inspired by the person who is a legend in some ways for horror music and then he creates the soundtrack for your game (of course, in cooperation with our composer Arkadiusz Reikowski) so it's also a really good combination to create something new and unique.
So how did this come about? Did your team just reach out to him and say, "Hey, what are you doing? You wanna work on our game?"
Jacek: Our team met him at Tokyo Game Show two or more years ago? Maybe even three? We set up a meeting and asked if he wanted to talk with us and he said "OK." We just needed to ask him why he felt like this will be cool, but I think we'll see what Akira has to say, maybe from a dev diary. My friends told me about this — he saw the game in a pub or something. Akira was wearing headphones and watching the game, examining our previous game demo. And he said, "I will work on this game with you. I will work on all of your games."
He's just a normal guy from Japan creating abnormal music.
They sat. They talked. They showed him our demo and that was it. "Deal. Done. I'm in. Thank you." A couple months later, he came here and we showed him more and some feedback from him. Then a couple months later, he came here again, we showed him what we changed and then we said, "OK, now this is awesome. Let's do this." What's important about Akira is that he's really not acting like a star. He's just a normal guy from Japan creating abnormal music. He's a really cool guy.
Grzegorz: That was very important because we wanted to capture the era of the 90s and this guy is the icon, right? And Silent Hill is the icon of the 90s horror genre. So he was just the cherry on the top of the thing.
A memorable ending awaits
What are you two personally most excited about for players to experience the first time they boot up The Medium?
Jacek: I can't wait to see people's reaction to the ending. When everything just clicks. I saw some voice actors and when we recorded the ending scene they (mimics a head exploding).
Grzegorz: They were like "are you guys really doing this!? Really!? This is the ending!? I mean, wow..."
Jacek: It was beautiful to see them and now I'm really curious about how players will perceive the game. How do they react to the ending?
An Xbox game to watch in 2020
With so many players online frustrated with the lack of 'true next-gen games' launching alongside these new consoles, The Medium is absolutely a title to keep your eyes on. From what we've seen and now heard from the development team, this horror game will easily be one of the best showcases of new gaming tech this holiday. You can experience The Medium for yourself on December 10, 2020, on Xbox Series X/S or PC.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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