The Dark Pictures Man of Medan is one of those rare games that not only stuck with me, but continued to grow long after I departed Los Angeles. From Supermassive Games, and the first in the planned Dark Pictures anthology, it follows the same trajectory as Until Dawn without the prestige of being a PlayStation exclusive. Bandai Namco was very proud to delve deeper into their new series at E3, but The Dark Pictures has a big step to take without the safety net of first party exclusivity.
In Man of Medan, a cast of five 20-somethings set out for a wild night on the high seas, or at least to engage in peer pressured drinking. They encounter a ferocious storm, which provides the perfect cover for a group of ghoulish pirates to pounce and escalate a night to remember into a “I am the captain now” situation. That’s where our E3 2019 demo picked up, as our cast struggled to break free from their pirate captors.
Conrad, played by Shawn Ashmore (the bloke from Quantum Break), leads the chorus to continue drinking with his buddies Brad and Alex, who are brothers, and Alex’s girlfriend Julia, along with their youthful skipper Fliss, who is more subtly partaking in the shenanigans. For the bulk of our session, Brad was hiding under a bed, smart dude, which left a cast of four. Captain Fliss accepts her responsibility as chief liaison between the pirates and their hostages, but hot head Conrad’s determination to be the hero counters her attempt at diplomacy.
As with Until Dawn, Man of Medan’s dramatic narrative unfolds with a series of quicktime events. With mere seconds to make a decision, the game is forever reinforcing that choices matter, the severity of which vary significantly. I watched someone else play through part of the demo while patiently awaiting my turn, and tried to make a couple of different choices to see how they would affect the outcome. Without giving too much away, whereas Player 1 had Conrad confront the lead pirate, my Conrad ended up with a knife to his head — a couple of false steps completely flipped the tale, though the final destination was the same.
This segment was fairly early in the game, and mostly confined to a small boat, before they collided with a larger abandoned ship — ghost ship! — that presumably acts as the primary location. The Dark Pictures anthology will cover different horror tropes with each instalment. The segment I played wasn’t as full on slasher horror as Until Dawn; although, it too started as jovial fun between mates. In contrast, Man of Medan escalates much faster, these characters know they’re in danger early in the piece, even if it’s not the threat they should be most afraid of.
Like Until Dawn, the characterisation and relationships between the characters are key. Conrad is an unlikable flog, but provides the cardinal unpredictability that develops the branching paths; he’s the character that allows for the unexpected. It wouldn’t be a Supermassive Game without a cheesy love triangle and characters so underdressed they make you feel cold. Despite the torrential rain, even in video games, actors who look this good will take any opportunity to pop their top off. With Alex’s chiseled abs commanding the room’s attention, I’m surprised the pirates continued their conquest. I mean, look at those abs! He’s going to mess you up.
Unlike Until Dawn, in the E3 demo there was no opportunity to move around, at least in my version of events. Perhaps because it was setting the scene, but the entire game was told through quicktime events and lengthy cutscenes. They were engaging, but the brief interludes of real gameplay in Until Dawn helped to break up the narrative and reaffirm this is a game of choice, not a Netflix choose your own adventure. The gameplay footage from Gamescom last year, set later in the game, did show players controlling their characters, albeit in tighter confines than Until Dawn akin to on-rails gameplay. So that crucial component remains part of Man of Medan, but the two demos together suggest it isn’t as prevalent.
The motion capture, acting and overall presentation of The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is fantastic. It was easily one of the best looking games at E3 2019. The facial expressions capture the realistic emotions of the actors; the blend of fear and anger from the protagonists and the authoritarian conviction of the pirate leader. This is an interactive story, it needs to raise the bar in performance and presentation, and it’s primed to deliver. We can’t wait to see more of how this story unfolds.
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan heads to Windows PC, Xbox One and PS4 on 30 August 2019.
Ben Salter traveled to Los Angeles to cover E3 as a guest of Ubisoft. The arrangement does not impact our Ubisoft coverage, nor limit additional E3 2019 coverage.