This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan.
Now, I'm not in favor of putting labels on everything, per se, unless I'm looking for my lunch in a workplace fridge, but on the other hand, I do support putting bells around the necks of people with incurable infectious diseases, and that's how I think of a lot of my work. There are a couple of particularly loud and clangy bells dangling from this week's subject, which is fitting, because all of its characters are bell-ends.
The phrase "interactive movie" has always been a warning sign; quite a vintage one, too, like the skull and crossbones they put on First World War minefields. It usually means you're in for an experience that could be recreated with basically any movie on a player with Pause and Skip buttons, but the other, slightly larger alarm bell hanging off Man of Medan is a newer one labelled "multiplayer-focused storytelling". Oh boy, we're going to have to learn this lesson again, aren't we? A story is an inherently personal experience; you do it no favors by obliging me to experience it alongside other people, or having to listen to them talk and get exposed to their hideous diseases.
Man of Medan comes to us from the creators of Until Dawn, which wasn't awful as far as interactive movies go, but that's like being the least painful as far as horse chestnuts in my jockstrap go. But apparently, Supermassive Games think they fucking nailed it, because now, they're committing to something called "The Dark Pictures Anthology", of which Man of Medan is but the first: a series of branching-narrative horror stories with gameplay identical to Until Dawn, hosted Crypt Keeper-style by a very smug British man, who feels he has to interrupt every now and again to smug off about how much we're fucking things up like he's commentating on a snooker tournament he mistakenly dressed up for.
But about that multiplayer: the game makes a big thing of its "Movie Night" mode, where up to five people on a couch can enjoy the story together; you know, the kind of thing you do when you suspect it's going to be really bad and want someone to take the piss out of it with. Turns out the Movie Night mode is just the single-player, but every now and again, a message pops up saying, "Pass the controller to Such-and-Such", and I'm pretty sure I could've created this mode myself with literally any single-player game, or indeed, any DVD with Pause and Skip functions. There's also online multiplayer, where players can interact with each other as the characters at various points in the plot, but I question its worth, since the gameplay is just a patchwork of binary choices that funnel you down rigidly-defined paths, so another player isn't contributing much more than a random number generator would.
Until Dawn had its problems, and they've mostly been transplanted directly across to this. I hate that examining a fucking piece of paper on a desk has to be such an arcane process involving one-button press, two-button hold, and a brief sacrifice to the god of transcribed handwriting. I hate how the mere act of moving around a room is like trying to steer a frightened overweight pig onto a slaughterhouse conveyor belt, apparently in the name of cinematic walking animations that very realistically depict people who have debilitating strokes whenever they attempt to pass through doorways. And the very cinematic arty camera angles with thick black bars on the top and bottom make it virtually impossible to figure out what is and what is not a doorway without rubbing yourself against every wall, like you've got two broken arms and really itchy nipples. My point is, perhaps the Until Dawn formula could've been iterated a bit before we jumped all the way to adding groundbreaking multiplayer or throwing words like "anthology" around.
So that's the technical side; let's settle into a nice, hot bath of diarrhea and complain about the plot. Man of Medan is about five really quite spectacularly awful people who go on a diving holiday in the South Pacific, only to get drawn into a sort of extremely gritty episode of Scooby-Doo involving pirates and an abandoned ghost ship about 35-40% as horrible as they deserve. And the only reason I can't summarize each personality in one word like I could with Until Dawn is because I have to stick the word "Annoying" on the front of them all: "Annoying Jock", "Annoying Nerd", "Annoying Rich Girl", "Annoying Sex Pest".
"Oh, Yahtzee, you talk like you've never watched a Jason film, and cheered as a complex sentient being, established in two minutes of screentime to have some abrasive qualities, gets his scrotum bisected with a lawn edger. It's a horror story; you're supposed to hate the cast so you can enjoy their comeuppance!" Two problems with that. First, they don't decide to go to the ghost ship; the pirates take them there, so it's not exactly poetic justice. And second, on my first run-through, all of them survived, so apparently, it's not hard to do so. Although, I am unusually good at quick-time events; I learned how to react quickly in my time as Chief Skirting Board-Cleaner at the Hospital for Compulsive Buggerers.
I'll give Supermassive Games credit, although they seem to have taken quite enough of it in their fucking name: the stories do branch; it's not like a Telltale game, where your choices at most determine when a Character A angrily sucks off a lemur or joyfully sucks off a lemur. Characters and entire plot threads live and die on your actions, but not just your obvious choices, and I'm a little iffy about tying plot branches to skill challenges like quick-time events that you can win or lose; that implies that there is a good path and a bad path, and no path could be bad if it ends with Mr. A. S. Pest getting his face bitten off as he sputters indignantly at the gall of these frigid peasants. Also, having a plot branch depend on something like whether or not we examine the giant golden clitoris in the sex museum, when interacting with it is the only thing you can do in the sex museum and approximately 99% of players will do so, and the remaining 1% only didn't because they were killed by a rogue sniper; that's the sort of thing that gets annoying when you're on the achievement hunt looking for all the paths.
One thing I find worth mentioning is that when Annoying Sex Pest sex-pesters Annoying Judgmental Captain Lady, in one version of events, she rightly shuts him the fuck down, and later on, he might get his knackers minced in the workings of a grandfather clock, but there's an equally valid timeline where she is successfully romanced by his horrible attitude, and he rides off into the sunset arm-in-arm with his future acrimonious divorce. And I think this illustrates an inherent issue with branching narrative: that it means the story can't take any kind of firm philosophical stance, like "don't be a sex pest".
But even if the cast had been Bruce Campbell multiplied five times, the several variants of every scene and dialogue line means the stitching at the joints is often painfully obvious: awkward pauses, weirdly-timed reaction shots, a character's attitude or physical position mysteriously changing from one line to the next. It pulls me right out of the story, and lest we forget, we're still aspiring to no higher model than shitty teen horror films, so expect cheap jump-scares like you're watching your kids use a suspiciously inexpensive secondhand trampoline. So I can't say I was engaged; I would recommend the Movie Night mode, if you're bad at cooking and you want your dinner party guests to get used to being underwhelmed.
- The man from the world of shadow: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And apparently there's a trailer out for the next episode but I have Little Hope that it'll be an improvement
- And I would've gotten away with it if it weren't for that debilitating stroke