The writing was on the wall. Beam yourself back to last year’s Man of Medan Gamescom announcement and developer Supermassive Games was already rolling with the tagline “Don’t play alone”. At the time we thought nothing of it, they were just three words of your typical marketing guff, highlighting how horror games have become more of a social experience despite traditionally being played alone in a dark room.
This has typically been my approach. There’s somewhat of a purity to it, being able to soak in the atmosphere and allowing yourself to get caught by jump scares without a running commentary from friends. However, when I recently replayed Until Dawn, it was very much a shared journey where everyone’s decisions and subsequent reactions only layered on top of what is already one of the best games available on PlayStation 4.
In a way, horror games are starting to overlap with their movie counterparts, Supermassive being at the very forefront of this trend. You see, while Man of Medan can be enjoyed solo, this first instalment of The Dark Pictures Anthology series also features a suite of multiplayer options that genuinely took us by surprise.
There are essentially three ways to play Man of Medan: on your own, in an online pair, or as part of a larger group gathered around one screen in “Movie Night” mode. Using one controller, you and up to four friends can each choose a character, passing the gamepad at intervals. Sadly, we didn’t get to see much of the latter in a hands on session earlier this week, but we did get to play through the first ninety minutes of the game with a co-op partner, putting the game’s hottest new feature to the test.
On paper, it actually sounds pretty wild to have two players collaboratively exploring the game from start to finish, not just from how it changes the way they experience the creepy atmosphere and the scares in the game, but also from how the independent choices they both make will morph the story with myriad subtle variations. These decisions also have an impact on the “meta” game, as Man of Medan charts the relationships between characters as well as their changing traits and personalities.
Going into the multiplayer demo I had concerns that it simply wouldn’t work, that my online partner would either go tearing off ahead or that I’d need to wait for them to finish interacting with objects and other characters before we can continue. While there was a tiny bit of that in this hefty intro to Man of Medan, for the most part everything syncs up incredibly well. The game pushes the story forward in a way that feels organic with both players having enough freedom to explore each scene at their own pace.
It felt as though we were unspooling the narrative thread together, as if both of us were editing some kind of interactive script. I’m sure that a lot of people will want to go down the traditional single player route, but having the option there to experience Man of Medan in co-op is an exciting twist. That said, this was an early portion of the game and we’ll have to wait and see how the added complication of extra player choices affects the branching storyline. We’re hoping it will sync up just as neatly when characters become more developed as well as in those inevitable moments where they split up.
There are other niggling concerns there too, such as potential matchmaking issues and how progress is saved between online sessions. Still, the fact that Supermassive Games has been able to do this at all is nothing short of a marvel, truly taking the genre to a whole new level.
Reading on the PlayStation blog, it seems as if there sections where you can go in each your direction. The guy from Supermassive wrote that there are things your partner won’t see and “When you and your friend ‘split up’, you can’t be sure that you’ll ever see their character again”. That’s actually the most intriguing part as I see it.
When in co-op you’ll be playing the story through the eyes of different characters which definitely adds some replay value if you want to go back and see how the entire story pans out from each perspective.