This article discusses plot points from throughout both The Man of Medan and Until Dawn.
The Man of Medan, first entry in a staggered-release horror game anthology called The Dark Pictures, is, nominally, a game about making tough choices. Created by Supermassive Games, the studio behind 2015’s gleefully camp Until Dawn, it follows in the stilted footsteps of modern adventure games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us by prioritizing contextual decision-making and branching conversations over the genre’s traditional reliance on wandering back and forth across maps solving maddeningly obtuse puzzles. In this style of design, the player may make a decision to have their character be rude or polite to someone and the game, like a grudge-holding friend, will note that choice and remember it later as an influence on future interactions; a dramatic scene may force a split-second choice over which cast member to save from imminent death and continue rolling with one character gone, shifting its dynamics to accommodate and guilting the player for their decision.
As momentous as some of these kinds of choices may seem—especially the life-or-death ones—the nü-adventure genre that The Man of Medan belongs to is, generally, a lot more limited in scope than it first appears. Its story follows two pairs of 20-something American siblings, one of which is rich, on a scuba diving trip in French Polynesian waters led by a local woman named Fliss. As these kinds of plots go, the cast’s good time soon dissolves into violence and terror. They’re taken hostage by a group of fishermen and, through the bumpy logic of a crowd-pleasing horror story, end up trapped in the holds of a fictionalized version of the SS Ourang Medan. In The Man of Medan’s take on the ghost ship, it was an American military vessel that disappeared a few years after the Second World War, spending decades drifting the seas filled with the corpses of mysteriously dead GIs and, as a treasure map found nearby hints, a store of “Manchurian gold.”
The characters, like in Until Dawn, are caricatures—outsized representations of nerds and preppy kids and desperate, vicious thieves. We’re introduced to them in broad strokes, just to be sure their personality is established without a wasted second. There’s the dorky Brad, who wears glasses, gets devastatingly wasted on a single beer, and has to work hard to keep his cool around his brother’s pretty girlfriend Julia. There’s Julia’s brother, a guy named Conrad who we know is a rich asshole because he tosses wads of cash into the ocean to taunt the local fishermen who soon return to take their revenge. These fishermen are straightforwardly evil, led by a man named Olson with one milky, scar-surrounded blind eye and a mouthful of grimy yellow teeth. He and his crew are all ugly and gross—a shorthand for evil. Fliss and the Americans, even when bloodied and smudged with oil, otherwise look remarkably put-together; the local pirates, scarred and dressed in what’re basically rags, might as well have stink lines drawn around them.
There’s purpose to these larger than life characterizations, though that purpose ends up confused and twisted around by the time the game ends. Just as in Supermassive’s Until Dawn, The Man of Medan ties player choice into the larger purpose of its narrative. In that game, another group of young, mostly wealthy Americans leave their country to enjoy a vacation in a foreign land—this time it’s a group of friends heading to a fictional region of the Albertan Rockies and running afoul of the (dopily appropriated) wendigo that prowl the mountains. That a creature whose existence was created by Algonquin-speaking First Nations to, among other things, reinforce the necessity of community features in a horror story centred on a deranged, grieving teenager feeling abandoned by his friends doesn’t seem like an accident. Arriving at the “best” versions of Until Dawn’s conclusion—saving as many members of the group as possible from violent death—is the result of both chance and good decision-making. Its characters have a fighting chance to survive the attacks of locals whose death in the nearby mines created the wendigos. They’re visitors to another country, possessed with enough affluence and privileged transience to both practically and metaphorically enjoy opportunities for survival that the local, working-class miners didn’t have before turning into wendigo. The game breaks down when this depiction of poor locals is used to suggest that their desperation turned them into literal flesh-eating monsters, but a gloss of the plot’s structure suggests that the theme of choice operates on more than the obvious layer of player-directed branching storylines.
In The Man of Medan, Supermassive takes a similar approach but stretches it further. The rich siblings Conrad and Julia, both varying degrees of obnoxious, blonde, and white, are allowed the greatest amount of freedom from the entire cast. Even as captain of the boat used for their scuba trip, the local Fliss is overruled when it comes to pretty reasonable requests like not diving for abandoned military equipment at one point and is, pretty pointedly, suspected of being in league with the evil fishermen because she’s both foreign and not as rich as the Americans. Even outside of the degree of choice afforded to the non-pirate characters, each of whom is playable (Fliss’s moments of agency are outnumbered 4:1 by the two pairs of siblings vacationing on her boat), the story itself contorts to centre the idea that this is the right and proper balance of power.
The Americans get kidnapped and brought aboard the Medan under threat of violence by the fisherman looking for the fabled Manchurian gold. Even here, when it seems that the Polynesian characters are about to invert the story’s dynamics, they’re shown to have less control over the plot that it initially seems. During the kidnapping itself, for one thing, the foreign pirates are hilariously inept. The Americans split their bonds and rip duct tape off each other’s mouths immediately; they can fight back pretty successfully and Conrad, the character whose identity gives him the widest range of choices of all, can even escape the abduction altogether. When they’re stuck in one of the ghost ship’s rusted old rooms for safekeeping, they escape again with incredible ease. The Americans have options, both as player-controlled characters and as, well, Americans that the Polynesians don’t.
For a brief period after this, all of them hunted by the ghostly visions stalking the abandoned corridors of the Medan, every living, human character seems to exist on the same playing field. All of them, even though they still want to hurt each other, wants to survive the supernatural threat of the ship’s mutant creatures, walking corpses, and blood-pooled cargo holds, after all. Before long, though, the rich Americans have won, some percentage of the group living long enough (I only lost one main character in an initial play through) to escape the Medan’s horrors and, presumably, head back home to enjoy a bright future with a fun new travel story in their pockets.
Just before this happens, head pirate Olson murderously stalks two of the characters while they hide in shadows to avoid him. As he walks around, scanning for any sign of their movement or noise from their breathing, he launches into a furious tirade inspired by the desperation of their circumstances aboard the deadly ship—and his belief that there’s still treasure to be found now that he’s cut the electricity and cornered them in the dark with a deadly weapon.
“I am the captain!” Olson says. “I am in control. And I am the one who says who goes and who stays.” “You smug Americans have smashed your way into a foreign land and come up short,” he goes on. “The generators are off, the gold is mine, and now I’m the one who gets to smash. Me! With my big fucking hammer!”
If The Man of Medan had been willing to end without its heroes proving the hilariously evil Olson completely wrong, it would be a much more effective portrayal of how unjust the power dynamics, and its story’s understanding of agency, really are. Instead, as in Until Dawn, the game concludes with its heroes—plucky, haunted interlopers in foreign lands—bruised, bereaved but still victorious over whatever threat to their safety (and the players’ presumed worldview) gave them a scare before they managed to put it behind them.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.,