header is screenshot from The Medium
Cutting Edge
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

The Medium is a game enabled by the erasing of technological “barriers”, in the words of Xbox executives. It is also a story about barriers, some of which it requires you to remove by hand. Early in her tour of the ravaged Niwa Workers' Resort, protagonist Marianne discovers a folding razor in a bath full of blood, its blade a bristle of mismatched incisors. As a metaphor, it is blunt, embodying “guilt, shame, regret”, as Marianne hastens to explain. But it cuts cleanly enough. Armed with this razor, Marianne can slice through the splayed wads of anomalous flesh that block many corridors. The game insists that you guide the blade yourself in first person, waggling the analog stick a little to work it through an epidermis still plump with blood. It wants you to feel what it's like to pierce the veil—the keenness and catch of the yellow teeth, the grind and slither of parting skin.

Guilt, shame, and regret aside, the razor is a gruesome analogy for The Medium's other significant act of slicing: its division of the world into material and astral planes, often carving up the screen between them. These splitscreen episodes are not achieved with a razor but they do involve pain, Marianne clutching her skull as lines and colours judder apart into complementary dimensions—one photorealistic and rubble-strewn, the other a lurid labyrinth inspired by the dream paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński. Marianne isn't the only spirit walker in The Medium's cast, but she is unique in that her physical and psychic incarnations are unified across worlds, each avatar responding simultaneously to your inputs as she roams parallel versions of each layout. She can separate her astral self from her body, but not for long: the majority of puzzles in the game are about wielding them in tandem.

This showy splicing of the physical with the astral has been seized upon as only possible thanks to the rapid loading that allows the new Xbox to suspend and flick between games in the blink of an eye. Much like Sony's dimension-hopping Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart, The Medium (which is exclusive to Xbox and PC for the time being) has been touted as a showcase of the permeability and responsiveness of ninth generation console interfaces, built for the consumer too addled by an overabundance of digital devices and services to linger in one world for long. In practice, however, it is a game not of “instant” transitions but unclean separations—place from place, time from time, personal from historical, soul from body, skin from skin. The Medium's dimension shifts aren't really a celebration of the technology it runs on; rather, they expose that technology for a kind of horror story itself.


The idea of parallel realities haunts Microsoft and Sony's next gen projects. Rather than just the promise of multiplied “power” that usually characterises console marketing, the platform owners have given space to the deceptively humble goal of minimising downtime when switching between apps and games, with split-second loading facilitated by new solid-state drives. Diminishing returns from new graphics technologies aside, this reflects the fact that Xbox and PlayStation are now well-established as “broad” media platforms with ample subscription services. The challenge, for a platform holder, isn't just to get people in the door, but to keep them oscillating between products, jumping around the content ecosystem. Each console's suspend and resume features are designed to make movement through and between apps and gameworlds so unobtrusive that it no longer registers as movement at all. The promise of ceaseless, “frictionless” browsing also aims to thwart the lure of the smartphone, the videogame console's wily arch-nemesis, always ready and waiting at the player's elbow should a loading break last too long. 

This ethos of instant, frictionless traversal has trickled down into how next gen videogame worlds are conceived and navigated, in a quixotic declaration of war on 'unnecessary' geography and architecture. PlayStation 5 lead designer Mark Cerny has championed its fast-loading functionality as an opportunity to do away with both loading screens and so-called 'hidden' loading pauses—terrain features, such as winding tunnels and elevator rides, which exist so that the game has time to conjure up the next area. 

The PS5 even lets you jump to the in-game location of certain objectives from the dashboard, literalising a well-entrenched tendency to think of games as a checklist of tasks and rewards. Microsoft's Jason Ronald, meanwhile, has explicitly invoked teleportation as a parallel for the player's exploration of gameworlds on Xbox Series X. This ethic of removing friction, of seamless delivery between points of interest, has been ferociously embraced by a vanguard of pro-sumers. In May last year, Epic's Unreal Engine demo for PS5 attracted an outcry for showing an avatar crawling through a gap—this was identified as a hidden loading break and as such, evidence that the console “isn't really next gen”.

Both Cerny and Ronald are, I'm sure, well aware of the counterargument that technical limitations like these are better understood as creative constraints, formal conventions that give an artwork shape, like punctuation or the dimensions of a painter's canvas (Cerny alludes to this in the article linked above, discussing the urban design of Jak 2, only to dismiss it as a “distraction”). Hiding or working with loading limitations—using a subway scene to mask fast travel in Marvel's Spider-Man, for example—is a rich artistic tradition in its own right. Horror games loom large in that tradition because horror typically thrives on inconvenience and delay. The original Resident Evil mansion would be a much more ordinary place without the spectral door-opening sequences that paper over transitions between rooms. Dead Space's run-down starship, similarly, wouldn't seem half as hazardous without its dragged-out airlock animations. 

But neither, I think, is as alarming as the idea of a landscape without friction or interval, born of a mania for removing obstructions to a journey that is finally no journey at all—because what is a destination but another obstruction, an opportunity to sit back and look away? Sony and Microsoft’s next gen prospectus conjures up a nightmare frontier in which time and terrain have been cancelled by the forces of flow and engagement. Everything has become simultaneous, present at hand no matter the distance. We are always arriving, always already everywhere we can’t stop desiring to be. The universe is at once full and empty and hungry without cease, a horizon with nothing to either side.


Is this something like the world as Marianne experiences it? A journal entry near The Medium’s finale ponders the effect of inhabiting two dimensions simultaneously+. “Does she see the line between the two?” it asks. Whatever the answer, Marianne's psychosomatic wholeness is relatively wholesome; it’s a useful tool of catharsis and critique. It empowers her to investigate and resolve the disparities that make up her universe, helping lost souls reconnect with themselves by, for example, linking names in one reality to mummified bodies in the other. 

Other psychic characters in the game prove at odds with their spirit halves. The soul of Marianne's sister Lilianne appears as a fey young girl, infantilised forever by childhood abuse, that of her father, Thomas, as an understated Mr Hyde made ruthless by repression. Beyond rediscovering her own past, Marianne's calling as a medium is to reconcile such estrangements. In a less explicit sense, her ability to operate across 'the line' allows her to unify the remnants of Poland's bloody history scattered across the Niwa resort—Nazi wartime experiments, betrayals and beatings under Poland's former Soviet state, pervasive bigotry and predation. Her journey is also the journey of a country toward some measure of peace with its own demons, the foundation for a brighter future. 

As players, however, we never get to experience the inter-dimensional oneness that is Marianne’s gift. Like the author of the journal entry, we are trapped outside looking in at what is, for us, a divided world. And where Marianne's discomfort at the splitting of reality is fleeting, ours persists. Even with fixed camera angles to control your disorientation, reading and navigating the game's environments side by side is a laborious activity (as Bloober, The Medium's creator, itself learned from early playtesting). 

The game's otherwise uninspiring puzzles play a complex role here: they are both a performance of healing and release, knitting realms together, and more pragmatically, ways of reducing the strain on the player during splitscreen sections. They might resemble exercises in “multi-tasking”, but puzzles typically play out in a linear fashion, following a chain of cause-and-effect from one world to the other, so that you don't have to read both at the same time. Sometimes, the division of labour is that between an input device and a screen. One puzzle, for example, has you moving a clock's hands in the physical realm to advance or rewind a sequence in the land of spirit.


As such, The Medium is a reminder that “multi-tasking” is a myth. The brain, insofar as we understand it, is ill-equipped for the parallel processing we now expect of our computers. Today's tech worker is expected to multi-task, to model their cognitive function on the smorgasbord of services provided by smartphones, but the promise of greater efficiency is largely a fantasy constructed by the system as an excuse to pile on pressure. Rather than helping you get more done, multi-tasking has been found to raise stress, potentially leading to long-term health problems, while damaging your ability to learn and impeding the formation of memories.

Modern videogame consoles transfer this fake efficiency to the sphere of entertainment. The chronic inattention they encourage, their indulgence of distractedness and lateral movement between consumption opportunities, also speak to a climate of ignorance or forgetfulness about the dispersed and complex origins of hardware itself. Videogame consoles are a kind of pretence of teleportation. They at once embody and obscure the vast geographical and social distances involved in their creation, mechanisms of extraction and exploitation that stretch across oceans and continents, from child labourers in the Congo mining cobalt for batteries, to exhausted factory line workers in Shenzen. 

This legacy, again, haunts the rhetoric of “instant” loading on next gen consoles. Jason Ronald's promise of “entire classes of assets you don't even need to load into memory until just before you need them” echoes the dehumanising, just-in-time management strategies that pervade modern manufacturing, strategies that callously trim away “excess labour” when there is no demand for a product. But neither these accumulating debts to society nor the subsequent emissions cost of a videogame console's usage appear in the look and functionality of the machine. The cult of “instant” transitions only amplifies these erasures and displacements. It's an invitation to lose yourself in the jump, to forget where you were and not care about where you're going.


The Medium ends without ending. It leaves unresolved both Marianne's fate and that of the Poland she has reassembled and perhaps revitalised during her trek through the putrefying chambers of memory and history. There's a gloomy prognosis to glean, however, from the game’s sharing of a location with one of Bloober's previous games, Observer, a cyberpunk detective story set many decades later. The real-life apartment building in which Marianne begins is the same building you’ll explore as Observer’s brain-invading cyborg Daniel Lazarski—a “medium” of a different stripe. This brings the parallel between digital and psychic “switching” into the open. 

Observer's plausibly deteriorated 21st century Kraków is a world without a horizon. The Medium’s uneven division of soul or consciousness and body has long since been infected and rotted away by corporate technologies. All realms and categories bleed into each other, linked by ravenous circuits. Holographic pop-ups and compression artefacts rub shoulders with sacred imagery and primeval daydreams of wolves and forests. Human organs are bred from pigs. Left unexamined and unrebuked, the rhetoric of high-tech access and convenience has achieved its final outcome in a collapsing, spiritless morass of software and flesh. 

It would take a special kind of razor indeed to make sense of such mingled, mangled tissue. The Medium isn’t that tool and nor is it really designed to be, but it has a certain edge. Like the morbidly pliant hardware it runs on, the game is a stapling-together of distant parts—epochs and spaces, orbiting or diverging kindred selves. These combinations are often reductive and dissatisfying. The Medium's split-reality mechanic flattens what it inherits from Beksiński, who played with spectral landscapes but never treated this as an exercise in world-building. For all the game's failings, however, its exploration of transition and traversal does, at least, grate against the starring role thrust upon it by next gen marketing, encouraging critical reflection rather than enthusiasm. The Medium might be “only possible on Xbox Series consoles”—and an ultimately lacklustre horror game—but there is nothing frictionless or forgetful about its splicing and slicing.


+ The only thing that changes about Marianne when she straddles realities is her appearance, her arm girdled with energy-absorbing coral, her hair turning white. The hair change interestingly recalls Stephen King's “The Jaunt,” a horror story about teleportation that trades on the Cartesian distinction between consciousness and body, the unconstrained realm of the mind and the empirical world of matter. That distinction is the source of many a cautionary sci-fi tale about the prospect of travel that defies the classical laws of physics on which the body's existence rests. It represents being as something separable and thus, vulnerable, two incompatible realities hinging at the neck—the thinking self, capable of dreaming itself across time and space, held precariously to earth by thoughtless flesh. 

In King's story, “jaunting” separates these two realms of being and as such, places them at hazard. Travellers must be anaesthetised before teleportation, because while the journey is instantaneous from the perspective of the flesh, the uprooted consciousness spends an eternity in transit, arriving in a state of derangement that yellows the eyes and bleaches the hair white. King's description of what it's like to teleport while awake reads like a clownish exaggeration of Microsoft and Sony's anxiety about their users being left waiting for as much as a second. “Your mind can be your best friend; it can keep you amused even when there's nothing to read, nothing to do. But it can turn on you when it's left with no input for too long. It can turn on you, which means that it turns on itself, savages itself, perhaps consumes itself in an unthinkable act of auto-cannibalism.” Accordingly, the mind must be subdued before it can make the jump between worlds. It must be rendered oblivious to the cost of the journey.


Edwin Evans-Thirlwell writes videogame criticism for Edge, Eurogamer, The Face, and The Guardian. He also creates found or erasure-based verse for places like Burning House Press and Babel Tower, and is currently working on a series of poetry card decks about destroyed gardens and space travel. He tweets as @dirigiblebill.