A Meditation On Death And Grief: How The Medium Haunts Players

Death, or the passing of a loved one, is never easy. We all cope with loss in different ways – there is no timeline for how one grieves. For Marianne, the protagonist of The Medium, her life is surrounded by death; not necessarily involving loved ones, but due to her unique abilities, she is always in contact with the dead. This 2021 psychological-horror title is one of my favorite gaming experiences of last year. What The Medium offers in terms of its protagonist, environmental design, and thematic exploration are fascinating – making it a horror experience I feel more folks should check out if they have the chance. I find the game to be a remarkable work that uses such a terrifying and surreal concept to touch upon what can be gained in living. As we enter a new generation of gaming with a whole new wave of horror titles in the works, I wanted to write about this game and what it has to share.

Marianne has always felt different due to her psychic gifts. Going from foster home to foster home, it has been difficult for her to connect with the living. That is until she is adopted by Jack, a man who sees her powers as a gift. In its opening minutes, The Medium does a superb job bringing the player into Marianne’s headspace; as she speaks about her past life, we feel the melancholy in her voice as she describes what it has been like to connect and see so much of “the other side.” With her gifts, she has taken it upon herself to work with spirits in need, helping them crossover from a limbo space. From a gameplay perspective, The Medium offers a split-screen mode that allows players to navigate Marianne in two planes of existence – the physical world and the spirit world.

From these opening moments alone, we learn that this is a person who has spent more intimate time with the dead than the living – beings who aren’t on our plane of existence, beings you can’t necessarily make long-lasting relationships with unless you had lived among them.

This background establishes a sincerely heartfelt component of Marianne’s character. From an outsider’s perspective, there is both an odd fascination in wondering what such a life must be like, but also, a chilling sadness. We see how this is the case when later, Marianne makes contact with a dead girl named Sadness. In the various missions, Marianne takes on at this point in the game, her interactions with Sadness exude a bizarre blend of cheerful and desperation. Besides Jack, we don’t get the sense that Marianne has anyone in her life. She doesn’t know anything about her biological family, she has no friends. So, when she engages with Sadness, an upbeat friendliness picks up in her voice – and at times – an anxiousness to protect her from possible harm.

Though there is a tad melodramatic tinge to the writing, said writing is also one of the game’s strongest qualities. In the little details provided to her backstory and mannerisms, Marianne makes for an authentic person who is detached from the world of the living – ironic given that she is in fact, alive. Her life is consumed by the dead. This is brilliant writing for her character given the emphasis on how Marianne has a footing in both the physical and spirit world – it is really one of those where one might say she is most at home. I love this writing around her character, for as the game continues, we come to learn more about Marianne’s past and how much her life is cemented in “death.” Her unique understanding and perspective of the afterlife and mortality may speak to many gamers’ own existential questions and thoughts pertaining to such subjects. Through this lens, I find Marianne to be such a great character to follow and play as; her connection with the dead, to me at least, speaks to such haunting existentialism of gloom and despair, a pain I feel and know many people suffer with.

Death can be tragic for many of us. Whether it comes in an instant or slowly over time, very few people are prepared for it. It’s a force we can’t do anything about – it all comes for us one day. To see Marianne submerged in that awareness, to have to face it for her whole life, that’s harrowing. I found myself invested any time she would talk, whether through narration or to another character because something would always be revealed about her stance on life and death. In The Medium’s overall thematic exploration of death, Marianne makes for a crucial component in the game’s meditation on the subject. Through Marianne, we see the horrifying power grief has to consume someone. In never knowing her family, in losing Jack, in only holding onto the dead – she only lives for the past. This grueling power of grief stops her from ever truly being able to live, to have a life with friends and relationships. One criticism I will mention of the game is that I would love to have seen more of this; to see how lonely Marianne is, to get a greater idea of what she is missing out on. To the game’s credit, enough character detail is provided to her that we can comprehend this lack of life she has, but more depth could have created an even stronger bridge of sympathy for gamers to have with her.

What further enforces this emotional depth is the design behind the spirit world. For as much as Marianne has to offer on the game’s subjects, the design space of the spirit world is stunning (and equally as haunting).

Aesthetically, the spirit world in The Medium has a somewhat Silent Hill vibe to it; buildings and the items that decorate rooms are decrepit, the quiet and devoid nature of places casting an unnerving air. One of the first levels of the game involves a resort that Marianne visits hoping to learn more about her past. A terrible act of violence took place at the resort sometime in its past, Marianne sensing the location’s strong bond with the spirit world.

The environment of this setting exudes a tremendous atmosphere of emotion; as Marianne reveals more details behind the resort’s dark history, one can sense ghostly touches of horror, fear, and agony. And while these feelings are abundant in the spirit world form of the resort, they are also present in the physical reality of the place. Throughout the story, we come to see how a place can be alerted by the events and people that inhabit it. This is a concept that has been explored in a plethora of other horror titles, but for a video game, it is extortionary to walk and feel among such a location.

The story behind the resort and what took place is an important factor in building upon The Medium’s thematic explorations. It displays the lasting power that pain and hurt can have on a place; how even when a room or building is empty for years, history lies within the walls. I find this component of the game to be another expression of grief – how pain is held onto, how pain and loss can fester and turn ugly when horrible things are done. In the characters Marianne comes across in such places, they themselves (as spirits), are haunted. Haunted by their pasts and the things they’ve endured.

The Medium

Between Marianne and the spirits she encounters, it doesn’t feel that anyone can move on. Marianne spends her time trying to understand who she is and her past; the spirits can’t let go of their agony or anger. I think when it comes to tragedy in life, particularly regarding death, it can be easy to hold onto pain. To maybe spend more time reflecting on “what could have been done” or even regret. These are normal human emotions to have of course, but they are also a dangerous slope into obsession. In The Medium’s case, there is a greater narrative focus on “negative” storytelling (not once is it ever a feel-good game) – but I think there’s an important point to that. I think this game has a lot to say in terms of how we can live life; how we can face our challenges, grow, and find peace.

The Medium has a great meditative quality to it. From its intriguing protagonist to the emotional context of its environments, the game gives off a sincerely heartfelt experience that is abundant with insight. Of course, the thematic points of The Medium may not work for everyone – but if you are like me and intrigued by subjects of death and the afterlife, The Medium is a compelling game worth playing.

Because for me, The Medium was a reminder to live life to the fullest. Sometimes, horrific things may happen to us, and those things may take a while to heal from – but those things don’t define us. Much like how each of us copes with death in different ways, we can carve out our own path in life; finding the things we are passionate about, doing good for others, and finding people to love and support (and who will support us back). Marianne’s story within The Medium makes for a great horror game, but it is also revealing about what is important about life. How we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by grief or by the past. How even among life’s struggles, we should strive to find light and make our life something to celebrate.

If you enjoyed this article, you can check out more horror game content on the rest of DreadXP.

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