Bloober Team's The Medium holds the distinct honor of being the first game launched exclusively for the Xbox Series X/S.
Its developers have talked about how the horror title's core conceit (two worlds that the player explores simultaneously rendered on two screens) wouldn't be possible without next-gen technology, making it one of the first games to properly experiment with the latest console generation's flashy new tech.
Shortly after the game launched, Bloober Team lead designer Wojciech Piejko and producer Jacek Zieba sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the particulars of designing gameplay around The Medium’s dual worlds -- and while it took a whole new console generation to make the mechanic possible, it took old-fashioned ingenuity to make the experience compelling and creepy for players.
Engine, Camera, Action
Piejko and Zieba joked that for employees at Bloober Team the initial project behind The Medium had become its own kind of folk-legend within the company -- an ambitious idea talked about in whispers. "Have you heard about The Medium?" might be a question whispered over lunch, referring to an ambitious project helmed by Piotr and Marlena Babieno.
For a long time, what was discussed around the studio were the game’s two core conceits: that it would feature two worlds rendered simultaneously and that it would star a medium -- someone who can interact with ghosts and the spirit world.
As we've already mentioned, the former idea presented a number of technical difficulties, since telling a game engine to render two worlds at once would obviously put enormous strain on most GPUs and CPUs. Following a presentation from Microsoft about the next generation of Xbox devices, however, the studio became convinced it'd finally be possible to realize their vision and started looking at how best to implement the two worlds mechanic.
Early in development, there was an idea that the game's collisions could exist entirely in one world as an illusion that would keep players from wandering outside the level in the second world. But this idea was scrapped when it was decided that the player character, Marianne, could separate her soul from her body to explore areas in the spirit world.
That meant working to implement collisions across both versions of the game world.
According to Zieba, one of the key challenges that influenced development concerned the in-game camera. When the player finally encounters the dual worlds of The Medium, the camera would initially split the screen in two, creating a pair of side-by-side 8:9 or 16:4 scenes. In early prototypes, where players manipulated the camera with the right stick of a controller, Zieba said this led to a huge amount of motion sickness.
"The problem with motion sickness wasn’t the only [issue] though," Piejko pointed out. "The problem was also that players weren’t able to focus. During playtesting they'd enter a room and just start walking around in circles."
"We’d ask why, and they’d say they were doing a pass looking at the normal world in the beginning. Then they’d look at the spirit world."
Spot the difference
The solution? Well, seeing as the Bloober team were making a horror game, they decided to revisit Japanese horror classics like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, which relied on fixed camera positions that would slowly follow players as they navigated the environment.
"Now when players enter a room, they can focus and look at both screens, comparing the differences," said Piejko. He joked that for gameplay purposes, this turned part of The Medium into a "find the difference" exercise. One amplified by creating clear color palettes that contrasted the two worlds.
Zieba said the long-term effect was that Bloober Team would design levels in a fashion similar to designing films, starting with shots and storyboarding. Though conventional game development problems would still break into the process. If the level design team needed to make edits to a section of Hotel Niwa (where the bulk of the game takes place), for example, that would mean rewriting all the camera angles implemented by another team.
"We rearranged the rooms in the East Wing," said Piejko, pantomiming as though talking to the camera team. "And they’d reply ‘oh, I will kill you guys.'"
One particularly neat aspect of The Medium's two-worlds bit rears its head during cutscenes. Marianne encounters a handful of other characters throughout the story, and during dialogue sequences a series of in-engine cutscenes dramatize their conversations.
But these cutscenes don’t take over the full screen, as some players might expect. Instead, they continue to take place across the two-world split. In one early example, Marianne is chatting in the spirit world with a ghost child named Sadness. In the real world, she’s still rendered as talking and moving, but she's completely alone. It’s an uncanny effect that resembles what it might look like to watch someone talk with an invisible person from afar.
To achieve that otherworldly effect, Zieba explained that both worlds are using performance capture data from a motion capture session, but without any of the usual tricks an animator might use to create dramatic movement in a cutscene with precise camera angles.
He again discussed the priority of camera placement, and how even planning for certain camera angles in the cutscenes while doing the mocap session had to be done knowing that the player could also see the animations from a completely different angle.
“Sometimes they are doing different tricks to hide [animation roughness]," said Piejko, "like showing Marianne from a long distance to hide the detail.”
"The main goal is to grab your attention to the action in the other world," Zieba pointed out. "You use bigger angles in the real world if the action is in the spirit world... where it’s animated like a normal cutscene.”
The Medium’s camera does a lot of work to carry the beautiful, terrifying world of Hotel Niwa that was only made possible by the Xbox Series X/S.
While new technology always creates new possibilities in the world of game development, it’s still noteworthy that innovating on a game’s presentation like this required a fair bit of iteration on the player camera: one of the oldest challenges in the world of game design.