The Medium marks a huge leap forward for Bloober Team, the Polish studio behind many of the past generation’s iconic horror titles, such as Layers of Fear, Observer, and Blair Witch. Not only is this their first current generation title, but it’s also the first of Microsoft’s exclusive Xbox Series X/S titles to launch, given the year-long delay of Halo Infinite. Furthermore, for the studio itself, The Medium is the developer’s first foray into more cinematic, third-person game design, which in and of itself has many new trials and tribulations to overcome.
If you’ve checked out our review of The Medium, you’ll know I had some nice things to say about it. In researching for this interview, I was taken aback to learn that The Medium was actually announced all the way back in 2012 as a Wii U, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 title. When sitting down with lead game designer Wojciech Piejko and producer Jacek Zięba, despite all of my questions surrounding the game, this was the first thing on my mind.
Gaming Respawn: Seeing as the game was first announced in 2012 for PS3, Wii U, and Xbox 360, how has the dual-reality mechanic grown since then, especially since it seems like something very exclusive to the nature of current generation hardware?
Zięba: The idea was created by three teams, in a way, so the first team created more of a platformer approach [to the game.] There was always playing in the two worlds at the same time, playing as a medium, and the game should be about different points of view. I don’t know why they didn’t finish it, what that story was. But the second iteration was a 3D approach, different team, they thought we could pull it off, but because of technical issues [such as] the problems with the free camera, which could create motion-sickness when controlling the two worlds at the same time, and many other problems, the game again got put into the freezer in a way. But when we finished Observer, the tech was created for The Medium. So when we started, it was our final iteration, and when we (Zięba and Piejko) were involved with the project, we needed to start thinking about PCs and next-generation consoles, and it was a tough decision to cut out the PS4 and Xbox One, but without it we’d never have pulled it off.
Gaming Respawn: So the dual-reality mechanic was something you were sitting on for a while, but it wasn’t until learning about the technology behind the PS5 and Xbox Series X that you realised you could see it through?
Piejko: Yes, that’s right. As Jacek mentioned, the previous iterations had the problems with the free camera, but the other problem was that the PS3/Xbox 360 and PS4/Xbox One weren’t powerful enough to render two worlds at the same time with the graphical fidelity we wanted. Since Layers of Fear, we have been aiming to release games with more photorealistic graphics, and to pull it off on PS4, we would have had to create a game with cel-shading or more simplified visuals, which we didn’t want. So, when we finished with Observer and we knew next generation consoles were coming, we thought now was the time to render two worlds at the same time with good looking graphics. Then Microsoft came, saw the prototypes and said, “Okay guys, we’ve got your back.”
Gaming Respawn: So, that’s how the relationship with Microsoft started?
Zięba: It started with Blair Witch, so after Blair Witch, we had a contact who asked us what we were cooking now, and we showed them The Medium and they thought, “Yeah, we believe in this project, so we can help you.”
Piejko: Yeah, we travelled to Seattle to show the game, which was cool. They liked it, and here we are.
Gaming Respawn: How did Akira Yamaoka get involved? As a huge fan of Silent Hill, I know that turned myself and a lot of other folks towards the game.
Piejko: Yeah, Akira is a legend. We were in the exact same position, we grew up playing the Silent Hill games. We met up with Akira after Tokyo Game Show for the first time, we knew that we were making The Medium and that we had a prototype, and we knew that we wanted to make a serious adventure game with Silent Hill’s atmosphere, and who better to [recreate] Silent Hill’s atmosphere than Silent Hill’s composer? So, we arranged a meeting with Akira and met with him after Tokyo Game Show, I was one of the lucky guys to go there, so as a fan, it’s a dream come true., I’m flying to Japan to talk to Akira about the game. We met at the restaurant, I showed him footage of the game, and my hands were shaking like, “I hope he will like it, I hope he will like it,” and he did. [Both Akira and Arkadiusz Reikowski (who also worked on the game’s soundtrack)] did a really astonishing job with the soundtrack, I’m really proud to have worked with such great artists.
Gaming Respawn: Speaking of Silent Hill, you mentioned the fixed cameras in the game. What was it like working with that style of game design that has been more or less left aside in recent years? Were you nervous about the reaction or the game being seen as “outdated?”
Zięba: Yeah, using the fixed cameras is a double-edged sword because on one half, you have people who love the old-school vibes and, like, the more cinematic experience, but on the other hand, you have people who hate it because they can’t dictate the camera, character movement can be clunky because of it, but we were never afraid of that. We were mostly afraid of how people would react to the dual-world gameplay, but after playtesters said it was the best thing they saw in their builds, we knew we could pull it off. So, it was never one [specific] thing may be a problem, it was a coherent vision on how it should work, and if it works, we’re fine. We know the game can’t be for everyone, to pull off something brave, something new, sometimes we need to make sacrifices. It’s something we’re not proud of, if we can we want as many people to play the game as possible, but if somebody doesn’t like that type of camera, I can at least say, “Wait, play more, get used to it,” but still, I understand. We need sacrifices to pull it off, and in the end, we’re really happy with it.
Piejko: Yeah, when we made the decision to switch to fixed cameras, it was down to the motion sickness, but it was also because we wanted to grab the players’ attention. Focusing on two worlds wasn’t easy, we had a prototype with a free camera where a player would need to enter a room two or three times because the first time [they] were entering in the normal world and circling around, then the second time [they] would do it again in the spirit world, but when we bet on fixed camera angles, that situation went away. It also led us to create a more cinematic experience, and we are putting heavy emphasis on the story, so we knew we can do it because we don’t have complex mechanics, such as shooting, so I think we made a good decision.
Gaming Respawn: Besides Silent Hill, what were some of your other major inspirations for the game’s themes and aesthetics?
Zięba: Regarding the atmosphere, Dark, the Netflix series, was definitely an inspiration. The atmosphere is really heavy there, maybe even the colour palettes. The Chernobyl [HBO] series, how they portrayed the communist era, and also the colour palette in a way. Other video games, like Resident Evil, you know, Telltale games even. Our first prototypes were similar to Telltale’s approach. Until Dawn, of course, for our camera team was also a big inspiration, with Detroit (Detroit: Become Human) how they do things in their games.
Piejko: Yeah, of course, you know our team are big fans of Japanese horror games, so the likes of Siren, Fatal Frame, the FromSoftware game Kuon was a big inspiration. Our biggest inspiration for the spiritual world were Zdzisław Beksiński’s paintings. He’s a Polish spiritual painter, and we knew that we didn’t want our spiritual world to be based on any religion, so that’s why we chose his hellish, dystopian landscapes.
Gaming Respawn: This game definitely seems to be Bloober Team’s most ambitious project yet, with the inclusion of motion-capture, full voice acting, and cinematography, what was that like moving on from first-person titles to a cinematic focused third-person project? Was it something you really had to adapt to?
Zięba: Yeah, we had to hire a lot of people to help guide us after many first-person games, but the most pleasurable thing was, after working on the script, working on the voice acting and the motion capture, was seeing these characters come to life in the first mo-cap sessions and trying not to cry, and you see some actor and think, “Okay, he’s our character now.” It’s happening, it’s stopped being in my mind, but in a way, it’s really tough because most of what we’re doing with the game is new for us.
Piejko: I was asked to try and get more emotion out of the actors because it was way different in our first-person games when you didn’t need actors to physically react, but here I could actually see Marianne’s face, so it was another level of delivering emotion with the cutscenes.
Gaming Respawn: How was the team impacted by the pandemic, especially considering a lot of the game’s voice actors had to record their lines from home?
Zięba: Yeah, our boss asked us in the beginning of 2020, “What will happen if the pandemic strikes Europe? What will happen with the team and with the game?” We said, “I dunno, I don’t think we’d pull it off because we work really closely with each other.” Of course, it hit Poland in March, and halfway through March, we made the decision to leave the office. If not for our team of incredible human beings helping each other and our IT team making a whole infrastructure in two days, the whole company, more than 100 people that were working side-by-side for years, in two days changed everything. There were a lot of downsides, but I hope we take some of this experience to our regular development. Of course, it impacted the speed of our work, especially because good game design depends on how fast you can iterate stuff, but we never thought when we started that we could finish the game, and it’s still like a dream.
Piejko: I think the most difficult part was finishing the last touch-ups of the game, normally when you have your team by your side, you can say, “Look, there’s a bug,” and somebody will get it, but now you have to blow through Discord channels, set up meetings, blah blah blah, so it was harder, and of course, recording the cutscenes. It’s no secret we had to record it remotely, we have a good connection with the motion capture studio who only allowed a few people to come in at a time. Luckily, we recorded our live action pre-recorded sections [earlier in the year], so we were able to give them to the team to use with the actors. But instead of capturing everything, the facial captures, the motion capture, and the voice work, we had to divide all of it.
Zięba: And that was never part of the plan, so we had to change the whole pipeline at the end of production. Still, I’m really glad with how the game looks, works, and runs.
Piejko: Yeah, and when you add all the cutscenes up, it was like directing a 90-minute movie during the pandemic.
Gaming Respawn: As you previously mentioned, this is somewhat of a step further for Bloober Team, with the third-person camera, the motion capture, the voice acting, and so on. Do you see this being the scale that Bloober Team works at moving forward, or do you intend to balance it with smaller scale stuff?
Zięba: Yes, we are moving forward, and I hope our next project blows your mind.
Piejko: As a company we don’t want to stay in one place, we would like to grow and create more complex stories and complex worlds. We have still got a lot of things to learn, like better animation of the characters and stuff like that. I think we are back on track and moving forward.
Zięba: We were in a similar situation with Layers of Fear, Observer, and Blair Witch. Of course, each game was different, but still we felt that we were in the same phase, now we feel like we are entering a “new phase of Bloober.”
Piejko: Of course, with Layers of Fear, it was like a spooky house environment, moving to Observer it was bringing in Rutger Hauer, adding in dialogue choices and making a more complex game with new characters. With Blair Witch it was working with an external IP, working with the dog, bringing in more realistic graphics and animations, and now we’ve taken a very big leap with The Medium.
Gaming Respawn: Are there any plans for DLC or post-launch content?
Zięba: For now we are focused on patching things for Xbox and PC, and for now that was it.
Shortly after the interview, I contacted Piejko to ask him if there were any plans for a physical release of The Medium, which he confirmed to me that Bloober Team is exploring opportunities to release the game physically for fans looking for a copy to put on their shelf. As of right now though, fans will just have to wait.
Thanks once again to Wojciech Piejko and Jacek Zięba for their time.
The Medium is available now for PC and Xbox Series X/S. The game is also part of Xbox Game Pass.