After roughly a year of Xbox exclusivity, The Medium, the game I believe that’s the best example —so far— of a game specifically designed to the newer gaming hardware (namely PS5 and Xbox Series consoles), is coming on Sony’s youngest system. I’ve wanted to put down some thoughts on the game’s music since I first played it on Xbox and, as you can tell, it took me so long that it made more sense to time this with the launch of another version.
For one, Arkadiusz Reikowski has been working on Bloober Team games for ages now. You’ve heard his work on Observer, every Layers Of Fear production so far, Blair Witch. Even when not working with Bloober Team though, he seems married to the greater horror umbrella, as evidenced by his involvement in Vampire The Masquerade: Coteries Of New York and Kholat. He seems to have ventured into the world of cinema only once so far, with 2020’s Legacy Of Lies, an action flick starring Scott Adkins, a combination that essentially breaks the Polish composer’s streak in the horror (and game) space.
In any case, I believe few can argue with his ability to set the mood, have it turn dark and keep it there. Which makes his collaboration with Akira Yamaoka feel basically inevitable. And judging by his collaboration with Mary Elisabeth McGlynn in Kholat’s “Farewell” maybe even long in the making.
It’s no secret that Mary Elisabeth McGlynn’s vocals have been, for the longest time, the flair fans of Akira Yamaoka have learnt to expect of his work. Sometimes all it takes is a mutual acquaintance? Don’t quote me on that though, this is only a supposition from my part.
Before I move to Akira Yamaoka, I’d like to bring up a remark that is more or less a staple for me: Polish composers have had very interesting influences for ages now and I feel they bring character to any game, film or series with their unique sensibilities. i’m bringing this up again in the case of The Medium, as the end result sounds as “Polish” as “Akira Yamaoka” to me (most of the times that is), enough that it’s impossible to ever think of this collaboration as a failure, even when some tracks let me down.
As for Akira Yamaoka himself, it’s impossible to say too little or too much about him, though nowadays he seems to have taken a few steps back, popping up here and there, not for huge projects but for single track or narrow scope collaborations, a far cry from his older streak as a music director for the whole widget a video game is. To illustrate, he’s contributed work on World Of Tanks, the Silent Hill chapter for Dead by Daylight, Ninjala, Murasaki Baby and a lot more in the last decade, though he was music director on Killer Is Dead and Let It Die, which is to be expected as he’s been Grasshopper Manufacture’s overall music director since 2010. In effect, he’s been out of the AAA video game space for a while now and his contribution to The Medium doesn’t change that, no matter the ambition of the Polish game development team.
His influence on the game’s sound and music though is unmistakeable at times, subdued some other, maybe always by design.
The idea in the case of The Medium’s sound was for one composer to tackle the real world while the other would focus on the, let’s say, paranormal world. I did wonder how that would work out when I initially heard of this arrangement, seeing as the game’s hook is the ability to exist and interact in both at the same time, even if not all the time or even the vast majority of the game. Which world comes forward, in terms of music, when both form a whole right in front the player’s eyes? Having played the game, I’m not too inclined to believe that initial approach was kept for too long.
Right off the bat, one can tell that The Love That Was Lost is Yamaoka’s, just like one can bet on the track following the former in the soundtrack, Marianne, must be more of Reikowski’s child1.
And then, a balance is struck with the likes of Goodbye Jack, My Name Is Thomas and Journey feeling more like the offshoot of a proper collaboration, retaining Yamaoka’s signature quirkiness without Reikowski’s mood setting work being drowned, each side palpably complementing the other. This feels more appropriate for the game’s setting too, as the story makes it very clear that the two worlds the player is weaving his way through are symbiotic, impossible to separate or fully subdue one another.
Naturally, Mary Elisabeth McGlynn makes an appearance on Fade and Across The Shore, with the former also featuring Troy Baker, one of gaming’s darling voice actors that happens to also be a musician. I expected more from Fade as I have a soft spot for everyone involved. Unfortunately, it feels more appropriate in a posh bar environment than for a psychological horror mood. Across The Shore works better in that regard which is why it earned a spot in my cherry picked The Medium playlist. I understand that Voices might be a darling for many, but I found it underwhelming as well. The refrain is very good indeed while there are some good guitar moments to be enjoyed here. But it feels like someone got that exactly right early on, had to build a whole track around it and then played it more safe than not.
Speaking of vocals, I have to mention Liz Katrin here that adds some simple but great ambient vocals. And while Sadness is supposed to be highlight here, I find myself leaning more towards the even simpler Dark Room.
Before you go all up in arms with me, I tend to prefer tracks that feel like they can be more than ambience and and resilient in time. I tend to listen to tracks on repeat, which is a sure fire way to make many a track infuriating before long so the longer it takes for one to end up like that in my mind, the more of a win it feels it is.
But that’s all in my head one can argue. It might even seem I’m overly negative but the truth is I believe the composers succeeded into crafting a soundtrack that works to the game’s advantage from the off. Tracks like Goodbye Jack work beautifully as the encapsulate eastern European vibes, the melancholy of dealing the loss of a loves one and mystery as the player rummages through some previously personal space. Enough tracks manage to balance the naturalistic with the otherworldly well enough to support the main conceit of the game itself, well enough that when some sense of awe in is order —as in the case of first laying eyes upon some very compelling architecture— or a jolt of good old crescendo, the balance isn’t lost but usually reinforced. It Starts With A Dead Girl might as well be the best example of the latter point.
The Medium’s score manages to be a success, despite a few stumbles here and there, in a rather unassuming way. I feel there’s a tendency to count this last quality as negative but I believe it’s quite a hard goal to hit, either by chance or on purpose. Still this isn’t one for the history books, not really, but one to love while remaining torn about it. Much like the world of the game is torn but… not quite either. Not really.
Feel free to decide for yourself with the help of the playlists I prepared and you can add on Apple Music and Spotify, as you wish. If you follow me there you’ll find many other Hight Notes playlists both for game soundtracks and TV series, regardless of whether I’ve written about them here. Do your thing with the following embeds.