The Medium, interview with Wojciech Piejko and Jacek Zięba

The Medium, interview with Wojciech Piejko and Jacek Zięba
The Medium represents a big step for Bloober Team: the Polish development studio, already known for the two Layers of Fear, Blair Witch and the dystopian Observer, does not abandon that psychological horror that is so congenial to it but decides to take a new path which at the same time winks at the so-called old school. No more first person, in favor of the third, fixed camera a la Resident Evil or Silent Hill, a protagonist poised between reality and the supernatural - all embracing the dystopian surrealism of the Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński. What does it mean to take a step of this type but, above all, to do it with the awareness of being among the first truly next-gen games? We sat virtually in front of lead designer Wojciech Piejko and producer Jacek Zięba to do an interview on the much anticipated - and very likely - heir to Silent Hill.

Journey into fear

Let's get started with a question that is perhaps quite obvious but inevitable: what is fear for you?

Wojciech Piejko: as far as I'm concerned, fear is much more than just a feeling, it is closely linked to our instincts, those that allow us to survive. Furthermore, fear is in a certain sense cathartic: if you fear something but manage to win this fight that takes place in your head, you will have made progress as a human being, you will have grown. So I think the horror genre is very interesting, because it drags us into very particular psychological situations which we can say we have ... level up.

Jacek Zięba: for me fear is a constant emotion that you it accompanies, or rather that it can, and you can decide when to face it. This is because fear can sometimes be good. Let's call it a continuous struggle.

Wojciech Piejko: exactly. I believe that balance in life is important and this case cannot be outdone. Let me explain, on the one hand there is fear but on the other the urgency to explore the unknown and the effort that is made to keep the two aspects balanced is incredible.

Always binding ourselves to the concept of fear , what is your opinion on jumpscare? Don't you think he's abusing it a little too much, unaccustoming the player (or the spectator) to feeling fear and tension grow?

Wojciech Piejko: I completely agree. When we started developing horror games we relied heavily on jumpscare, but over time we realized that it's okay, something can be scary but the real terror is in your head. So we changed our approach and started slowly building these sensations, allowing ourselves jumpscare only as a means to cut the growing tension and start over. Because when you reach the peak, there also comes a time when the fright, jumping from your chair, causes you some relief, sweeping away everything you have accumulated until then. Overall yes, it's a cheap gimmick, which is why The Medium wasn't developed around this concept: I think you can count jumpscare on one hand.

Jacek Zięba: how everything, jumpscare is a tool. Abusing it could be deleterious, because there would be no compatibility with what is happening at that moment. Yes, sometimes we use them to respect the concept of balance we were talking about before but, now, our goal is to build fear, to make it walk by your side.

What it means to develop this fear, give it life and push the player beyond his limits?

Wojciech Piejko: We have done everything to restore the sense of fear in the best way but, in my opinion, the sound effects are the most important aspect. Music and its environments, those created by Akira or Arkadiusz and which by closing your eyes transport you to another world, are a key element in creating terror. They are not enough, of course, but they do play a key role in the scene we are going to build fragment by fragment.

Jacek Zięba: I agree, music and sound effects are essential. Because they can make a safe and well-known environment alien: imagine you are in his living room, or in your kitchen. There is nothing strange, is there? It is a family environment. But if someone intervened, suddenly adding threatening music, everything would change. You would start to think, because fear is all in your head.

Wojciech Piejko: exactly and I would like to add, always with regard to building fear, that it is much more effective to develop a scene where a creature, for example, chases you into a parking lot rather than a space station. This is because it is a familiar environment, where everyone has been at least once. A space that you consider safe, normal, is violated, precisely because it is part of your daily life.

Jacek Zięba: the use of silence also plays a fundamental role. Excessive silence destabilizes even in everyday life, because you inevitably begin to perceive that something is wrong.

You've talked about music, so the question is a must: how does it feel to work alongside side with a living legend like Akira Yamaoka?

Wojciech Piejko: fantastic, it is a dream that becomes reality. I was among the lucky ones who met him for the first time in Tokyo and nervous does not make the least bit of my mood back then. As you said, it was about talking to a living legend. Then when Akira came to visit us in our studio in Krakow, he took lots of photos with everyone, signed copies of Silent Hill ... in short, a dream, a dream indeed.

Your favorite Silent Hill ?

Both raise two fingers, smiling.

Wojciech Piejko: we love him for several reasons but above all for his psychological approach, I am convinced it is the chapter of the whole series that pushes the most on this appearance. It changed my perspective on how to develop video games.

Jacek Zięba: In a way, much of our philosophy is based on how Silent Hill 2 works as a psychological horror, because it was a turning point for the genre. Of course, even the first but in short, Silent Hill 2. Is there anything else to add?

Wojciech Piejko: the aspect we love most about Silent Hill 2 is that it doesn't judge you. When you come to find out what James did, the game does not tell you "this is wrong, this is right", rather putting you in front of crazy situations where you come to think what you would do if you were involved. We have transposed this approach to all the games we have developed.

Jacek Zięba: The best horror, and Silent Hill 2 is one of them, make horror itself a tool to tell stories and push you to ask questions.

Speaking specifically of The Medium, the transition from first person to third person is an important step. What prompted you to say "ok, this is the right time to do it"?

Wojciech Piejko: it's a bit difficult to answer, because the first idea for The Medium emerged when we weren't part of the team yet. It started out as a platformer, then went on to be a third person game with a free camera and at that moment we took the project in hand. We encountered many difficulties with the free management of the camera, because having to manage two worlds at the same time it became much easier to develop motion sickness for the players: it was not an ideal solution, so we thought of going back to the good old school, with fixed camera, and here we are. here.

Jacek Zięba: We experimented a little but in the end we found it to be the perfect solution.

You said this game wouldn't be possible on Xbox One. What makes it a next gen game?

Jacek Zięba: the hardware. When you are in two worlds at the same time it is like experiencing two different games at the same time: it is not like the split-screen, which leads to playing on a single level, here are two very distinct ones where everything is different. The light, the atmosphere, the same shots during the films. To withstand such a load, very powerful hardware was required and the generation just passed was not enough. Sure, we could have tried but we didn't want to castrate the game in terms of graphics and ideas. Rendering two levels takes a lot of effort on the GPU and CPU.

A bold choice, considering the Xbox Series X | S debuted a couple of months ago and not everyone has made that leap yet. The Medium is among the first, if not the first, true next-gen game. Do you feel some weight of responsibility?

Wojciech Piejko: absolutely. Sometimes we are intimidated because we are aware that we are not a triple A studio and cannot compete with the likes of The Last of Us Part II - a gem from a technical point of view. We are still in the so-called AA league, we feel closer to games like Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, A Plague Tale: Innocence or What Remains of Edith Finch. We have nice graphics, but nothing that can compete with the giants.

Jacek Zięba: There is a bit of pressure but our main aim was to create a unique story, an original experience that did not rely on exclusively to graphics - where we knew we had no game compared to the big titles - but to a combination of art direction, game design solutions and music. Our real strength lies in the artistic style, without neglecting the technical component.

What is in your opinion the strong point of The Medium? What should players expect?

Wojciech Piejko: a very cinematic story driven experience aimed at all fans of old school horror games, especially Japanese. For me, The Medium revolves around history and atmosphere.

Jacek Zięba: I agree and add, the combination of old and new. Between old school and new gameplay mechanics. Our goal is not to scare the player but to upset him, to slip under the skin and into his head, causing him to wonder if he is really doing as well as he thinks.

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