Video games tackle a lot of tough topics these days. From the effect of mental illness depicted in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice to themes of death and grief in Corinne Cross’ Dead & Breakfast, there’s games that deal with any tough topic you can think of. The Medium chooses to put trauma and abuse at the forefront of several characters’ stories, each with different outcomes and messages. But how well are these topics portrayed?
Spoiler warning for The Medium. Content warning: Discussions of abuse.
Not All Scars Are Physical
The characters I’m going to be focusing on first are Marianne, the protagonist and titular medium; Lily, her long lost sister; their father Thomas; and his adoptive father figure and mentor, Richard. Richard was a famous artist who took Thomas under his wing and introduced him to art, ultimately influencing his decision to become an architect and build Niwa Resort, kicking off the whole plot. Unfortunately, he kicked off the plot in another way, as he also abused Lily as a young girl, bringing to life the demon in her that’s known as the Maw.
Richard’s story shows the cycle of abuse and the long-lasting effects of trauma. Specifically, both the characters and we as viewers discover this history through Spirit Thomas’ walk through his memories. When Richard was younger, his stepdad beat and raped his mother before being arrested and hanged by Nazis occupying Poland in World War II. We also see that his friend and first love, Rose, was a young Jewish girl who was caught and killed in that same incident. It’s not specified how old Richard was when this happened, but he seems to have been about 10 years old, possibly a few years younger.
While the game shows Richard’s backstory—and how that leads to him becoming a twisted old man who was obsessed with young girls—it’s also important to note that it never tries to excuse it. Marianne and Spirit Thomas are in agreement that what happened to him was horrible, but regardless, both call him a monster and refuse to forgive him his transgressions. At the same time, when Marianne talks to and finally vanquishes Richard’s inner demon, the Child Eater, it seems like he has not forgiven himself either, as all the Child Eater wishes for is nonexistence.
Ultimately, Richard is there to illustrate a perpetual cycle of violence, showing how learned behaviors and abuse can perpetuate through generations, no matter how much we wish otherwise. While the research seems to be divided on whether being abused makes a person more likely to become an abuser themselves, there are certainly documented cases of this happening, even if it is as rare as some of the research suggests. Richard shows how actions affect others, not just in the ways of random acts of kindness, but in far deeper and more sinister ways too.
Evil Is As Evil Does
The second antagonist whose backstory we face is Henry, a servant of the Polish Communist government who sets out to hunt down and kill or capture Thomas after his powers flare up again. Once again, we see into a slice of his mind as Marianne views Spirit Thomas’ journey through his memories and psyche, only with a very different outcome.
Henry is set up so that the audience believes he is like Richard, another victim of abuse whose own psyche was twisted beyond repair. We see his father haunting corners of his mind, his father who he later turned in to the Polish Communist party himself without a shred of remorse. Spirit Thomas walks through a realm of paperwork and rooms connected to Henry’s job, potentially setting him up as someone who was caught up in propaganda or the government, dedicated and in over his head before it was too late. We find out that Henry has a wife and a disabled son, and then Spirit Thomas finally stumbles upon Henry’s inner child.
It turns out that the core of his psyche, symbolized by this child in his mind, has been in league with the demon Hound prowling around his head the entire time. Instead of finding a quiet, scared child as in Richard, Spirit Thomas finds the rug pulled out from under him instead. There is no deep trauma motivating Henry’s actions, no Freudian excuse for trying to burn Marianne and Lily alive, and no psychological motivation driving his hunt for Thomas. He’s simply a psychopath.
Spirit Thomas and Marianne are forced to confront that, sometimes, people are just bad. Not every villain has a tragic backstory, and not every soul has a chance at being saved. Unlike Richard’s Child Eater begging for death, Henry’s inner child and The Hound actively attack Spirit Thomas and trap him in Henry’s mind for well over a decade. Trauma and circumstances don’t always cause evil to spring out in people; sometimes evil just is.
Breaking the Cycle
The third character that we see as an examination of trauma is Lily, Marianne’s sister. Abused at a young age by Richard, her feelings and hurt manifested as the Maw, a hideous, otherworldly creature that, like other manifestations, was trapped in the spirit world. After cutting a deal with the Maw and letting him out to save her and her sister from being burned alive, Lily then witnessed the Niwa Massacre that the monster created, killing hundreds of innocent people before it wore itself and its hosts out.
From then on, Lily was locked away in a basement for the rest of her life to prevent the Maw from escaping again and harming anyone else. Unwittingly set free by Frank, the sole remaining employee at Niwa, she then sees her father leave to enter the spirit world and reconnect with his other self in order to save her. She also seems to be aware that the Maw has tried to kill Marianne multiple times as she made her way through the resort.
And yet Lily is never portrayed as a bad person. She does not turn her trauma outwards and actively hurt others and is horrified by the fact that saving their two lives cost the lives of so many other innocents. Richard gives in to his demons and even tells Thomas he’s being controlled by them, while Henry embraces his demons and empowers them both. Meanwhile, Lily is the only character who tries to deal with her issues in a constructive manner, trying to end the repetition of the cycle. Thomas’ notes and Marianne’s observations of other hosts to the Maw say it rots things from the inside out, a fitting metaphor for what wild, unchecked, and undealt-with trauma can do to people. In the end, Lily asks Marianne to kill her, saying that the Maw can never be stopped as long as its host is alive and is willing to sacrifice herself to stop the bloodshed.
But the game doesn’t portray this as an ideal option either. Marianne doesn’t want to kill her sister, obviously, and by that point, the player doesn’t want to either. This leads to Marianne possibly taking a third option and shooting herself instead, depriving the Maw of any permanent host. The game ends without seeing which sister, if either, dies, but it still ends with a clear message: Things went too far. The achievement you earn for finishing the ending is even called “Can’t Always Save Everyone,” just to hammer the point home.
Admittedly, the game doesn’t mention therapy or any sort of treatment as an option, but taking place in the 1990s in Poland, it might not have been as accessible or socially acceptable as it is today. Instead, what the game makes clear is that trauma needs to be dealt with. These monsters are all constructs of the mind, and Lily’s is the most dangerous because she is a medium and directly links into the spirit world. At the same time, Henry’s and Richard’s invisible demons were what led to Lily’s very real one being unleashed.
Both Lily’s and Richard’s inner demons show the dangerous effects of abuse on a person and also show two different ways in which that abuse can change them. Richard shows the dangers of the cycle of abuse and warns that it does perpetuate. Lily shows what happens when trauma and its effects are focused inward, and how it can still hurt others, even unintentionally. At the same time, Henry is present as an example that not all evil is born of abuse or any tangible reasons. Sometimes, people simply are as they are, and it’s not fair to only blame those who are also victims themselves—evil has to start somewhere.