"Even in darkness, there is light!"
- Marianne, The Medium
The last horror game I played, for quite some time, was Resident Evil IV on the Nintendo Wii, sometime in 2008. Since then, I have felt that the horror genre in video games has relied too much on scare tactics and gore in order to attract players purely interested in an adrenaline rush.
But as soon as I saw the trailer for The Medium, particularly the idea of a protagonist who has the ability to migrate back and forth between the physical and spiritual realms, I realized that something is special about Bloober Team's newest ambitious project.
This imaginative undertaking reminded me of the teachings of the Sufi mystic from Morocco, sidi Abdul Aziz al-Dabbagh, who states that saints are able to temporarily leave their bodies and travel in the spiritual world, but not indefinitely. They must return to their bodies lest they reside permanently in the beyond, a state which we call death.
The fact that this Sufi teaching finds itself replicated precisely in The Medium is only the tip of the iceberg of the spiritual richness in this incredible work of art. Throughout my weeklong journey from beginning to finishing this video game, I have come to realize the redemptive power of an intricately woven horror story, one that utilizes the unique storytelling techniques at the disposal of video game designers that gift the audience - gamers - an unparalleled immersive experience.
The protagonist, Marianne, is a medium, someone who can cross from our physical world to the realm of the dead, in order to discover the hidden dimensions of our physical world, those forces concealed behind the veil that shape our emotions and movements in this material existence. The story begins with Marianne grieving and treading through the sorrow of her adoptive father's death, Jack. As the player is immediately immersed into a haunting interaction with Jack's spirit, we are also thrown into the Niwa hotel and resort, where the rest of the story takes place.
Marianne discovers the sadness, embodied in the spirit of a young girl, and anger, personified in the antagonist beast known as The Maw, that clash across the stage of this ominous place. Despite the horrific murders that have taken place at Niwa, the game masterfully balances between the psychology undergirding those calamities as well as all the physical signs of trauma.
As I was progressing through the game, I found myself guiding Marianne in the spiritual world of the dead as she tries to release tormented spirits that are still lingering in limbo. She tries to find a trace and a name, both of which are needed for these ghosts to continue their journey towards the beyond. At one moment, when the protagonist discovers an energy source of light amidst the darkness of death, she exclaims: "Hmm, even in darkness, there is light!"
It is noteworthy that these pockets of light energy that are found throughout the story, central to its progression, tend to surround physical artifacts with pleasant memories, such as flowers or dolls. Sometimes, an energy source is weak, such as the memories of symphonies played on a piano. However, as soon as Marianne finds all the pieces of a music sheet, the piano comes alive in the physical world, and the light of sound and music is revived as well in the spiritual world.
As the Greatest Master of Sufism, Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi tells us, our entire existence is nothing but an interplay between light and darkness. This is a contention that does not take place in the abstract, without physical ramifications. Rather, it affects and is affected by our behaviors and movements in this world. In the most apparent sense, Ibn al-'Arabi tells us, this struggle between light and darkness emanates in hayra, perplexity. As he describes: "Reality is perplexity. Perplexity is anxiety and movement and movement is life."
Ibn al-'Arabi also tells us that light is synonymous with goodness and being, whereas darkness is evil and nothingness. Ultimately, evil is the absence of goodness, just as darkness is the dim forgetfulness of light. We see this reality unfold intricately in The Medium, as Marianne must face the villains throughout her journey, such as the Maw and others, not only in the heart of darkness, but also while facing the critical choice of bringing the healing power of light through an act of goodness.
In one particularly powerful moment, an evil spirit asks Marianne for redemption. She responds that there is no redemption possible for the evil committed by this spirit, at which point the former asks for precisely that: to be nothing. It recognizes its role as darkness, and that perhaps, the only healing available for absolute evil is to be extinguished by the light.
Here also we find the redemptive power of sacrifice that Marianne approaches in her journey towards a climactic conclusion, the details of which we will not delve into for the sake of not spoiling this riveting story for any prospective players. However, as an allusion, let us just say that Marianne's journey embodies the ancient Sufi maxim iterated by the Prophet Muhammad and sages across time: "The sickness is within you, and the cure is within you. You deem yourself something small, while in reality the entire universe is enfolded within you."
Mawlana Shaykh Hisham Kabbani tells us that we human beings are not bodies with spirits. Rather, we are spirits with bodies. This realization is granted to saints as soon as they begin their transition from their physicality to spirituality. Marianne's journey shows us that this is an experience and understanding that all of us must undergo. This is our ultimate rite of initiation into knowledge of self, that timeless maxim uttered by both the Oracle at Delphi and Sufi saints: "Know Thyself!"
As more games like The Medium reveal to us and revel in the power of video games as a 'medium' for storytelling, we spiritual seekers, gamers and artists alike also find ourselves imaginatively encouraged to engage such art with our deepest spiritual teachings and ask about the beyond: what other worlds lie concealed behind subtle curtains? Only darkness and constriction, or perhaps also realms of light and expansion? How does The Medium help us think about the spirit as more than just an ominous unknown, but the ultimate reality of redemption?