With an elaborate set of puzzles to solve and no shortage of jolting jump scares to shock you with, unraveling the morbid central mystery of Madison is a bit like trying to evacuate an escape room while simultaneously struggling to prevent the evacuation of your bowels. Taking clear inspiration from Hideo Kojima’s superb 2014 Silent Hill teaser demo, PT, Madison layers on the clever use of a Polaroid camera for puzzle-solving and exploration with consistently compelling results. It might not be as expertly structured as the spiraling, psychological horror hallways of Kojima’s much revered concept, but Madison’s haunted house is certainly scary enough to be situated somewhere in the same neighborhood.
In Madison you play as Luca, a teenage boy who wakes in his family home covered in blood and haunted by a malignant presence. Luca’s only chance to escape is to puzzle his way through a sequence of increasingly taxing riddles and complete the distressing steps of a demonic ritual, in a structurally unsteady homestead that shifts and recalibrates around him in frequently disorientating ways. It’s a hair-raising residence that I found consistently absorbing to explore, since I could never be sure if the basement I was descending to would suddenly morph into the hellish hallucination of a murder scene, or would merely be a basement that was creepy for… Well, regular creepy base reasons.
Armed with only a Polaroid camera, Luca’s plight is one that strictly favors flight over fight. Although there are supernatural nasties to encounter at times there’s no real combat to speak of, and instead the only thing that Luca has to battle with is the growing realization that there’s more than a few alarming truths buried amidst the roots of his family tree. Actor Jacob Judge delivers a panicked portrayal of Luca that comes across as a bit too whiny at times, but I was happy enough to endure his hysterics since they at least seemed more in step with each disturbing revelation than the oddly apathetic performances of certain other horror game leads (looking at you, Resident Evil Village’s Ethan Winters). I was compelled by Luca’s journey all the way to its bleak conclusion, even if the increasingly predictable events of Madison’s final hours didn’t quite have the same surprising twists and turns as the contorting corridors of its setting.
Madison’s puzzles may seem initially straightforward, like finding triangular-shaped keys to fit triangular-shaped locks, but they quickly grow into more complex riddles that demand a considerable amount of lateral thinking. In one standout section you have to use the supernatural powers of the camera to blink back and forth between three distinct time periods as you explore a maze of art exhibits in the darkened corners of a creepy cathedral, which requires a particularly methodical approach. It rarely repeats the same type of puzzle twice, and more often than not each brainteaser it springs upon you successfully manages to generate some head-scratching without ever resulting in hair-pulling.
The Polaroid camera can often be used to reveal puzzle clues in the environment that are otherwise obscured to the naked eye, and it was always rewarding to shake a freshly snapped shot and see a hidden message slowly come to light, typically smeared in blood. But the camera doesn’t just provide satisfying “A-ha!” moments – it also has its fair share of spine-chilling “Argh!” times, too. I frequently found myself in pitch-black environments with the camera’s flash as my only means to briefly light up my surroundings in order to find my way forward. Not knowing whether a quick snap would expose a dull dead end or a dead-eyed demon made me hesitate every time my finger hovered over the camera’s shutter release, which kept my anxiety levels high.
Screens – Madison
The Polaroid camera isn’t the only piece of retro tech at Luca’s fingertips; in the absence of any other human characters to interact with a lot of Madison’s plot is delivered via audio recordings found on cassette tapes. I revealed in the disturbing details drip-fed through each recording, although such is the surreal nature of Madison’s surroundings that I couldn’t tell if the curious way Luca listened to cassette tapes by holding them in his hand while the spindles spun was by abstract design or just an unfortunate graphical bug that rendered the tape player invisible.
One thing I am confident of is that Madison’s ambient audio design is extremely well done, particularly when experienced through headphones. Each attempted step taken through this foreboding abode is accompanied by a nerve-scraping symphony of rusty door hinge-squeaks, demonic whispers, and distorted TV news bulletins flickering on and off, which kept me constantly checking over my shoulder. The actual musical score itself is minimal, but its sudden orchestral stabs are used to reinforce each jump scare to startlingly good effect. On that note, there are a lot of jump scares in Madison and they really ramp up in frequency towards its end, but they’re conjured up in so many creative new ways that I never became immune to them. Channeling everything from Layers of Fear to the sinister storybook imagery of The Babadook, it inflicted enough sharp spikes to my heart rate to make my smartwatch wonder if I’d suddenly started a workout.
Hallway to Hell
While Madison regularly trapped me in environmental loops of the intentionally unsettling variety, it also occasionally forced me to retrace my steps for all the wrong reasons; namely to ferry items back and forth thanks to the needlessly restrictive inventory management. Luca can only carry up to eight items at a time – although practically speaking it’s more like five since his camera, notebook, and collection of photos can’t ever be discarded – and everything else must be stored in a stationary storage container a la Resident Evil. Being pressured to decide whether to carry pistol ammo or extra medkits might be an effective way to maintain tension and risk in survival horror games, but here it just feels like an arbitrary inclusion that made solving certain puzzles more cumbersome than it could have been. Having to slowly backtrack from one end of the house to the other because you opted to carry the crowbar when you actually needed the bolt cutters just adds unwanted padding to the overall sense of progress – particularly since Luca’s running speed is relatively sluggish.
Similarly, while many objects in your surroundings tend to shift around when your back is turned to often terrifying effect, Madison also introduces crucial new items in the same manner, which means they are often easily overlooked. As a result I found myself completely stuck for a handful of lengthy stretches at a time, trying and retrying every item in my inventory on a puzzle and wandering around snapping photos of everything in sight to see if I could uncover some hidden clues, when it turned out what I actually needed was a tiny object sitting on a door sill somewhere that simply wasn’t there the first dozen or so times I walked past it. That’s not creepy, it’s just annoying. I remained thoroughly engrossed more often than not throughout my six-hour stay in Madison’s manor, but I can’t help but feel that ditching the inventory management and progress-halting pixel-hunts could have knocked an hour or two off its runtime and kept its tension levels even tighter.