Some games are defined by a single place; others by a single character. Still other games are defined by action, by something you can do in the game itself. In its early goings, the horror game Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is defined by a single word: Nope.
Near to the start of the game, I found myself standing underneath a ladder leading up to an attic. It looked like this:
I did not want to climb that ladder. Every fibre of my being was telling me not to. And yet, if I wanted to finish the game (as I was obligated to do as a reviewer), I'd have to move forward. But still, I sat there.
I stared at the ladder, at the darkness in the attic. It stared back.
Eventually I climbed the ladder and braved the attic, but that long moment of indecision stuck with me. A Machine for Pigs is defined by what I've come to think of as "Nope Moments". You'll come upon a half-open door, or a long dark corridor, and your survival instinct will be screaming a single four-letter word.
The game is filled with such moments:
When Tina asked if I wanted to review the game, I had a real-world Nope Moment. I thought back to my time playing and reviewing the first game in the series, Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
"Sure," I said, for some unknown reason.
Fortunately, I managed to get past each and every Nope Moment I encountered, finished (and quite enjoyed) the game, and am able to write an actual review for you now.
A Machine for Pigs' 2010 predecessor Amnesia: The Dark Descent came a bit out of left field -- it was, more or less, a straightforward puzzle/adventure game with a smattering of extreme horror and stealthy monster-avoidance thrown in. Players had no weapons, no means with which to fight back against the game's smattering of Lovecraftian beasties, and so their appearance would prompt an at-times profound degree of shock and panic. Amnesia quickly became a cult favourite and, as people began to record their terrified reactions to it, a bona-fide Youtube hit.
And so A Machine for Pigs comes saddled with the unenviable task of living up to its surprise-hit predecessor. Success can be a difficult thing to replicate, and cult success is even more mercurial. Further complicating things is the fact that A Machine for Pigs wasn't developed by Dark Descent-makers Frictional Games; in an uncommon indie switcheroo, the sequel was developed by Dear Esther-makers The Chinese Room, with Frictional acting mainly as publisher. With a new creative team, a new head writer and a strange new name, would this Amnesia sequel live up to the first game?
The short answer is: Yes. The slightly longer answer is: Yes, though not in the ways you might be hoping for or expecting. Though I suspect a one-word answer will be all that most fans of the first game will need, or want, to hear.
So, there's my (actual, official) review card. Despite some misfires and disappointing elements, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a worthy successor to the first game. It's frequently dread-inducing, occasionally terrifying, and wonderfully, goofily grandiose. It's absolutely worth playing.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is an interesting continuation of the ideas set forth in The Dark Descent. Rather than simply giving us a bigger, prettier, more polished version of the same game we've already played, Frictional chose to team up with a new group of developers who have, in turn, crafted a game that feels more like a first cousin to its predecessor than a descendant.
I'm enamoured of this approach, of handing a series from developer to developer to see what new ideas they can wring from it. It would never work with big-budget, AAA games, but for small, well-directed indie teams, it's a fascinating proposition. What would a Mojang Amnesia game look like? How about if Stanley Parable-maker Davey Wreden got to make one? Or Lone Survivor's Jasper Byrne, or Gone Home's Fullbright Company? With this template, a series like Amnesia could become less a continuous franchise and more of a philosophy, batted about and re-interpreted by the creators of our age.
The story of A Machine for Pigs is framed as a mystery, and a great deal of the game's appeal lies in the mystery's unravelling. So, I won't go into any details beyond the setup: It's New Year's Eve, 1899. You're a British inventor/industrialist named Oswald Mandus who, upon waking at the start of the game, finds himself alone in his massive London mansion with no memory of the events of the past several months -- or what has happened to his twin sons. As he explores the house and investigates the compound surrounding it, it quickly becomes clear that all is not well.
The result is a wonderfully macabre indictment of the industrial revolution: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle meets H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau
The story is a hoot. As fun as the more immediate shocks and scares can be, the mystery at the heart of it all -- What is this place? What's happening here? And why? -- was by far the game's more engrossing and ultimately successful aspect. Writer Dan Pinchbeck has stitched together literary influences both obvious and surprising, and the result is a wonderfully macabre indictment of the industrial revolution: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle meets H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau.
It's also noteworthy -- if not entirely surprising -- just how often A Machine for Pigs evokes Pinchbeck and his team's last game, Dear Esther, despite the two games' surface-level differences. Where Dear Esther felt mournful and elegiac, A Machine for Pigs feels dread-filled and damned. The Chinese Room makes the genre-hop more easily than I might've imagined.
Engaging though the story may be, it suffers from an overabundance of narrative-delivery methods. In addition the actual events witnessed on screen, story is parsed out via hidden audio logs, mysterious phone calls and discarded documents found laying about Mandus' building. All three serve to flesh out the game's backstory from slightly different angles, but at times it can be difficult to keep track of everything. It's a clever and ambitious approach; I only wish it had been just a touch more streamlined.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Mandus keeps a journal of his in-game adventures, and reading it is often crucial to understanding both the nature of the room you're standing in and Mandus' state of mind as he's standing there. If I hadn't paused to read Mandus' journal regularly, particularly as the story reached its denouement, I would have completely missed some major plot revelations and seismic shifts in Mandus' disposition and intentions.
It's easy to make your way through three or four areas before remembering to go and read back over what your character was thinking as you did so, which emphasises the strange gulf between Mandus' mostly silent on-screen presence and his shifting moods and memories. Between the many strewn-about backstory devices and the easy-to-forget journal, A Machine for Pigs' story takes on a fragmented, overly-stratified quality. While the opacity of the narrative is welcome in this age of overly explicatory video game stories, its delivery could've been more aerodynamic.
As unsettling and occasionally terrifying as the game's various environments can be -- mutilated porcine carcasses flopping out of a wooden cart, pools of dark offal sloshing in the dark -- I found myself more affected (and disgusted) by the documents I'd find lying about and read. I'd relish each sentence, choking down Pinchbeck's imagery with an equal measure of laughter and giddy revulsion. His language is colourful and creative in its cruelty; it's just the right amount of overwrought, yet flatly literal when it needs to be: "Inflamed it is, burning it does, bleeding from each hole, fore and aft, leaking down my legs, blood and excrement. My lungs are in my vomit, I pass clots of my organs now onto the filthy stone … how can a man shit so much blood and still live?"
Special recognition must also be given to composer Jessica Curry, whose roiling, muscular musical score is an appropriate counterpoint to the often baroque happenings on-screen. Her work is rarely subtle: Deep, plodding string melodies summon dread with a charming gaucheness, and the screams and groans of her small ensemble's tortured strings and resonators mix with the game's sound design to effectively summon Mandus' diseased machinery. When it's time to pivot to a revelatory or reflective moment, Curry turns on a dime, echoing her more contemplative work on Dear Esther.
A Machine for Pigs' scares don't always live up to the dread that precedes them
A Machine for Pigs does offer its share of disappointments. For starters, it's actually not all that scary. This game has mastered the art of the painstaking setup (cf. the Nope Moments referenced above). Its claustrophobic atmosphere, grisly environments and phenomenal sound design all did a marvellous job of setting me constantly, painfully on edge. To play A Machine for Pigs in the dark alongside a roommate or significant other is an enjoyably freaky shared experience. To play it alone, wearing headphones, will often lead to what I've come to think of as "anticipatory sensory overload." The latter approach was often too much for me, though it might be just right for you.
Unfortunately, the payoff for all that atmosphere and anticipation regularly comes up a little short. The game displays an unfortunate over-reliance on scripted scares and triggered chase sequences, neither of which are all that compatible with its air of perpetual dread. Dread relies on anticipation; scares themselves rely on action. A Machine for Pigs' scares don't always live up to the dread that precedes them, and as a result, the game's atmosphere loses some potency in its back half.
The louder scares are fun the first time, but if you die in the middle of one, the game will pull a curious half-reset, putting you back at the start but often with the thing that killed you nowhere in sight. After the third or fourth time this happened, I started to feel oddly cheated -- my inability to survive the scripted jump-scares meant that I wasn't really experiencing them the "right" way.
In the early goings, each door presented a terrifying no-win scenario: I must move through the door to see what's on the other side, but part of me absolutely does not want to know what's on the other side. It's a series of Nope Moments, and in the early goings, I found a great deal of satisfaction in overcoming them. But as I went on, it became clear that most of the time I was safe from harm. That diffused the tension a bit, and while by that point I was wrapped up in the story enough not to mind, I did begin to feel like I was powering through the puzzles with no real worry about what might lie around the next corner.
Speaking of disappointments, it's also difficult to ignore all of the elements present in the first game that have been removed from the new one. For example, one of the smartest things about The Dark Descent was how Frictional Games built it around an ingeniously cruel series of interlocking systems:
1) If you stayed in the darkness too long, you'd go mad and die.
2) If you stood in the light, the monsters could see you and kill you.
3) If you looked directly at a monster, you'd also go mad and die.
The systems worked in concert as a sort of game-design pincer trap, forcing player-response in the most nightmarish way possible. The design encouraged players to avert their eyes from the (somewhat low-fi) monsters while making it difficult to simply hide in a dark corner and wait things out.
A Machine for Pigs has removed all of that, and while Mandus' state of mind is far from rock-solid, "sanity" as a game-mechanic is no longer present. When bad things do appear in A Machine for Pigs, the lights flicker, and that's about it. Your vision doesn't blur, the walls don't bow in and out; no cockroaches climb across your vision. That the sequel lacks The Dark Descent's cruel trifecta of darkness, madness and monsters isn't necessarily a bad thing, but that it doesn't bring any new ideas of its own leaves the game feeling markedly thinner and less oppressive than its predecessor.
A Machine for Pigs is generally streamlined, not just when compared with Dark Descent but when compared with most other games. Players have no inventory, lost health simply regenerates over time, and all of the puzzles are solved by manipulating objects in the player's immediate vicinity.
At its heart, this is a point-and-click adventure game dressed up in survival-horror clothes. But, it plays the two genres against one another in interesting ways. The puzzles don't have to ramp up difficulty by relying on illogical convolutions because the sneaking and the screaming keep things plenty interesting on their own. That said, as I progressed through the story, I found A Machine for Pigs' puzzles to be a bit too straightforward. Most obstacles are very much of the "Find the thing over there and then turn the wheel" variety, and for the most part the game doesn't require much lateral thought or creativity. It's less that their simplicity detracted from the overall experience and more that they simply didn't add much.
A Machine for Pigs is clearly the work of a small team -- copy-pasted art assets, paintings, debris and wall-hangings regularly repeat themselves, and the outdoor environments feel like they'd be at home in a late-90s PC game. But it's a tribute to the creators' talents that only rarely (toward the end) does it start to feel as though the game has bitten off more than it can chew.
So here we have a horror game that's more cerebral than it is shocking, but no less enjoyable for it. It's an elaborate horrorbox that has clearly been constructed with an uncommon degree of care and imagination, and while it may be unwieldy at times, the story of Oswald Mandus has remained lodged in my brain long after the startles and the scares have faded away.
And really, when it comes down to it, the constantly repeating paintings actually enhance the pervading sense of nightmarish madness. Particularly when they look like this:
I mean... like...
Say it with me now: