Fit for the Slaughter
With its focus on disempowerment, a set of mechanics which made you push yourself into frightening situations, and a proof that in many ways indie development was more equipped to tackle the horror genre than AAA studios, 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent helped write the book for low budget horror games over the last few years. Expectations were understandably high for a sequel, but its 2013 successor Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was not released to the same fanfare. It wasn’t intensely publicised before it came out and was met with considerable disappointment from many fans of the original Amnesia. This underwhelmed reaction was understandable, and the game did review well at many outlets, but I still don’t think it got quite the praise it deserves.
A Machine for Pigs tells the story of Oswald Mandus, a capitalist in late 19th century London. Mandus has grown rich off of the spoils of industry and built a complex and ambitious machine below his own luxurious home. However, a terrible fate soon befalls him as he wakes up in an empty house one night to find himself separated from his two sons who are now apparently trapped in that machinery. Longing to be reunited with his children Mandus descends below his abode, gaslamp in hand.
The difference between The Dark Descent and A Machine For Pigs is very much the difference between their developers: Frictional Games and The Chinese Room. Frictional Games are a team with an interest in shaping game mechanics and worlds to best evoke fear and shock in players, The Chinese Room on the other hand are an entirely different animal, one that does not make the most obvious choice for a horror developer. Their creative director, Daniel Pinchbeck, has his background in drama and is a professor for the school of creative technologies at Portsmouth University. Prior to this project, The Chinese Room’s best-known game was Dear Esther, a Source engine mod which used vivid, dreary environments and poetic narration to tell a melancholy story of death and yearning. Imagine that crossed with Amnesia: The Dark Descent and you more or less have A Machine for Pigs.
Mechanically, the main features of the first Amnesia were adventure game-style puzzles and panicked moments of fleeing from or hiding from enemies. These are not the same things that drive A Machine for Pigs. There are still puzzles here, but they’ve been simplified to the point where an inventory is no longer necessary because you’ll need to carry no more than one item at a time. You might have to ferry an object from A to B, work out where to place a certain part, or find a switch to pull to advance, but they don’t get any more cerebral than this. There are still enemy encounters in the game but they’re few and far between, taking place in specific enclosed spaces so there’s no longer that feeling that you could run into a terrifying creature just around the corner. Your lamp now no longer needs to be refilled with oil and will keep burning for as long as you want it to, and tinder boxes and torches have been removed, meaning you no longer have the fear of being plunged into darkness from lack of resources. The sanity meter has also been abolished, allowing you to get a decent look at enemies instead of them being some blurry unknown and resulting in that creeping sense of paranoia that came with the effects of your diminishing mental wellbeing is gone.
At a cursory glance these changes might seem completely ruinous to Amnesia. What I’ve just described is the majority of the features which made the first game an entrancing and frightening experience being gutted, and indeed this is how many fans of the original game perceived it, but there’s something else going on here. A Machine for Pigs doesn’t have the tools for the frequent and terrifying enemy encounters or the tantalizing puzzling of the first game, but that’s because it’s not trying to use enemy encounters or puzzles as its primary draw, instead A Machine for Pigs is about painting a thick, affecting atmosphere, and telling an intricately scripted story. In a world where it’s easy for game franchises to stagnate and horror series can wear themselves out making us too familiar with their monsters and mechanisms, here’s a game breaking from its own formula, and it deserves to be judged on its own merits.
From your creaky, ostentatious victorian house to the dingy streets of 1800s London you notice richer textures and more densely decorated environments. Detail can often be the poisonous to horror, but A Machine for Pigs’s locations work because when they need to give a real sense of being lived in they can and when they don’t they can be an unsettling bombardment of labyrinthine tunnels and sinister machinery. Some of the end moments of the game in particular present a spectacle in their vast, overwhelming environments that The Dark Descent never could have managed. The game is also very cognisant of how to use sound in a threatening way. It’s not often used for the purpose of jump scares, but instead distant thumps and echoing yelps give the impression of something horrible lurking just beyond the room you’re in. The audio design even helps tie the game’s themes together: I remember bounding down metal walkways and realising how much the screech of a poorly oiled machine sounds like the squeals of a pig. And those themes mean something.
Despite being set in 1899, the story is partially reflective of a lot of the fears and disdain that came about in Britain during the industrial revolution, incorporating the idea of factories as ugly, dirty places which caused a great deal of suffering. It’s not a coincidence that it’s an industrial capitalist getting his comeuppance here, and there’s a clear parallel between Mandus losing his sons to the machine below his home and the way that many 19th century families saw their children dragged into dangerous factory labour. Mandus’s business is in fact a meat processing facility and as it transpires it is being used to turn human beings into grotesque swine monsters, mirroring the way that mechanisation of the world, especially in Mandus’s time, led to the dehumanisation of people. The horror of this concept is cleverly reinforced by those same pig monsters acting as the game’s enemies. Without saying too much there’s also a motivation of the antagonist hidden under everything else that’s surprisingly disturbing and human.
For the majority of the time A Machine for Pigs is heavily committed to making sure all of this plays out in the game as well as it does on paper. Close attention is paid to vocabulary, sentence structure, and pacing of speech in a way that you rarely see in games. There aren’t many titles out there that will tell you “We will fasten that great mouth down over the chimney and inhale the world and suck the fairies and the nonsense clean from your dirty heart”. What might otherwise come across as pretentious dialogue is at home in the late Victorian of A Machine for Pigs and feels inspired. Not that it captures the game brilliance of course, but it’s going after the same things some of William Blake’s work dealt with, and it shines through. It’s a shame then that the game doesn’t find completely reliable methods for conveying its writing.
There are occasional conversations over a phone line with a mysterious character who tries to lead Mandus to his children, admirably brought to life by voice actor Toby Longworth, and once in a while you’ll find an audio log to pick up, but in true horror game style most of the story comes by way of text logs. Reading these loose scraps of paper is usually not a problem during a quiet moment, as isolated pieces of text they read well, but within the larger context of the game stopping to sit and read these pages can break up pacing, especially when you’re supposed to be in the middle of some gameplay task or moving with speed and purpose to the next place you need to get to. There’s at least one point in the game when you’re close to a monster and the game’s stressed, dangerous enemy theme plays as you calmly sit and read a low-key piece of writing by Mandus. When you’re collecting so many of these notes it would also be useful to have a button you could press to read the document you just picked up, instead of having to go into the “Notes” menu and selecting the new one every time. As far as flaws in the story itself go, there are relatively few, although it does have a somewhat predictable twist and the way Mandus’s sons are worked in is less than elegant.
Mandus himself obviously has a deep attachment to them, but little is done to fill out who his children are as people or Mandus’s history with them. If anything you feel the opposite of attached to your offspring. They appear at the start of your search as ghost-like figures and use clichéd “creepy kid” dialogue, beckoning you “Just a little further daddy”. They’re who you spend the game searching for but if the rest of the writing weren’t so damned interesting it just wouldn't be worth it. Of course, the enemy encounters don’t leave your heart in your mouth like The Dark Descent’s could, it feels more like you can glide through areas with occasional pauses than you could in the past, but they are intimidating and good for a few scares. Even as vilified as the puzzles in the game were, I think they’re a positive addition. They’re at the very least inoffensive and provide a way of keeping you moving ahead while feeling a little productive.
If you’re going to pick up Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs you’re going to be sorely disappointed if you want more of what The Dark Descent was, and the appeal of this title is going to be elusive for a lot of people, but there’s a care and passion in its writing that with the right mindset it’s hard not to deeply appreciate. If you’re looking for a dark game that goes beyond murky environments and frightening enemies and delves into the human and poetic, A Machine for Pigs will grab ahold of you and won’t let go.