A Machine For Pigs.
What a perfect title. Four simple words that communicate an uncanny amount of unease and discomfort. When I first heard the announcement for the upcoming sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I immediately shivered and felt unclean. What did it imply? Literal pigs? Pigs as a metaphor for humanity? A slaughterhouse? Some other kind of bizarre device? A machine that used pigs? A machine that pigs used? All potential answers, all equally unsettling.
Ugh. A machine for pigs. Ew.
Well, the game itself is now here, and if the title made me feel gross, the game made me want to take a three-hour shower. And in a series as deliberately masochistic as this, that is high praise indeed.
Even though 2010’s Amnesia was essentially a variation on the formula Frictional Games established with their earlier Penumbra series, it felt significantly richer and more successful at creating the tension and dread that mark great horror games. For my money it is the best horror game ever made. While it had its flaws, the game managed to create a sense of utter helplessness and oppression unmatched by its peers (except for, perhaps, the venerable early Silent Hill games). While it followed a familiar survival horror structure, it removed combat from the equation, leaving the player with only two options when faced with the abominations contained within its castle: run or hide. There were other innovations, but this was Amnesia’s most radical departure from previous horror games, where you could almost always count on blasting away the zombies, ghosts, or dinosaurs with a pistol or shotgun.
For the follow-up, Frictional Games joined forces with thechineseroom, developer of the experimental first-person looker Dear Esther as well as the alternately brilliant and frustrating Half-Life 2 horror mod Korsakovia (which, if you love horror games, is absolutely worth some of the headache). The partnership was a smart move, as thechineseroom’s experimental pedigree meshes perfectly with Frictional’s design savvy, bringing a more cohesive, literary vision to Amnesia’s house of horrors.
A Machine for Pigs is not a direct sequel. In interviews, Creative Director for thechineseroom, Dan Pinchbeck, warned players to think of the game as more of a side story than a full sequel, and I would have to agree. The game is short (though priced accordingly) and has only the most tenuous of connections to the previous Amnesia. Other than a couple of brief name drops, A Machine for Pigs is an entirely original tale.
You play as Oswald Mandus, proprieter of the largest food processing plant in London. Judging by the dates on the letters you find, it is late 1899. You awake in your mansion to find your memory spotty (hey, amnesia, imagine that!) and your two sons missing. After a cryptic conversation with a foreboding gentleman on a telephone, you discover that your children have been trapped within the factory by an unknown saboteur who is attempting to bring down the business. So of course it’s your job to descend into the depths of the facility and rescue them. Yay!
The game starts out retreading well-worn ground: exploring an empty mansion with the occasional spooky noise, ghostly apparitions, and strange notes. It’s well-made but familiar. You spent much of the first game doing precisely this in strikingly similar environments. At first I was concerned – was this simply going to be more of the same? In retrospect, however, this seems to be intentional, a way of connecting the games visually and mechanically. Before long, you’ve moved beyond the mansion and into the factory, where A Machine For Pigs comes into its own. It’s clear early on that the factory isn’t just a factory. There’s something else going on in the stinking depths of the Mandus Meat Processing Plant—this is obviously no ordinary slaughterhouse, and what are those things you see scurrying in the distance? They sounded like pigs, but… creepier?
At this point some of you are invariably thinking: get to the point, man, is it scary? It’s true that there is often only one criterion that matters when rating a horror game, and that is: did you need to sleep with a nightlight afterward? With A Machine For Pigs, however, the answer is complicated and depends on where you’re coming from and what you want out of a game like this. To be blunt, it’s not as scary as the first Amnesia. In terms of sheer bowel-straining terror, it’s just not on the same level. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. The changes made have simply de-emphasized the stealth/avoidance sections in favor of more exploration and storytelling. I could only play The Dark Descent in 30-45 minute sessions before my nerves were so frayed that I needed to call it a night. By comparison, I played through Machine in two extended sessions, drawn forward by morbid curiosity to see just how wrong this game could get.
And it gets very, very wrong. The plot is a huge step up from the first game. For one thing, I can already tell that in a few weeks I’ll actually remember it. First, though, the flaws: there are a few tiers to the narrative and they don’t all work. The immediate plot of the game — wherein Mandus tries to find his children who (tell me if you’ve heard this one before) appear as ghostly apparitions whispering things like “Daddy, daddy, come and play with us”— is often nonsensical, clichéd, and unbelievable. The game springs a twist halfway through that is utterly pointless, and in general this part of the story is muddled and weak. Fortunately, this underwhelming premise mostly serves to support a much, much more interesting backstory that must be pieced together through notes, scraps of dialogue, and the environment. It’s not unlike Dear Esther, where the gameplay is set up as little more than a walking tour of a dark and fragmented narrative that needs to be pieced together through exploration and thought. It also happens to feature a lot of theatrically intense voiceover work by a man with a gentlemanly English accent, which does much to further the comparison.
The backstory concerns the founding of the company, the tribulations that Mandus has endured, and the obsession that ends up transforming the nature of his work into something far more disturbing than processing meat. These elements are fantastically well-realized. The notes you find, from Mandus and others, are written with an ear for period vernacular and poetry. The story they uncover is haunting, horrifying, and fascinating. Themes of industrialization, radical politics, ambition, and sacrifice are run through the grinder, and the resulting sausage is not pretty.Continued on the next page...