Save your children from the monstrous clutches of a vast, dark machine.
PC Release: September 10, 2013
By Ian Coppock
2013 has been an interesting year for games, but I’m glad that the fall season is bringing with it a stir of activity in the baked corpse that is summer gaming. Which is an apt metaphor, because horror games have started to rear their magnificent heads as we look to Halloween, the next in the series of American drinking fests. I’ve seen far worse starts to the fall gaming season than Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but let’s see how exactly it goes about doing this.
I reference Amnesia excitedly and often, so it’s no secret I’ve been waiting for this game ever since it was first announced over a year ago. I hold Amnesia: The Dark Descent in high esteem because of the game’s deep, dark story and Frictional Games’ frustrating ability to take any semblance of safety and ease of passage away from the gameplay. The monster-infested castle crusade set the bar extremely high for the sequel.
A Machine for Pigs takes place on New Years’ Eve of 1899, 60 years after The Dark Descent. As with the first game’s Daniel, player character Oswald Mandus wakes up suffering severe amnesia (oh, look what they did there! A reference to the game title!). Mandus follows the cries of his young children and starts to get the feeling that he is not alone. The growing creepiness was reinforced with locks and keys covering everything… including the beds.
Like The Dark Descent, A Machine for Pigs builds up the initial tension quite nicely. Oswald catches glimpses of figures moving around and returns to areas that were pristine five minutes ago but have now been destroyed and vandalized. I learned from a few scattered phonographs that Oswald had taken a trip to Mexico that ended very, very badly.
What’s that? Details? And spare you the trouble of suffering through the game as I did? Nice try. After exploring some pleasantly foreboding bedrooms and bars, Oswald gets a telephone call from a stranger who says his children are in danger, trapped inside a machine that Oswald himself built. Recalling no such deed, Oswald immediately decides to save his kids, and goes into the one place we haven’t checked yet: the basement (chills).
To his surprise, Oswald finds an entire industrial complex buried beneath his house. We learn that prior to the Mexico incident, Oswald was a wealthy and well-respected industrialist who built an empire upon a successful meat processing enterprise.
It becomes clear, though, that this is no mere slaughterhouse. The entire facility is a machine, teeming with horrific creatures.
Monsters of any kind are bad, but the wobbling mutants Oswald finds appear to be half-man, half-pig. Fearing more than ever for his children, Oswald also becomes embroiled in a battle of wits with a mysterious saboteur, who is running about destroying machinery. Oswald is also horrified at the implications of what he sees. He built all of this? But why? What does this Machine do, and why is it filled with bipedal piggies?
Oswald, it seems, had questionable ethics before his accident. He gradually recollects past philosophies, past discussions, and a mission he undertook with the best intentions. That mission is hidden away inside the Machine, among the gore and the screams of pigs. Oswald sought to create a new, clean future for mankind, one free of wrongdoings, that somehow produced all of this. The truth, as it is, is not a pleasant one, and not even he may be able to stand it when all the memories return.
Not even I can deny that A Machine for Pigs‘ premise is engrossing, but I suppose I can avoid the question no longer; is this game better and/or scarier than its predecessor?
For all of its strong plot elements and the atmosphere you’re no doubt getting a taste of by now, I can’t decide whether I actually like this game or not. For reasons I cannot fathom, Frictional Games handed off development of their flagship series to The Chinese Room, best known for the story exploration game Dear Esther. I have nothing against The Chinese Room, but it’s clear after playing this game that they went in with a completely different idea of horror. Sorry to bring you down so hard, but it’s time for the complaint bucket. And this is a big one.
Tension is essential to creating good horror gameplay. The Dark Descent and good horror games create tension by placing severe limitations on your character in a hostile environment. Daniel couldn’t fight, would go insane by hiding in the dark, had to find medicine before bleeding to death and had a lantern that ran out of fuel very quickly.
The Chinese Room came in and neutered the gameplay. Oswald can’t fight, but he can hide in the dark ’till the cows come home. His health automatically regenerates, and his lantern never runs out of fuel. (Facepalm) you cannot create good horror gameplay if your character is enamored with limitless resources. Horror gamers out there, especially Amnesia fans, might understand how A Machine for Pigs’ gameplay felt like The Dark Descent on kindergarten difficulty. And it did.
Additionally, The Dark Descent had challenging puzzles requiring concentration and thorough exploration. In taking away the inventory system, A Machine for PIgs inadvertently restricts itself to simplistic, busywork mini-puzzles that were just over the “puzzle” line of demarcation. No mental effort whatsoever, typically “turn wheel A” or “insert object B”.
Another heartbreaker is the monsters themselves, the other source of tension in an Amnesia game. Encounters with the piggy beasts are rare; the game over-relies on spooky hallucinations and mild jumpscares to get the adrenaline going. When you do find the creatures, even the bigger ones, their attacks are weak and the beasts themselves are jaw-droppingly easy to get away from. I never died once in my playthrough of this game, compared to seven-eight times in The Dark Descent. In that game, monsters were almost too numerous and their attacks could drop you in a strike or two. Not here. My reaction gradually transformed from “S***! A MONSTER!” to, “oh crap, better turn around- ow! Stop slapping me!”
Finally, and perhaps most damning of all: the bugs. I’m blessed in that I’ve rarely had a buggy gaming experience, but I suppose all good things must come to an end. Oswald repeatedly tripped on staircases over what were apparently invisible speed bumps. Not many but a few visual elements glitched in and out of existence. His mansion is swamped in a field of bright blue mist, which I refuse to believe was a deliberate choice. To top it all off, the game crashed about halfway through the playthrough due to a phantasmal security violation, a problem that took a few hours for me to fix. These problems have since been patched, but still, what a pain.
And yet… despite all of that… I still think you should get this game.
I have never been more torn up about a game in my entire life. Because though A Machine for Pigs plays differently from The Dark Descent in almost every category, the game is still a deeper, more intriguing story. The philosophical arguments about mankind’s future, what course to take to best guide every one of us, haunted me throughout the game in a very subtle way. A Machine for Pigs also touches on arguments about industrialization, individual rights, wealth, and greed, and ties them into the game’s very essence. Though the horror from monsters and finite resources was subdued, a hidden, insidious terror clung to the game’s incredibly dark atmosphere and gave rise to a different kind of fear that I’ve never gotten from a horror game.
Those discussions and philosophies are when game stories are at their best. A diversity of viewpoints, informed opinions on both or more sides, and a complicated character or cast of characters cast somewhere between the lines. I’ve seen such storytelling gold before; in the original BioShock, my most favorite video game of all time. Perhaps A Machine for Pigs deserves to be cast in a similar light. I’m indecisive, because though the main elements of the first game are superior by far, this game has a few powerful elements of its own. That philosophical, existential fear isn’t as obvious as a slobbering monster, but the subtlety with which it operates is far more pervasive. It’s like each game is half of a greater, scarier whole.
Is that enough, then? Is an incredibly dark atmosphere and story enough to compensate for the subjection of broader horror elements that I’m used to by this point in the series? Bugs aside, perhaps the same amount of tension and awesomeness was always there, just in a different form. Sure, the game is not perfect. It has its problems and contradictions, but so did the first one.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs beats its predecessor in most categories of the art department. The game’s graphics are updated, but the system requirements to play this game remain low.
I guess a good way to put it is that the visuals achieve detail without being complicated.
Jessica Curry composed a beautiful score. I actually bought it (I never buy game music). It’s complex and precise, ebbing and flowing in synchronization with the game’s pacing. Deep, ominous horns form the music’s base, accented by razor-sharp violins and endtimes-style operatic movements. In many ways its similar to the open-ended and ponderous music of Dear Esther, The Chinese Room’s previous project. It’s a masterful score; I’m not very good with describing music, so I’ll close by saying that this description barely does it justice.
I did another fist-pump of justice when I heard the voice acting. The Dark Descent had adequate voice acting but rarely stirring. A Machine for Pigs has deeply emotional and convincing acting, especially from the performer behind Oswald Mandus himself. Oswald’s inner struggle and the fear that he has done something horribly wrong is well-executed in both the script and in the acting. The game’s other characters all performed at a stellar pace as well. Oswald’s strange partner ushers in an air of mystery with his voice alone.
Each of the game’s loading screens and most of the journal entries are poetic in their writing. Sometimes this made hints and suggestions difficult to understand, as opposed to The Dark Descent‘s dry to-do lists, but it was a nice touch, a pretty one that helped eschew the game’s dark motifs and spine-tingling imagery.
I know it may seem unfair to compare such an inherently different game to The Dark Descent, but since it’s the sequel, it can’t not be. That’s what makes this review so hard. I’ve been percolating a recommendation decision these past few minutes, and I suppose one thing I can say is that the game is different, but perhaps too different in its mechanics and makeup to fit the series. But, the game’s other strengths are so strong that it deserves reconsideration rather than damnation. The reduction in monsters and gameplay difficulty might be compensated for by the story, pacing and atmosphere. Even now I’m wondering if this game is still a surprise, one that I’m only now unraveling.
You can buy Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.