Frictional Games Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an undisputed classic. Its focus on subsuming the player in Lovecraftian madness was, at the time of release, unparalleled, and the shadow it has cast over horror gaming is long – Alien: Isolation and Outlast are two notable releases influenced by it. September 22nd, 2015 will see the release of Soma, Frictional Games next foray into horror, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit A Machine for Pigs before it releases. I didn’t get around to playing it when it was released – it suffered performance-wise to its predecessor, and my PC at the time was underpowered for a satisfactory playthrough. I’ve since rectified the latter problem with a brand new rig, and I was eager to dive into this controversial entry in the Amnesia duology.
While Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs bares the Amnesia name and has a similar structure – as in the original title, you play a man who wakes under the caul of amnesia – it’s a very different game, made by The Chinese Room rather than Frictional Games. The game is so different that its legacy is one that, despite relative critical success, is discussed more in terms of whether or not it was a game worthy of bearing the Amnesia name rather than whether it was good in and of itself. While its been quite a while since I played The Dark Descent, the experience was powerful enough that elements remain relatively fresh in mind. Having recently completed The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To Rapture, I was quite excited to delve into their earlier game and, hopefully, be scared silly.
A Machine for Pigs certainly looks the Amnesia part – it runs on the same rickety HPL engine, this time with an odd blue haze filter. The game opens with Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted reflection on excess, “he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” We’re not entirely in a Lovecraftian universe anymore in A Machine for Pigs, rather a kind of Gothic meets Heart of Darkness meets The Island of Doctor Moreau. A Machine for Pigs wants to explore what drives humankind’s capacity for atrocity, whether civilization had ever elevated us from beasts at all. Heady stuff, then, especially for the world of videogames. The player inhabits the character of Mandus, who, waking from an extended fever, searches his home for his children. Soon, he encounters a voice on an intercom system known as The Engineer, and, guided by his urgings and scattered notes, Mandus plunges onward and downward, every step haunted by visions of his children, giggling and ever flitting away around the next corner. As you progress, the environments become more strange and sinister.
Perhaps the most bold change that A Chinese Room made when designing A Machine for Pigs was to strip The Dark Descent survival horror framework away. There is no sanity mechanic, and there are no resources to manage; Mandus’s lantern has an infinite supply of oil here. The only danger of using the lantern too often is that it might alert the occasional enemy to your presence. Like it’s predecessor, there is no mechanic for defending yourself; you can only avoid encounters through stealth, or run like hell. Here, though, encounters are a relatively rare occurrence. A Chinese Room focused much more on telling a story through the environment than through stories emergent from the gameplay or through adventure game mechanics like puzzles. While there are puzzles, they’re all quite simple. It’s in these elements where A Machine for Pigs suffered initially when compared to The Dark Descent. Players coming to this game expecting something similar to The Dark Descent were met with a game that only superficially resembled it. Pure speculation, but I’d guess that had A Machine for Pigs been marketed differently, had it not born the Amnesia name, it likely would have been more warmly received. Certainly, A Machine for Pigs doesn’t have quite the same tension level as The Dark Descent. There are effectively only two monsters here, and I didn’t find either one much of a threat. Their AI is quite simple, and they are quite easy to avoid. Neither of these flaws are enough to sink the game or strip it of it’s terror, however.
Amnesia: A Machine for pigs is an audaciously weird and literary game. It is slow paced, and overflowing with wonderful, evocative writing – ”The horizon a slit throat,” and “We walk upon our histories; they are compacted into the very loam beneath our feet,” for example – and it’s central idea of an unfathomably large machine beneath the city of London is a beautiful one. It is a harrowing apocalyptic vision, filled with surreal landscapes configured of flesh and machine, steam and blood. Pipes stretch beyond sight into the darkness, pigs howl, and pipes hiss in this steampunk Hell.. This is not a game for everyone. There are no easy thrills here. It demands patience and imagination. But, it is a beautiful, singular work, commendable not only for being a completely different animal to The Dark Descent (forgive the pun), but also for being a strange and hypnotic work of art in it’s own right. I’m extremely glad I went back to this game and gave it a chance. If you are in the mood for something different, something considerably stranger than what is normally served, give A Machine for Pigs a chance. There’s nothing like it.
Now, bring on Soma!