Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Genre: Adventure/Survival Horror
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Release Date: 09/10/13
It’s been interesting seeing Frictional Games progress along from a developer with a cult horror following into a developer with a surprisingly large amount of love amongst the community, and this can almost entirely be credited to Amnesia. While the Penumbra Collection certainly got them to that point, the first game had its share of wonky combat issues, and Penumbra Requiem was more of a puzzle game than anything, leaving Penumbra: Black Plague as the best example of what the company could do with a horror game under ideal conditions. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was largely regarded as another of those “ideal” games, though a massive reliance on inventory odds and ends combined with a plot that devolved into silliness at the endgame hurt the game more than they should have. The concept was sound, however, and allowed for more freedom than the Penumbra series did, as Amnesia: Justine showed. By not tying the game to one specific protagonist, the Amnesia series is allowed to tell whatever stories the developers wish, and the transition from a man haunted by his past to a woman who tortured her suitors for sport was as strong an indication of that freedom as any. With Frictional working on other projects, however, the company offered up the franchise to developer The Chinese Room, who (aside from naming themselves after a thought experiment) developed the much beloved experimental adventure game Dear Esther, so their credentials coming in were certainly respectable. For those who were at all worried, let us assuage those worries now: while Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is something of a different game, it captures all of the important elements the franchise is loved for, and the end result is a game fans should certainly love, even if it’s not quite what they’re used to.
As with its predecessors, the two central themes of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs are the words of an amnesiatic unreliable narrator and medical/body horror. You take on the role of Oswald Mandus, who awakens to discover that his twin boys Edwin and Enoch have gone missing somewhere beneath his home, in the depths of a massive machine he doesn’t understand or remember existing. Of course, there’s more to the machine and his part in its existence than meets the eye, as there is to the strange voice calling him to lend assistance, and the abnormal monsters residing in the machine, but the extensive documents and recordings you discover and the notes Mandus makes as he goes do plenty to fill that information in either way. The execution of the plot in A Machine for Pigs is different from that of The Dark Descent, which may be something of a sticking point for the player, as the latter tended to show, while this game tends to spend more time telling. The game has its fair share of notes, documents, memories and recordings, but Mandus is also a far more vocal protagonist, talking to himself and the strange voice that aids him more and more as the game progresses, and the game is very much about telling a story above and beyond all else. That’s not a bad thing so to say, as the story the game is telling is a fine one, but there’s really only one ending to the game, and the game is much more narrative heavy, so those who enjoyed the subtlety of the prior game may find this a bit too hand holding for their tastes. On the other hand, the ending is much more satisfying and less obtuse, so in that regard, the plot here is an improvement.
A Machine for Pigs is an artistically outstanding game, combining steampunk nightmares and Victorian area aesthetics into a game world that’s interesting and creepy to explore. The environments are suitably disturbing, due to the effective use of lighting and artistic style in safer locations and the grotesque imagery and scary monstrosities you face in more risky locales. The lighting and ambient effects are also put to very good use here, giving the game a really effective and scary vibe even when nothing is going on, and from a visual perspective, the game works. Aurally, there’s plenty of good going on here too, thanks to a classical, ambient soundtrack that kicks up when needed but is otherwise absent or unnoticeable, and it fits the tone of the game nicely. The voice work is also generally solid; while the voices of your sons aren’t amazing, child actors tend not to be generally and they do fine enough, and the rest of the voice work is spot-on in terms of casting and delivery. The ambient effects also contribute well to the experience and make the game feel far more terrifying, and the various sounds for machines and violent monstrosities are all well implemented and utilized here.
First person horror games generally draw from the same base mechanical template, and A Machine for Pigs is no different. You can play the game with the keyboard and mouse or a compatible controller, and as the game isn’t Call of Duty, both control types work just fine. You can move with the left stick or normal WASD controls, while the right stick or mouse control your point of view (aiming isn’t really right since you don’t engage in combat, well, ever). Your character can jump over obstacles and duck to reach small pathways, as you’d expect, and you can dash to clear distances quickly or run from enemies who have discovered your presence. As in its predecessor, you also have a light source you can brandish to look around dark areas, which makes moving forward much easier in the dark, but can also draw the attention of enemies if you’re not careful. You can also pick up and move objects as needed, either to transport objects to a new location or to simply move things around if they’re in your way… or to throw chairs if you’re that kind of jerk (and I certainly am). You’ll also find various documents to review throughout the levels, and Mandus himself notes down ideas of importance that come to him as you progress through the levels, so you can review these at your leisure if you wish. Nothing, mechanically speaking, that the controls do are new or novel in and of themselves, so from that perspective, if you’re a fan of the prior games or just a genre fan in general, you’ll be able to jump right in with little difficulty.
Where A Machine for Pigs changes things up a bit is in the removal of any kind of actual inventory, by and large. The prior game generally required you to carry around various implements you’d need to use, either to survive or to accomplish puzzles, so you’d carry around objects that replenish your health, sanity and lantern, as well as puzzle solving implements. All of that’s gone here; your health regenerates over time, there’s no sanity meter to speak of, your lantern is electric powered and requires no additional charging, and you won’t have to carry any more than one item at a time to make forward progress. You’ll have to carry around an item now and again to transport it to a location for the purposes of solving a puzzle, so you might have to carry a fuse to a power box for example, but this isn’t too often and the game handles this concept well enough. Otherwise, however, the game has been streamlined quite a bit, meaning you won’t have to spend time looking for items to replenish your meters or hope you don’t run out of something when you’re exploring in the dark.
A lot of people have found this solution polarizing, and that’s fair, but honestly, inventory management as a method of scaring the player is something of a nineties conceit, done in games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark to add tension because you’ve blown through your healing implements instead of because the developers have any idea how to make a game scary. Inventory management as a horror mechanic is a conceit many players feel is a feature of games, and if you’re that sort of player, then no, A Machine for Pigs is probably not for you, as you’ll never run out of curatives or batteries and the sanity mechanic is long gone here. For those who, as I did, found those mechanics cumbersome and archaic, however, you’ll find A Machine for Pigs a far more effective game than its predecessor simply because it decided to stop being so bloody annoying and focus on the atmosphere. You don’t need to fumble around in your inventory to refill your lamp or stare at a wall for five minutes because a shoggoth turned your brains to mush and you don’t have a potion to fix it. You just need to explore, to let the ambience of the game do the job of scaring you, and for someone who’d much sooner spend their time exploring the game over looking for powerups, this is a Godsend.
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its share of terrors to deal with as you play along. The environment does plenty to get across the nature of the experience, both in the atmospheric sense (dark tunnels, creepy catacombs) and the violent death sense (steam vents, toxic locations), so you’ll certainly need to pay attention. There are also plenty of violent monsters looking for your blood, and as you’d expect, they’re largely porcine in nature. The various pigmen you face, aside from being generally disgusting in appearance, are effective as foes, and are absolutely all about ruining your business if they get ahold of you, so you’ll still have plenty of moments spent hiding in the shadows and running for your life as you play. The invisible monsters from The Dark Descent also make their return, for those who found them interesting, and the game uses the monsters more sparingly than its predecessor, using them when it’s effective, instead of in every zone, so you’ll be less likely to expect them and more likely to be caught off guard. There are also a few minor puzzles here and there, mostly involving how to use the environment to your advantage, akin to Penumbra, over the adventure game styled puzzles of the prior game, and they’re generally pretty effective. You likely won’t need a strategy guide to get through the game, honestly, and for the most part everything is fairly intuitive.
You can get through A Machine for Pigs in around six hours, give or take, though once it’s done, that’s basically about it, unfortunately. There’s only one ending, and while the ambience of the experience is generally excellent, there’s not any alternate pathways to take or choices to make, leaving the only reason to return to the game as experiencing the game a second time. Granted, horror games are often about the experience as much as anything, and this is absolutely a fun game to show to your friends with the lights out and the curtains drawn, but it’s not a game that lends well to repeat play, at least not immediately in any case. Still, for twenty dollars, A Machine for Pigs will give you a good experience while it lasts, and given that the price amounts to under four dollars an hour, that’s not bad at all given how some games offer that much play value for much higher prices.
For those who loved the original game, of course, you’ll find that A Machine for Pigs trades up a lot of the experience of the original for the experience The Chinese Room wanted to make, and those aren’t the same thing. The game is very much about telling over showing, and it strips out a lot of the more archaic mechanics, and while this is pleasing to some players (like me), many players found the idea depressing. If you liked the idea of hunting for objects or the idea of a plot that tells you much less than it shows you may be off-putting. Further, the mechanic of carrying an object to a new location to use it that replaces the inventory system is a bit inelegant in structure, as carrying an item in front of you to carry it along is, honestly, kind of silly. There’s no reason the character couldn’t just put the thing in his pocket or whatever, and while doing this with, say, coal rocks that need to be used in the room they’re found in is fine, needing to do this with a fuse you don’t need for another six rooms is a bit much. Finally, the game honestly doesn’t do as much with its elements as it could. The idea of the game is amazing, and the atmosphere is intense, but the game itself saves most of its good ideas for its plot exposition. More could have been done with the idea mechanically, and what’s here is fine, but there’s a good two hours where you’ll find yourself wondering what else the game can throw at you, only to find that the answer is “nothing” before the somewhat more powerful sequence at the end.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is not so much a better or worse game than Amnesia: The Dark Descent as it is a different game, and whether or not you appreciate those differences will be the major factor in deciding whether or not you like this game more or less than its predecessor. Taken on its own merits, the game works, between the interesting and well executed plot, the ambient and impressive visuals, the well assembled and composed audio, and the functional and simple to grasp gameplay. The game has been effectively boiled down to its base elements in this incarnation, and the end result is a game that uses the ambience and the frailty of the protagonist to carry the experience over complex puzzles and item management, and overall, the experience works, and works well. Fans of the franchise may find that they don’t appreciate the game’s more vocal approach to storytelling or eschewing of inventory management as a means of conveying horror, the substituted “carry items around manually” system is a little silly, and one can’t help but feel that The Chinese Room could have done more with the experience, which is essentially over and done with in six hours. A Machine for Pigs does a fine job of continuing the Amnesia series, and it tells a tale that’s worth seeing through to its conclusion, though whether or not the game is ultimately better or worse than its predecessor will depend on the sort of player you are; it’s certainly worth its asking price, though, and that’s what’s most important.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, taken on its own merits, is a scary, ambient game that’s worth its asking price, though whether or not you enjoy it will depend on what, exactly, you’re looking for your horror game to do. The plot is strong and does a good job of building mood and characterization from start to finish, the game is visually and aurally ambient and interesting, and the gameplay works as well as it did in its predecessors while also being accessible to newcomers. The game strips away the inventory management aspects of the game and focuses on using the ambience and plot to terrify the player, and while this won’t please everyone, the game handles this turn of events well enough, such that it will carry you through its six hour play time handily and give you suitable scares along the way. For those who loved the prior game in the series, the “tell, don’t show” method of storytelling A Machine for Pigs employs and the eschewing of horror through inventory management may leave them feeling cold to the product as a result. Further, the “carry stuff around manually” solution to removing the in-game inventory is a little silly at times, the game is a one-and-done affair, and one can’t help but feel that The Chinese Room could’ve done more with the concept than was actually done in the end. A Machine for Pigs is a horror experience that’s worth its asking price, and genre fans should definitely enjoy it, but what you’re going to get from it is largely going to be informed by your opinion of The Dark Descent, and that’s something you’ll really need to consider before you jump in.