Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: The Chinese Room
Release Date: 10th of September, 2013
Time Played: 4 Hours
Concept and Execution
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs arrives in a particularly difficult spot. Serving as the follow up to the well-received Amnesia: The Dark Descent, A Machine for Pigs has the task of living up to the standards set by Frictional’s horror masterpiece. Compounding this is the change in developers, as Frictional handed development off to indie developer The Chinese Room, best known for the indie darling Dear Esther. The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther relied very little on player interaction, instead opting to have a narrator tell the story as the player explored a deserted island. This makes for a marked departure from the first Amnesia, as we’ll see later.
The game opens with the protagonist, Oswald Mandus, waking up alone in his London mansion on New Year’s Eve, 1899. As the title would suggest, Mandus is plagued with amnesia. All that he can remember are his twins, Edward and Enoch, and that they are missing. As such he takes it upon himself to find them, delving into the bowels of the mansion, and then into the depths of the titular machine, in a race against time and a mysterious saboteur. He is guided via telephone terminals by a person identified only as “The Engineer,” who informs him of the saboteur that has damaged the machine and put his children in danger, as well as clues that give him hints as to the history of this machine and of his past. It’s reminiscent of some of Lovecraft’s work, particularly Herbert West: Reanimator and “From Beyond.”
There are allusions made to the first game, with references to the orb that served as the impetus for The Dark Descent’s plot, as well as to Alexander of Brennenburg, the original’s antagonist. This makes for a much more interesting setting, as the continuity between the two implies a larger narrative that those who have played both will appreciate. It’s also notable in that it provides context for the technological changes between The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs. The difference in time between the two, around sixty years, and the positioning of the second at the turn of the 20th century, allows for a noticeable change in technology. While quasi-magical elements still exist, much of the ancient and archaic machinery of the first game are replaced with vacuum tubes, steam pipes, and electrical lights. There are candles, for example, but all of the lights that the player interacts with are light bulbs or otherwise electrical in nature.
It’s with this meshing of narratives that allows The Chinese Room to get away with their drastic change in focus. Part of what made the original Amnesia tense was the lack of agency on the part of the player when it came to defense. Monsters lurking in Castle Brennenburg served as the obstacles that the player had to contend with, and the player was denied any means of defense. This allowed Frictional to create tension that made otherwise simple puzzles a laborious task. The Chinese Room, however, eschews these puzzles in exchange for a focus on narrative. The helplessness against the wretched monstrosities of the machine is still there, and they do well to build tension in that regard, but it’s less impactful when there isn’t a task for the tension to play off of. The monsters lose some of their impact when there isn’t something forcing the player to stay near them.
What The Chinese Room does to make up for this is to focus on the story, littering the experience with audio logs, journal entries, telephone calls, and hallucinations. Normally this would come off as lazy, with the story being given passively in small increments as the player stumbles across them. Structurally, though, this method works well. The lack of information given to the player and unavailable to the protagonist makes for an intriguing set up, encouraging the player to delve deeper in the machine to find out what’s really going on.
Narratively it is compelling; the writer, Dan Pinchbek, who also wrote Dear Esther, has shown that he knows how to craft a horror story that can be both disgusting and heartfelt (well, it is a bit pulpy, but that’s the nature of Lovecraftian horror). From a gameplay perspective, though, there is very little substance, and that ends up hurting it, if only slightly.
Concept and Execution Grade: 23/25 (A-)
A Machine for Pigs can be best described as a combination of Dear Esther and The Dark Descent. While there is a lot of skulking through corridors and consuming chunks of narrative, there are also mechanics from the first Amnesia that appear in this latest entry. Like The Dark Descent, A Machine for Pigs makes use of lighting and sound in order to drive home the horror. Lights flicker when monsters approach, squeals and footsteps echo off of the walls, and music provides flourishes at the appropriate times.
How the player interacts with these effects ends up feeling rather lacking, though. In the prior Amnesia, the player had to contend with a sanity meter and a limited supply of resources with which he or she could activate light sources. None of those are present in this game. Rather, the tinder boxes and lantern oil canisters have been exchanged for light switches and an electric lantern. Any light source that the player can interact with can be turned on or off at will without any concern for the consequences, save for occasions with the lantern where one would want to keep it off in order to avoid drawing attention.
All of that would have been fine, had The Chinese Room kept the sanity meter. In The Dark Descent, the longer the player stayed in the darkness, the less stable the character became. He would see bugs crawling in his vision and begin to stumble the longer he went without a light source in which to calm himself. In A Machine for Pigs, however, there is none of that, and it feels odd. Here is a character that is seeing terrible things – man-pigs, pig carcasses, vials of foul smelling liquid, machines that serve some ungodly purpose – and his reaction at every point is oddly muted. The lack of any meaningful mechanic to play off these horrific scenes ends up hurting not just the gameplay, but the cohesiveness of the narrative as a whole.
There were some cases, though, where The Chinese Room made excellent use of lighting and sound to build tension, particularly in what can be thought of as mini-boss “fights” (I use the term “fight” loosely) where the player has to rely on both senses to keep track of a monster as it stalks them in a cramped environment. The player is confronted by a hulking man-pig with arcing electrical equipment strapped to it. It’s big, slow, and loud, but it’s presented in a way that makes it difficult to evade. It appears following a brief blackout of the player’s vision, and phases in and out of sight as it patrols the room. It’s still there, even when it’s invisible, making it necessary to keep track of the creature’s location by listening for its footsteps. All the player is tasked with is flipping two switches, but the added threat makes it infinitely more exhilarating.
A Machine for Pigs is enjoyable to play through. The return of the tactile manipulation of doors and levers was welcomed, and lacking any form of self-defense really drives home the horror element. It just ends up feeling a little dull, with too much focus on story and not enough on problem solving.
Mechanics Grade: 20/25 (B-)
A Machine for Pigs is set in a more industrialized locale than the first Amnesia. What’s interesting about the world is the way in which it’s structured, which allows for a varied aesthetic that keeps things visually interesting while maintaining a consistent level of unease. The mansion has beds with metal bars that make them out to be cages and crawlspaces with one-way windows that look into bathrooms and study chambers. The dark streets of London have a depressive air to them with the grime covered bricks and thin layer of fog that sticks to the air. The giant factory complex, with its numerous structures and departments, is visually diverse enough as the player makes his or her way through that it never feels monotonous while still feeling like a singular structure. It’s gritty. It’s nasty. It’s abundantly clear that horrible things have happened in its subterranean belly.
The game is visually striking while not being that graphically impressive. Yes, the graphics look rather dated, with this stream of what appears to be blood repeating its texture about every five meters, and there is a certain sheen to a lot of textures that shouldn’t be there, but it still looks downright filthy and you don’t want to be there. The lighting works wonderfully in that regard as well. A Machine for Pigs is a very dark game, visually speaking, making what light you can get stand out that much more. The trusty lantern cuts through the darkness without exposing too much, and it reacts to monsters in a way that alerts you to their presence without feeling out of place. Everything is made to mess with the player’s imagination.
The Chinese Room makes excellent use of sound to achieve this end as well. There will be a moment when you head down a flight of stairs and into an unlit hallway and some monster runs past. It’s not just there for that moment. Guttural snorts and labored footsteps travel through the corridors, making sure that you know it’s out there. The genius of it is that you might not even run into the monster again, but that tension is still there. You know it’s in there somewhere, and you need to go there in order to proceed. The sound work forces the player to remember that there is something horrible ahead of them and that they need to risk confronting it in order to continue.
Jessica Curry, who previously composed the soundtrack for Dear Esther, has created a soundtrack that perfectly encapsulates the emotion and gravitas of A Machine for Pigs. Two arrangements in particular, “Mandus” and “Dieses Herz,” when placed in context with the protagonist’s tragic story, actually gave me goosebumps. The latter in particular, when translated as “This Heart,” is profound in its relation to the story.
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Another song that stood out, “Mors Praematura,” perfectly captures the chaos of the section with which it’s associated with. At that point in the game everything has gone wrong and the player is meant to feel as though they’ve failed. It’s an incredibly powerful arrangement attached to an incredibly dire situation.
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Voices for the rather small cast of characters are provided by Toby Longworth (Oswald Mandus), Mark Roper (the Engineer and the Professor), and Zak Craig (Edwin and Enoch Mandus). The first two have acted or provided voice work in the past, with Toby Longworth having participated in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Mark Roper in The Da Vinci Code, while Zak Craig makes his debut performance here.
Mr. Longworth’s performance is touching, especially at the end when it all comes together, and Mr. Roper gives the Engineer the right amount of urgency and subtlety that is required to keep the interaction between Mandus and the Engineer interesting without feeling like it’s odd that the two are communicating via telephone, and rather loudly, whilst monsters are wandering in the vicinity.
This really is where Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs stands out. The story, as fantastical as it may seem, is brought down to earth and made understandable by the sorrowful score, intense atmosphere, and heartfelt voice acting.
Atmosphere Grade: 25/25 (A+)
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, is a fantastic game. It has a lot going for it as it tries to meet the expectations established by The Dark Descent, and it performs amicably. By eschewing the first game’s emphasis on puzzle solving, The Chinese Room was able to focus on the plot and deliver a powerful narrative. It’s a combination of horror, inner turmoil, and redemption that far outclasses the story of The Dark Descent by a wide margin.
That said, it took me roughly four hours to complete, and I only died twice. If you’re looking for something to sink your teeth into for a long stretch of time, you may want to look elsewhere. The game is light on content, but rich with lore and atmosphere. It’s best to think of it as an interactive movie, where the plot is more important than the actual action of play.
Entertainment Value: 22/25 (A-)
As a piece of fiction that you can consume as you would a book or a movie, I can’t recommend it enough. Its lack of any meaningful mental challenge is offset by its narrative, and if you would pay $20 to own a movie then there is no reason why this should be a question.
Well, unless you’re deathly afraid of pigs. There is that.