Back in 2010, Frictional Games scared the shagbarks* out of us with disturbing survival-horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Horror junkies couldn’t wait for them to do it again, and with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, they’ve repeated—and in some ways surpassed—their previous success. So put on your headphones, turn out the lights, and get the adult diapers ready kids, ’cause this one’s a doozy.
In creating A Machine for Pigs, Frictional’s taken on the role of publisher, allowing development company The Chinese Room (makers of the critically-acclaimed Dear Esther) do the actual fear-fabrication. This is a smart move considering The Chinese Room’s storytelling chops. Building on The Dark Descent’s methodology, A Machine for Pigs casts you as a man whose past is veiled. You wake in a Victorian bedroom inside a rich four-poster bed surrounded by cell-like bars. Who or what are the bars meant to contain?
From this unsettling beginning, A Machine for Pigs sets you on a journey to rediscover who you are and as in The Dark Descent, this isn’t a happy process. From half-heard voices and diary entries found lying around the labyrinthine house, you gather that you’ve suffered a devastating loss and must continue onward to avoid a loss even more profound. Though driven by paternal love, reacquainting yourself with the house isn’t easy. Not only is it shrouded in Victorian gloom, it turns even more sinister as musty attics and hidden passageways reveal secrets both suggestive and disturbing.
Also as in The Dark Descent, the sound design is the core of the experience. Whistling wind, dull knockings, and the sound of your own footsteps echo through the sepulchral halls, setting you up brilliantly for each well-timed fright. The graphics are extremely simple, (let’s face it – the Amnesia series will never win any beauty contests) but effectively support the rich aural ambience. It’s well-nigh impossible to overstate how well sound is handled here. Long stretches of near-silence are broken on occasion by sudden noises and this creates unbelievable tension. At one point, I just about jumped out of my skin at the simple sound of a phone ringing. Of course, once I recovered I smiled in fond recognition — oh yeah, that’s what Amnesia’s meant to feel like.
It all came back to me: the knot in my stomach, the holding of the breath, the dread I felt every time my hand reached for a doorknob — those are the reactions Amnesia manufactures so well. If any doubt remains that The Chinese Room can recreate the Amnesia magic, it vanishes the moment you find yourself creeping around in the dark and get hit by a rush of vertigo-inducing recall. The Chinese Room has actually improved upon the original Amnesia by cutting back on the dizzy spells and removing the need for you to heal and find light. Although you’re subjected to moments of blurry light-headedness, it’s temporary and triggered only by story sequences. Even better, your lantern never gives out so there’s little worry the darkness will suddenly sap your strength.
What you do have to worry about in the darkness however, are the dangerous things lurking there, things ready and willing to abbreviate your time on Earth. Although the survival aspect feels much less the focus in A Machine for Pigs, there are still plenty of “oh shit” moments where the smart thing — and only thing — to do is run for your life.
In addition to eliminating the fun-reducing elements of The Dark Descent, A Machine for Pigs is also more narratively sophisticated. It starts with a quote by Samuel Johnson, ends with another by Leon Trotsky regarding the failings of human nature, and uses the entire game to reinforce that theme. Set in 1899, at the height of the Industrial Age and not long before the horrors of World War I, the game explores the dark side of Utopian thinking. Amazing writing combined with incredibly good voice acting on the part of the hero make for a level of intellectual refinement not often seen in video games. There’s some deep stuff going on here as A Machine for Pigs addresses timely questions regarding class warfare, science, economic progress and humanity’s right to life. On a more personal level, it addresses the notion of evil and Breaking Bad-like, asks the question, “To what extremes might an average man be driven?”
Along with great atmosphere, sound design and writing, A Machine for Pigs deserves credit for its masterful construction and timing. Somehow, it maintains a sense of freedom while expertly guiding you; subtle visual motifs make clear which doors can be opened and which turns you should take so you’re never confused about where to go next. Also, as mentioned before, the game’s timing is great, and every narrative moment, flashback and scare is designed to play your emotions like a cheap tin whistle.
The long silences and sudden wrenches into abject terror build toward a climax that while perhaps obvious to more savvy gamers, is nonetheless a horrific end to a grinding industrial nightmare. Even post-denoument, the game maintains its creaky turn-of-the-century tone with a creepy music hall chorus holding forth over the credits.
A Machine for Pigs is a sickening, tension-inducing, terrifying game. It successfully draws upon the first Amnesia’s strengths but moves well beyond them to offer a brand of horror that’s not only intelligent and philosophical, but emotionally complex. It hits us at a primal level and proves, as did the first Amnesia, how much is possible within limited means. Let’s hope the Frictional/ The Chinese Room collaboration continues indefinitely, because the world could use more of Amnesia’s dark descendants.
*shagbark: a tree with grey shaggy bark and edible nuts. Mmm…nuts.