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Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

The Good:
+ Atmosphere is thick and unnerving
+ Mature plot is replete with symbolism
+ Immersive control scheme and physics engine remain in place
+ Masterful art and sound design

The Bad:
– Simplified gameplay is lacking in memorable scares or puzzles
– Narrative suffers from convoluted delivery and derivative setup

Amnesia: The Dark Descent and its spiritual predecessors, the Penumbra series, have a history of shaky, one-step-forward, one-step-back releases. Penumbra’s first title featured previously unmatched atmosphere and horror thanks to a ground-breaking control scheme and smart game design, both of which were ruined by god-awful combat and a half-finished plot. Its follow-up was a significant improvement in many ways, but was noticeably less scary outside of specific moments, and its expansion was a toothless, frustrating waste of time.

The first Amnesia was the only unbridled success of the lot; it was the most genuinely terrifying game since…ever, and it was only held back by the bland, distracting puzzles it forced on you between bouts of playable nightmare. Amnesia’s second incarnation, A Machine for Pigs, inevitably follows this same pattern, and the result has been predictably polarizing. But if you can accept its change in focus and see it as its own game, rather than as Amnesia 2, you’ll discover a haunting, vivid story with just a few stretch marks from where it outgrew its old skin.

It’s true that the game is not as directly frightening as its predecessor – there are no moments as heart-stopping as that first groaning Grunt silhouette, and there’s no longer anything preventing you from just staring directly at the game’s hostile abominations, deflating some of their enigmatic horror value. In fact, there are some late-game story moments where you’re actually encouraged to observe their behaviour and appearance. Instead, A Machine for Pigs is more like the first game’s Torture Chamber area stretched into a full game – it’s horror of the psychological variety. It’s disturbing and creepy, with moments of immediate danger and panic serving only as punctuation, rather than being a string of terror-filled setpieces connected by atmospheric hallway crawls. To dismiss it as simply “not scary” is to announce your own lack of attention span.

“I’m not being attacked, therefore it’s not scary.” – Idiots

Not that any of this was unexpected; A Machine for Pigs was primarily developed by The Chinese Room (best known for their artsy, meandering narrative experiment Dear Esther), under the supervision of previous developers Frictional Games. There were plenty of pre-release rumblings that this project would just be a horror-flavoured Dear Esther, and while that’s not quite the case, the sense that it’s a simple combination of both company’s design techniques is quite palpable. And since Dear Esther was the definition of love-it-or-hate-it, A Machine for Pigs seems destined to rub some people the wrong way. To their credit, The Chinese Room have contributed their strongest work yet to A Machine for Pigs, and it highlights their areas of expertise marvellously. The art design is absolutely stunning when it’s not (and sometimes when it is) deeply horrifying, the audio direction is terrific, and the plot isvastly more mature and interesting than what we’re used to seeing.

Said plot begins 60 years after The Dark Descent, on New Year’s Eve in 1899, with only a tangential relation to the original game apart from a shared love of pointless amnesia and impossibly elaborate European structures. It follows a wealthy industrialist named Oswald Mandus as he is guided by a mysterious voice through the depths of a colossal steampunk machine in search of his missing children. The machine’s purpose (apart from the violent processing of living “product”) has been lost to Mandus’ amnesia, but is constantly hinted to be something more. Even after you learn the origin and philosophy behind its creation, there’s a lingering sense that the machine is bigger than you, figuratively as much as literally. The machine is treated – and more importantly, feels – like some unknowable entity, with dark corners that you can never see and functions that you can never understand.

Just like Dear Esther, this game uses “high-brow” literary devices like symbolism far more and far better than most other games. While it could be argued that the “humans as pigs” motif is a little overdone, it’s executed in such horrific, multifaceted ways that it supports the overall plot perfectly. Furthermore, the taunting pig masks that appear throughout the game add another layer of nagging paranoia and ambiguous symbolism to an experience already overflowing with both. Beyond its academic value, the plot is also a refreshing twist on the already enjoyable Lovecraftian style of horror the previous games embraced – one where the incomprehensible god is artificial and perhaps a little more relevant to a modern mindset.

“The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, indeed.

Despite all this, there are two elephants in the room throughout the entire game: the fact that a video game protagonist has amnesia again, and the fact that the setup is pretty much identical to that of the first game, right down to its unnecessarily convoluted delivery. The Dark Descent’s piecemeal narrative meant you could miss important details if you didn’t find the correct collectible, and that’s still the case here, only it’s exacerbated by all the ambiguity and doublespeak. In the first game, I was never sure why the protagonist needed to give himself amnesia to accomplish his goals; here, I’m not sure why he has amnesia at all.

The other element of Dear Esther that A Machine for Pigs incorporates is simplified gameplay. It’s not nearly as stripped-down as its inspiration, but it does lack the sanity effects and inventory of the previous game, making for more streamlined mechanics with many effects on the overall experience. The worst of these is that it simply makes the non-horror gameplay forgettable. While I wasn’t a big fan of The Dark Descent’s puzzles, I can at least remember some of them; the puzzles in A Machine for Pigs are just an interchangeable haze of steampunk machinery. Their simplicity combined with the elaborate level designs also means they tend to jump between insultingly easy and obnoxiously unintuitive.

Despite this, I’m inclined to say they actually complement the overall product better than before. The simple puzzles shift the focus to the excellent story, and while they’re certainly less interesting than before, they’re also less annoying, allowing you to get back to the main attractions of horror and plot faster. They’re also more thematically appropriate; the clockwork machinery of The Dark Descent’s puzzles always felt out of place in its castle setting, but fiddling with elaborate levers and pipes in A Machine for Pigs fits right in with its ubiquitous steampunk imagery.

It’s for this reason that this room is one of my favourites in the game.

From a purely technical perspective, A Machine for Pigs is a masterpiece. The spectacularly immersive control scheme and complementary physics that brought the previous games such acclaim returns, for one thing. But more importantly, the sound design is some of the best I’ve ever heard. The game uses the old trick of playing creepy noises around you everywhere you go, but it succeeds in creating tension where other games fail because of its lack of repetition. Between mysterious footsteps, monstrous groans, mechanical cacophonies, and earth-shaking rumbles, the game simply never does the same thing twice. And because one out of every ten or so noises will actually be made by something capable of tearing off all your limbs, it’s extremely effective at keeping you on your toes at all times, even if you’re just exploring a bathroom. Of course, it helps that the quality of these sound effects is also superb throughout, and that the voice acting is equally skilled.

In summary, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is just as good as its predecessor, but for very different reasons. It swaps immediate terror for subtle, cumulative dread, and it swaps gameplay depth for narrative intrigue, and the result is neither better nor worse, just different. If you liked Dear Esther, you’ll appreciate its concept’s refinement here, and if you didn’t like it, you’ll appreciate the concept’s expansion. Amnesia fans will of course be harder to please, but as long as you can accept a different kind of horror every now and then, this sequel is more than worthy of its title.

Score: 7/10

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