Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
It’s the scratching behind that door that sounds like trotters scraping on wood. It’s the porcelain pig mask that wasn’t there a minute ago, but now stares blankly in your direction. It’s the nightmarish squeals that echo from that oddly shaped shadow around the corner. And it’s the thunderous earthquake that’s shaking the room, as if some huge machine is fracking the earth beneath your feet. It’s because of all of these things that The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a palm-sweatingly tense experience. Or rather, it is for the first hour.
Suggestion is one of the most powerful tools of horror in any medium, and it’s the idea of what might be lurking just out of sight that A Machine for Pigs initially thrives upon, much like the original, Frictional Games developed Amnesia: The Dark Descent did. But with A Machine for Pigs The Chinese Room have introduced a number of changes to Frictional’s template that serve only to dilute the effectiveness of that suggestion.
Largely, the game’s premise and structure are intact. You play as Oswald Mandus, a wealthy industrialist suffering from short-term memory loss and plagued by strange ethereal voices and visions. Draw through an increasingly dark and dank environment by the sound of his missing children’s voices, Mandus’ journey is one of linear corridors, simple mechanical puzzles and a cloying, oppressive atmosphere of dread.
The most immediately obvious difference between A Machine for Pigs and The Dark Descent is the lack of the sanity mechanic. In The Dark Descent, staring at your malformed assailants caused a lucid panic to take over the screen. Your vision blurred, the screen swayed and the game became almost unplayable. It was a clever piece of design that stopped you from looking at your enemies, and solved a common problem with monster-based horror: once you fully understand your attackers and their abilities, they’re not quite as scary. The swine’s that stalk the Victorian-era halls here, however, induce no such effect. You’re free to stare at them until any sense of fear they had instilled dissolves away.
They’re also too sparsely employed. A Machine for Pigs spends so long dropping hints about what these malevolent beings might be that you’d be forgiven for questioning whether you are ever actually going to see them. Constantly, The Chinese Room winds up tension with the suggestion of a monster, but then there’s nothing. Its nerve racking to stand on the edge of that big reveal, to be within earshot of a hoof scratching on the other side of a locked door, but these moments are never quite executed on as effectively as they could have been.
There’s a pacing issue here: the length of time that enemies are hinted at isn’t short enough to lull you into a false sense of security, rather it’s so long as to push you towards a very real sense of comfort, which is a shame, because visually and narratively, they’re an interestingly designed presence.
Along with the removal of the sanity mechanic, The Chinese Room have simplified a number of The Dark Descent’s other features, diminishing the sense of urgency and panic that made the original Amnesia so effective. Its puzzles are mostly a move object X to location Y type affair. And keeping the environment lit is no longer a resource dependant issue, as the Victorian era electric lamp you find early on seems to run on modern day battery technology, which, judging by the games’ length, has at least a five hour lifespan. This, combined with the lack of a need to consider your sanity, means that darkness in the game is no longer something to be feared, but rather a safe zone that can be used to hide from your pursuers – the comforting ally that it is to Sam Fisher.
What The Chinese Room have introduced is a series of audiotapes and phone calls from an anonymous tour guide, who teases the location of your missing children. These give Mandus’ journey a strong sense of direction. The Chinese Room are clearly literary folk and the beautiful prose seen in Dear Esther has rubbed off in both the written and spoken words of A Machine for Pigs. It’s eloquent, suggestive and suitably swine-themed.
Narrative reveals are measured out at an enticing pace, and the overall arc keeps you second guessing right until the very end. That ending is confusingly presented, but it’s subtle and well-thought out, with strong themes of capitalism, industrialisation and greed becoming embroiled with personal emotions. A Machine for Pigs might not unsettle you through play, but in story and style, there’s an ever-present sense of foreboding dread.
That dread is evoked perfectly in its Victorian-era setting. Stuffy hallways, cobbled streets, and monolithic, industrial locations provide a more fruitful backdrop for tension than the cold stone walls of Brennenburg Castle. This was a time when the profits of efficient but monstrous machinery were pursued without thought or care for consequence, and The Chinese Room have effectively soaked A Machine for Pigs in the potential of these environments.
It isn’t as nerve-shreddingly terrifying as its predecessor, but A Machine for Pigs purveys a different kind of horror, revelling in the power of suggestion rather than the substance of real threat. There are missteps in how it orchestrates this suggestion, but it’s not so hog-footed as to be unworthwhile. Just don’t expect those palms to remain moist throughout.