Fear, especially in video games, is a tricky thing primarily because you’re in the experience rather than vicariously comprehending it via another character. From the all-out insanity and outright battle for survival that was Outlast to the plodding, desperate and outright wrenching experience that was Slender, horror games have been exceptionally adept at wrenching every last bit of fear out of us.
But there was one game which served as the initiation for many into the dark world of horror gaming, kick-starting a bit of a renaissance for first person adventure games and frightening quests (along with innumerable Let’s Play videos). This was Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a relatively simple adventure that had you struggling to regain your memory while outmaneuvering a horrendous shadow. It was tense and the overall lack of information helped establish the frights of the darkness all the better.
Frictional has since moved on to other projects, with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs being handled by The Chinese Room, developer of Dear Esther. This is immediately apparent in the treatment of the game, which forgoes an outright delusionary approach in favour of more solid story-telling. You’ll still be playing as an amnesiac, namely Oswald Mandus who struggles to rescue his children and solve the mystery of an odd machine under the directions of the mysterious Engineer.
Diary entries, documents and the like will help provide a bit of information on what’s happening but for the most part, you’ll be comprehending the events as they happen. You’ll also come across the human-esque pig beings and do your bit to run away from them but they don’t quite eschew the same feeling of fright that the unstoppable shadow did in the original.
This isn’t to say that A Machine for Pigs isn’t uniquely scary. Rather, the atmosphere is completely different this time around. There is a feeling of things not quite being what they seem, of a deeper evil at work and a grim reality to be faced. It is a more scaled experience, with a beginning, middle and conclusion but fragmented into different time periods. Not to spoil anything beforehand but the story is well worth the trip, even if it’s nothing very new in today’s day and age. There is a greater hint of mystery involved this time around. We won’t say the horror has been significantly dialled down, given how this still isn’t a game for kids.
The visuals aid the atmosphere, aptly catering the mood of London on the eve of the 20th century while presenting a stark and macabre air overall. You’ll be exploring a good variety of environments, transitioning from an abandoned house to the sewers beneath and the very confines of the mysterious machine. The art direction is stellar but under-stated. The voice acting thankfully enhances the experience, with the sound effects still being as strong and adding to the creepy atmosphere more than detracting from it.
A Machine for Pigs also differs very strongly from The Dark Descent in terms of gameplay. You won’t be battling for your sanity this time around, struggling to balance between light and dark or carefully conserving fuel in your lantern while collecting tinderboxes (in fact, tinderboxes and oil have been removed entirely – there is no inventory to access either). Encounters with the pig-men don’t lead to your mental well-being suffering and you have an unlimited supply of fuel for your lantern.
This means that new players will be able to acclimatize themselves to the horrific atmosphere without needing to micro-manage their emotions. However, for more experienced players, these very elements enhanced the horrific charm of The Dark Descent. The simplification doesn’t feel odd, but it is obvious more often than not especially when your health automatically regenerates when receiving injuries.
As a horror-filled ride, there isn’t much to note with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. On the one hand, it doesn’t break any new ground or combine several old elements into something staggeringly new like its predecessor. On the other hand, what it does do, it does extremely well, even if it comes off as an entirely different entity overall. You’ll still be peering around corners and turning off your lamp to blend in with your surroundings, thus letting whatever horror is hunting you pass. It delivers a tout narrative in its six hour run time, slowly building up and providing a cohesive whole. It’s not an adrenaline packed experience but does feel sufficiently creepy and provoking enough to leave you in deep thought afterwards.
After Outlast though, it just doesn’t quite feel enough. Hopefully Frictional Games’ Soma will take things forward that much more while giving us a downright terrifying reason not to sleep at night. As it stands, A Machine for Pigs is a dark fantasy and reflection on the infinitely ugly ways of man. Nothing more, nothing less.
This game was reviewed on the PC.