Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Review: Failure to match the sins of the father
At a Glance
I was skeptical of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Over the span of the last five years or so, Frictional has earned a soft spot in my heart as one of my favorite game development studios. Their debut offering, 2007's Penumbra: Overture, remains gripping despite its lackluster graphics, and 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent is one of the best horror games of all time.
But Machine for Pigs isn't made by Frictional. Not really.
Despite the insinuation that Machine for Pigs is a sequel to The Dark Descent, the game was created in large part by Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room. Dear Esther, if you've never played it, is a brilliant bit of visual poetry where you (for the most part) walk around and listen to bits of narration. Beautiful, but not exactly the studio I expected to take over a horror franchise. Then as the game met with delay after delay...well, I lost faith.
Put me down amongst the converted.
The sins of the father
Machine for Pigs is the game embodiment of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, or at least it's notoriously gruesome portrayal of the atrocities committed in Chicago's slaughterhouses. Okay, not literally, but you can definitely see the inspiration. You play as Oswald Mandus, a Victorian-era mogul of industry afflicted with—surprise!—amnesia. At some point in your murky past you built a gigantic underground contraption known only as “The Machine,” but you have no idea what it does or why it's important. Oh, and the whole town is missing, your family included.
You must crawl down into the growling depths of this mechanized titan of industry, discovering scattered notes and journal entries in the process that reveal your past. It's an utterly familiar setup for anyone who played Frictional's previous games.
What The Chinese Room does best is exercise restraint. Machine for Pigs is streamlined, to say the least. No more lamp oil or tinderboxes to artificially force you into conserving light sources. No more inventory. No more risk of succumbing to insanity while cowering in the dark. A lot of the game-y systems from Dark Descent are gone, leaving behind a purer story experience.
I actually sympathize with the team, as they're in a bit of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation with Machine for Pigs. I suspect quite a few people are going to be upset about how many of Frictional's mechanics are missing from Machine for Pigs.
Not me. I've put in my time with Frictional's games—like, I've played every single one. Yes, even the abysmal Penumbra: Requiem. I've hidden in a lot of closets. I've crept through hundreds of shadowy rooms. I've been chased by monsters both silly and scary.
At no point in any of those games did I pause, breath ragged in my tortured throat, and think, “I'm glad I have to haul all these stupid items with me.”
When I play a horror game, more than any other genre, I have to feel like I'm in the world. I need to feel vulnerable. Force me to navigate an inventory menu, and you might as well put a brick wall between me and the experience.
It's partly a result of how I play games: I'm a digital hoarder, so inventory systems don't do their job. If you tell me I have a limited number of X resource, I'll save each and every one. While others might have fond memories of creeping through the original Amnesia's corridors, scant drops of oil left between them and darkness, I had enough resources at all times to power a small town. Giving me an infinite light source in Machine for Pigs that I shouldn't use simply because it's a stupid idea to turn on your light when the dark is your friend is far better, in my mind, than an artificial inventory constraint.
Which brings us to the next point: the original Amnesia's sanity system. When you lingered in the shadows in Dark Descent, your character quickly “lost sanity,” meaning the screen would warp and you'd hear weird skittery noises. I don't have any issue with the concept—I loved similar systems in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and Eternal Darkness. In the original Amnesia, however, the system is so easy to undermine. You end up flicking your lamp on for a few brief moments, restoring your sanity, and then continuing on your way. It's a nuisance, not an obstacle.
So The Chinese Room stripped all this out. Machine for Pigs plays much closer to Dear Esther than it does to Frictional's horror games, and some people will be upset. Me? I think it makes the game more exciting.
Machine for Pigs is one of the few horror games I've played—and the only one in recent memory—that's well-paced. Most developers seem so obsessed with getting you into “the game” that they eschew any form of subtlety up front. You might get five, maybe ten minutes to adjust to the controls and the environment, but then “BOO!” there's a monster.
And maybe that first scare gets you great, but after that you're stuck avoiding the same damn monster for another four to six hours while the game tries various tricks to keep things interesting afterward. Some introduce a secondary monster a few hours in, or tweak the way encounters play out. Regardless, the most effective scare is already used up.
The best part of Machine for Pigs is the growing sense of dread that accompanies you as you wander around the game's dark Victorian setting. It's the little things: the green pall of the lights, the oppressive gloom of outdoor environments, the way level layouts seem to change as you walk through them.
Even when the monster does finally show up, there's a craft to those early encounters—a quick glimpse out of the corner of your eye, a shadow moving in the distance, a piggish grunt from the other side of the wall. The game lets your imagination run wild for a long time before you truly see the monster.
It's when Machine for Pigs tries to be a Frictional game that it has the most problems, actually. Monster encounters are so few and far between there's a much greater emphasis on environmental “puzzles”—in quotes because they're far too easy to provide any satisfaction when solved. If you enter a room with three levers, I guarantee only one of those levers actually moves at a time—it's less a puzzle and more “going through the motions” until the game lets you continue forward. There are so many of these moments they start to feel like speed bumps for player progress.
Then there's the monster itself. I think the design is fantastic, but it's more grotesque than frightening—a curious specimen to examine from the shadows, intrigued by this mockery of science. No moment in Machine for Pigs approaches the sheer terror of its predecessor's “water level,” if you know what I mean.
Machine for Pigs is a fantastic horror game, especially in the early hours. The Chinese Room made a good call in stripping out most of the fringe mechanics in favor of a purer narrative experience, and the “slow” start is masterfully paced.
The game never quite reaches the same heights as its predecessor, but is overall a more consistent experience. The original Amnesia had moments that were more terrifying, but Machine for Pigs features a creeping horror that just builds and builds. It's unsettling, and while it won't dethrone the original it's certainly a worthy successor.