Oh, you men of vision and ambition, purveyors of a new world, a brighter future and a better day for all humanity. You tempt us with succor but scald us with iniquity; glorious deception is your stock in trade! Rather like Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, you might say, which despite its promise of a new and twisted descent into horror, fails to deliver anything more than a few startle-scares and a story that starts with promise but ultimate succumbs to incomprehensibility.
Oswald Mandus is a man of vision, ambition and means as well, and also the father of two young boys, Edwin and Enoch, who have gone missing. Awakening to their disappearance and no memory of anything else, he is told by a mysterious benefactor that they are trapped in the machinery below. But what is this machinery? Who built it, and what is its purpose? Mandus cannot remember. He knows only that his children need him, and he will do anything – anything – to protect them.
The best horror games – the best horror in any medium, really – play with your mind. They build you up, turning the key and tightening the spring with every step, letting your imagination do the heavy lifting. A Machine For Pigs gets that formula half right, building to a crescendo that never really materializes. It’s a remarkably empty world, and the tension driven by the thought that something awful could happen at any moment eventually gives way to tedium because it just never does, and while the first startle-scare is a good one, it doesn’t actually lead anywhere. The haunting scream fades away, and Mandus does nothing.
You will eventually encounter the denizens of the machine, but it’s very much an anti-climax when you do. For one thing, they’re basically pigs; mutant dire pigs, perhaps, but pigs nonetheless. Their more intimidating two-legged brethren, meanwhile, are presumably more dangerous but may well appear even less frightening for a certain subset of oldsters because of their resemblance to the pigs in Duke Nukem 3D. No, seriously.
But the real problem with A Machine For Pigs is a simple change in mechanics that fundamentally alters the gameplay and, in the process, the balance of power. Daniel, the player’s avatar in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was afraid of the dark, afraid of monsters and afraid of the horrific events happening around him; and while the sanity mechanic was contrived, it forced the player to work within the limits of his delicate and profoundly damaged psyche. Mandus, however, has no such fear. He moves in the dark like a shadow and can remain perfectly still and silent as mutilated, murderous enemies shuffle by; he has no compunctions against splashing around in fetid guts and offal, and betrays no reaction to terrible visions of his boys. He is not, as promised, a fever-wracked Victorian industrialist haunted by bizarre, dark dreams – He is a Videogame Hero.
The moment this becomes apparent – and it shouldn’t take long if you’re paying attention – everything changes. A Machine For Pigs stops being a horror game and becomes a stealth game instead, as Mandus dodges through the darkness like a steampunk Sam Fisher. It’s not even a particularly challenging stealth game, as the dearth of enemies remains constant through most of the game and they’re not particularly adept at tracking.
The controls are simple, as you might expect from a first-person game with no weapons or inventory – and yes, the inventory that was present in The Dark Descent has been eliminated, as has the oil-guzzling lantern, replaced by a more modern lamp with unlimited life. There are still some puzzles to solve but they’re of the simplest sort, like pulling the occasional level, pressing a button or picking up an object and inserting it into the indicated slot – token nods to interactivity that will compel exploration without really slowing anyone down.
Much like its predecessor, A Machine For Pigs tells its tale through notes found scattered throughout the game as well as journal entries written on the fly by Mandus as he comes across noteworthy events or experiences. It also makes use of wax cylinder phonographs to play back brief audio recordings of conversations between Mandus and other characters, a not-uncommon narrative device in videogames that feels especially forced in this one. Why were they made, and why have they been left lying about in the rooms and corridors of Mandus’ manse, and beyond?
That’s the other great failing of A Machine For Pigs. It leaves far too many questions unanswered – and not big, philosophical questions about the nature of evil or redemption, either, but basic stuff, like, what’s the point of all these pigs? What’s the deal with the church? Who’s that guy? Why was any of this necessary to accomplish Mandus’ goal – and how did he end up with amnesia, anyway? There are hints of big ideas here and there and some pretty grim stuff, but much of it feels like it’s there strictly for shock value rather than as an integral part of the plot. The entire experience is utterly baffling, even for someone who both enjoyed and “got” Dear Esther.
In fact, A Machine For Pigs has a lot in common with The Chinese Room’s debut effort, far more than it has with The Dark Descent. But while Dear Esther provided a framework upon which players could build their own satisfying narrative, this game is just a near-random collection of imagery and ideas that, while creepy and cool, never come together as a coherent whole. Bits and pieces are interesting and it will no doubt spark a lot of post-game conversations about what it all meant, but it’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t what was promised.
Bottom Line: Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is a superficially-twisted, Dear Esther-like game of linear exploration punctuated by flowery narrative – but scary, it is not.
Recommendation: If you’re looking forward to another round of mind-melting Amnesia-style terror, you’re going to be disappointed. This is Steam sale material.[rating=3.0]
Game: Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platform(s): PC, Mac OS