September 15th, 2013 | By Kim Berkley
After over a year of nail-biting anticipation and many a fangirlish squeal at the prospect of a whole new descent into terrifying darkness, I discovered that diving headfirst into the Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was about as sane a diversion as toying with Lemarchand’s puzzle box from the Hellraiser movies. Sure, it’s nice and shiny on the outside, a tempting test of intellect and courage few adventurers could ignore – but once it’s open, all hell breaks loose, and the makers cannot be held responsible for any ensuing psychological damage that follows. The combined forces of The Chinese Room and Frictional Games guaranteed gamers this would be “the darkest, most horrific tale ever told in a video game,” and I’m inclined to call it a promise well-kept.
A spiritual successor rather than a direct sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, A Machine for Pigs begins in the home of Oswald Mandus, a family man who wakes to discover his precious children are missing, his memories little more than a fractured fever dream of spinning gears and squealing pigs. Spectral whisperings, glimpses of children – his? – and mysterious phone calls lead Oswald down beneath the reeking, fog-ridden streets of an otherworldly 19th century London, plunging him deep into the depths of a great and terrible Machine as he searches for his two missing sons, and the truth.
Though both team Frictional and The Chinese Room have always been partial to a slow build-up of dread as opposed to jump-scares and action sequences, A Machine for Pigs really takes its time wreaking havoc on the player’s soul. Nothing is rushed, and the relative quietude of the early levels works like the ascent of a roller-coaster, deliberately increasing the tension with each and every inch until you’re so beyond anxious that you’ve managed to convince yourself, in a self-preserving fit of denial, that you’re not even all that scared anymore. Then, just as you’re about to relax, down it drops you into a soul-crushing blur of screaming and tears and running like mad from pig monsters. By the time it slows again, gradually shuddering to a final, satisfying stop, you’re left shaken and barely capable of standing, much less walking away.
The game strives, and for the most part succeeds, to be as immersive and magnificently macabre as one might expect from the developers of Dear Esther. Streamlining is the order of the day; specifically, the inventory feature is gone, and the only constant carry-along item is a trusty lantern (which is now electric and apparently possesses infinite battery power). Thus, the distraction of tinderbox collecting and constant stat-checking is removed, allowing players to direct their full attention to investigation – and, of course, cowering in the corners while pig monsters lurch by.
Part of the true terror of The Dark Descent was the constant struggle between light and dark, and this is one area in which the sequel falls a little short. In the first game, the sanity meter pitted the player’s fear of death by goring against protagonist Daniel’s nyctophobia (fear of the dark) and the risk of a panic-induced psychotic episode. Removing both the unreliable light source and the difficult choice between monsters and madness leaves the sequel with a faintly disappointing sense of something missing; though Oswald clearly has psychological troubles of his own, a sanity mechanic of some kind would not have gone unappreciated.
Another thing missing is the puzzle element which played so prominent a part in previous Frictional releases. Though not completely removed, environmental riddles are definitely downplayed and kept fairly simplistic. Of the puzzles that did make the cut, some involved unexpected solutions which took some thought and were definitely enjoyable, but others were downright obvious, more like chores than real dilemmas, and felt almost unnecessary. While excluding the frustration of overly intricate conundrums is definitely a welcome move, completely taking the challenge out of the equation also eliminates the satisfying “aha” moment of discovering the solution.
Yet the scales balance: for every element removed, another is introduced or expanded upon. Most noticeable of these is the environment, which is magnificently rendered, if a tiny bit glitchy at times. While the first game took place solely in a castle, A Machine for Pigs includes several indoor and outdoor locations, spanning from vulnerable open spaces large enough to swallow houses, to dimly lit, claustrophobic corridors riddled with tight corners and crawlspaces. More than ever, the devil is in the details, and a sharp eye only increases the terror as it is often the little things that prove the most haunting. The use of visual repetition as a horror device is especially fascinating; while repeating the same scare-moment usually loses the effect, seeing that same horrible painting of a madwoman, or those prison bars, or that damned pig mask over and over again does just the opposite. The more you see, the more you want to close your eyes (but can’t).
Sight is not the only avenue of fear the game explores. As any true craftsman of horror knows, the terror of the bump in the night lies in the uncertainty of its origins, and A Machine for Pigs excels at the art of auditory scares. Headphones are a must to get the full effect of the ghostly groans and distant creaks and cracks which fill the spaces between professionally-voiced dialogue and dead silence. Equally enthralling is the music – though at first glance it dismayed me to see anyone other than Mikko Tarmia listed as the composer, Jessica Curry’s chilling string orchestra overcame any and all doubts I initially harbored. The music alone is cause enough for cowardice; couple that with grinding gears and an atmosphere so dense it borders on the physically tangible, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for gooseflesh, not to mention a severe case of paranoia.
Is the sequel as terrifying as the original? Yes and no. An odd preference for scripted events over true creature encounters lets players feel safer more often than the first game ever allowed, with the result being an overall slightly less nerve-wracking experience (though a few memorable moments definitely elicited some bloodcurdling cries from yours truly). Yet while the first installment remains the reigning master of outright panic attacks and heart-stopping narrow escapes, A Machine for Pigs instead focuses on instilling a profounder, more pervasive sense of stomach-churning horror different from, but no less affecting than, the scream-inducing scares of the original.
The story this time plunges deeper than ever into the heart of human darkness, ripping it from the ribcage of the world and squeezing until it bleeds. Nothing is what it seems; even the truth itself is too complex to be entirely trusted. Writer Dan Pinchbeck weaves an intricately disturbing tale which worms its way into the soul and boggles the mind with layers upon layers of mystery, philosophy, and a hell of a lot of good old-fashioned research. Shades of Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley abound, and the bloodstained inner workings of the world of the Machine are colored as much by steampunkish, rusting metal cogs as they are by the methodically unfurled history behind them. Memos are a pleasure to read for those with the patience to do so, providing delectable snippets of scientific intrigue and ominous foreshadowing which fashion even the most gut-wrenchingly gruesome imagery into something like poetry.
Even though it is occasionally possible to guess some of what’s coming, the plot continues to writhe and squirm just out of reach, and even the most obvious twists may turn out to be infinitely more horrible than initially imagined. The characters, both the human and the monstrous, are particular proof of this. No one and nothing is as it first appears, and as the layers peel back the unspeakable horrors that lie beneath may not be the ones you were expecting, let alone prepared to face.
“Fear,” Oswald writes, “is what keeps us all in our places, and the fear of the flesh, the ruin of the flesh is the greatest of them all.” For all the little piggies out there who still believe they are brave enough to conquer such fears, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is now available for purchase via Steam.