Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs asks you to once more venture down a dark descent into the twisted machinations of man. Do you really want to do that to yourself again?
As you play Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the influence and mentality of its new developer gradually becomes clear. Where The Dark Descent was crafted entirely by Frictional Games, this entry in the horror series was offered to The Chinese Room, the team responsible for last year’s experimental Dear Esther. As a result, A Machine for Pigs tips the balance more towards exploration and absorbing a story rather than surviving horrors. There’s still plenty of those too, but they’re not all corporeal.
You play Oswald Mandus, a wealthy industrialist who has just returned to London after a disastrous expedition through the jungles of Mexico. He wakes up in his bedroom on New Year’s Eve 1899 after a fever dream and immediately notices that something is wrong. His twin boys are missing and a mysterious yet familiar voice urges him to find them. As the warm yet overbearing environs of his Victorian mansion give way to the fetid bowels of an expansive factory that lies beneath it, Mandus learns just as much about himself as he does about the eponymous machine for pigs and the sacrifices made to build it.
This happens mostly through the same blend of voice-overs and epistolary storytelling that we’ve come to expect from games such as these. Mandus finds scattered notes and jots his impressions down in a journal, all puzzle pieces that contribute to several interlocking narrative threads. The writing makes liberal use of pleasantly appropriate nineteenth-century English and the game tells a compelling tale that plays on several memory loss tropes in interesting ways.
I found myself genuinely caring for the plight of Mandus, a feat helped greatly by the excellent voice work. Channelling the soothing yet weathered timbre of Michael Fassbender, the lead voice actor imbues Mandus with a sense of empathic melancholy that holds right through to the end, even as you discover for yourself what kind of man he was and what he must atone for.
Thanks to this, A Machine for Pigs manages to be consistently frightening in more ways than the obvious ones. Uncovering the inner workings of the machine and the abominations it has produced is captivating and lends the experience a certain urgency. As far as horror games go, this one certainly hits the mark, no matter how nebulous it is.
Go do your hamwork
As expected, Mandus has no offensive capabilities, so the only viable tactic against the monstrously misshapen manpigs he encounters is evasion. The game even mocks this by placing several decorative hunting rifles throughout the mansion, with the only interactive one used as a lever to open a secret passageway.
The game retains The Dark Descent’s tactile item management where everything you pick up is still a victim of the physics engine and can be deftly manipulated. At one point I accidentally dropped an important fuse behind two crates and I had to crouch down and reach through the gap between the crates in order to retrieve it. That might seem mundane, but within the oppressive atmosphere of A Machine for Pigs, it was a surprisingly tense experience.
What is dropped from The Dark Descent speaks to the Dear Esther mindset. There is no inventory management and your lantern never runs out of oil. Managing the player character’s sanity is also no longer required. This makes the game decidedly less game-y by any stretch of the definition, but it doesn’t suffer for it. The emphasis is unquestionably on establishing an unsettling and evocative mood.
A Machine for Pigs often employs that tried-and-true technique of automatically locking doors behind you to trap you in a certain area. This would come across as hokey and unfair in any other game, but the overarching psychology of Mandus’ state of mind offers a unique twist here. His impacted mind and penchant for self-sabotage mean he can’t trust his own actions, so it’s more than possible that he locked the doors himself and wasn’t aware of doing so. It’s a great (if perhaps unintentional) way to capitalise on the difference in knowledge between the player and the character they’re controlling.
There’s other ways in which A Machine for Pigs messes with you. There was a room I had to pass a couple of times that suddenly seemed to lose one of its exits. It didn’t appear walled over or blocked from one moment to the next, it was simply gone. I still can’t be sure whether this actually happened by design or my memory was playing tricks on me, but that doubt was exactly what kept me on my toes a lot more than any jump scare did.
Much like the aforementioned mundanity inherent to retrieving a dropped item, the ostensibly simple puzzles are made all the more challenging by circumstance, which often translates as Mandus being dogged by the vile manpigs. The difficulty amounts to that of one of those kindergarten toys where you have to fit the triangle-shaped peg into the triangle-shaped hole. Except it was designed by David Cronenberg.
Speaking of Cronenberg, A Machine for Pigs’ soundtrack definitely has shades of the work of Howard Shore. The strings and choir backings perfectly underline the game’s tone without ever detracting from it. The same goes for the sound design in general, which absolutely nails a combination of larger-than-life grandeur and a pervasive sense of unease. Who needs scare chords when you can play on common fears like someone walking around upstairs when you’re alone in the house? Even more impressive are the grating groans and sharp roars of the machine itself, the wails of a dying beast.
In comparison, the visuals can be somewhat lacking. Most of the world is cast in darkness, which makes any lapses in presentation shine ever more brightly. For instance, you can tell that a flowing liquid is actually a solid object fitted with an animated texture. I dare say Robert Briscoe managed a better job with the rivers and waterfalls in Dear Esther.
A Machine for Pigs is decidedly an Amnesia game, but it bravely heads off in its own direction. Many described Dear Esther as an experience more than anything else, and this one certainly fits that bill. It is a harrowing experience that’ll probably turn you off pork, and not the way Babe’s adorable piglet would.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, by The Chinese Room and Frictional Games, is available now on PC and Mac.