‘Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs’ was recently released, a game which I had been patiently anticipating for quite a while. It’s a follow-up to the indie developer Frictional Games’ terrifying ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’ (2010).
In the original, you found yourself lost and alone inside an immense, dimly-lit Gothic castle. You were given little in the way of equipment or motivation: only a flickering lantern and a vague sense that you should probably get out of there. As you proceeded down the castle’s winding corridors and stairways, you were cruelly taunted with glimpses and sounds of a deformed, wretched creature. When it noticed you, little else was possible than to sprint away in blind terror, hoping that you can find a hiding place before it finds you. With no weapons, there was no way to fight back. The game was great precisely for this reason – it regularly gave players a full dose of the adrenaline and fear invoked by our instinctive fight-or-flight response, but neutered any potential sense of empowerment by making it impossible to fight.
Fast-forward to three years later, and I have yet to find a game that could come close to scaring me as much as ‘The Dark Descent’ did. On consoles, the once-proud survival horror genre, popularised by Capcom’s ‘Resident Evil’ (1996) and Konami’s ‘Silent Hill’ (1999), has today become a pathetic appendage of the action genre. Big-selling series like Valve’s ‘Left 4 Dead’ (2008-9) prefer the instant gratification provided by a gory spectacle, big guns and cheap jump-scares instead of the slow-burning terror and sense of desperation that once characterised the genre.
On PCs, the ever-thriving indie development scene has provided a bit more hope. For example, Parsec Productions’ free-to-play ‘Slender: The Eight Pages’ (2012) was a refreshingly stripped-down game that left players stranded in a dark forest with a madman on the prowl. Last year also brought Jonas Rikkonen’s ingenious ‘SCP – Containment Breach’. This game’s randomly-generated levels and unpredictable enemy movement patterns were essential to its atmosphere of despair, but an array of glitches and bugs, along with a frustratingly high difficulty level, prevented it from reaching the same level of player immersion that ‘The Dark Descent’ achieved.
So, you can see why I was excited for the release of ‘Amnesia’s’ sequel. Not only was I thrilled to experience the same sense of terror, but I also knew it would be new and different. Both the Victorian London setting and the bizarre subtitle, ‘A Machine For Pigs’, dispelled my fear that it might just be a rehash of the original. Unfortunately, the game turned out to be a massive disappointment.
Its basic gameplay mechanics are very similar – too similar, actually – to those of ‘The Dark Descent’; you play from a first-person perspective, you interact with objects using mouse gestures, and you have no weapons. You progress through the game by exploring the environment, solving primitive puzzles (such as finding missing components to machinery), and hiding from monsters. To anyone who has played ‘The Dark Descent’, or indeed any first-person horror game, these mechanics will be boringly familiar. And that’s exactly the problem – after some playtime, the game settles into an easy, predictable routine of walking through corridors, searching for objects, and unlocking doors. It becomes tedious. And it really doesn’t help that the locations that you explore, such as a mansion, a church, or a factory, have all been done before in countless other horror games, often with far more flair and imagination.
This predictability applies even to the monster encounters, which strictly follow this pattern: loud sound cue, monster appears, player hides in dark corner, monster loses track of player, player sneaks past monster. There’s nothing to match the inventiveness of ‘The Dark Descent’ where you would find yourself trapped in a dead-end room as the creature is manically clawing at the door, and to survive you would have to frantically squeeze yourself into a cupboard, with no option but to sit tight as the creature bursts in and ravages the room.
And did I mention that the monsters in ‘A Machine For Pigs’ are, ahem, giant man-pigs? Before the first encounter, the game might successfully make a few players tense up by the simple fear of the unknown. But when you suddenly find yourself pursued by a squealing, lumbering beast with the bloated torso of a mid-2000s Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of an irritated boar, any built-up tension vanishes, and you’re left feeling more amused than scared. There’s also a number of uninspired jump-frights too dull to recount, as well as a pair of naff ghost-children who recurrently pop up to recite banal lines like: “Daddy, help me!” in grating public school accents.
In fairness, The Chinese Room are trying to do more than just make a scary game, as it is also intended as an allegory. For some critics, such as Adam Smith at ‘Rock, Paper, Shotgun’, the game succeeds as an irrational, nightmarish caricature of the horrors of Victorian Britain, as well as a grim foreshadowing of the genocidal madness of the 20th century.
I was less convinced. The message that “the industrial revolution treated men like pigs” is a trite, reductionist way to depict a complex historical issue. The game’s execution of this theme is clumsy; a pig-headed man is neither a scary videogame monster nor a particularly clever symbol. It doesn’t help that the developers toss in a number of other random half thought-out themes. For example, there is a totally out of place section of the game which features a crucified pig standing ominously atop a church altar. Bizarre and visually striking, maybe, but totally irrelevant to the storyline. Besides, I never got the impression that the developers knew exactly what they were trying to say with it anyway. The corruption of religion by big business? The idolatrous worship of machinery and consumer products? There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity, but in order for an allegory to work, there needs to be some thematic consistency, a sense of overall coherence. With ‘A Machine For Pigs’, it seems as if the writers had simply thought of all the nasty things they could come up with about the 19th century and threw them all into the game
All in all, ‘A Machine For Pigs’ is a resounding failure; a tired and predictable exercise in horror cliches on the one hand, and a confused mess of clunky visual metaphors on the other. It’s almost an insult to see it represent the Amnesia brand. If you want something to tickle your nerves during Halloween, please make the right choice and play the game’s predecessor instead.