Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Review
This Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs review is going to be unabashedly spoiler-ridden, because (although I will touch on the gameplay only as it relates to story-telling) I focus on story. Again, this will have MAJOR SPOILERS. Like, giving away the whole plot sort of spoilers. Furthermore, as a fair forewarning, this was my most anticipated game of the year. So this review is harsh from disappointment versus my expectations: you should remember that going in.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Review
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the semi-direct sequel to 2009’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a psychological horror game proudly wearing its predecessor’s clothes: you explore a labyrinthine structure and descend deeper and deeper into said structure’s belly, egged on by vague threads while hiding from demonic monsters. You are entirely defenseless, and hiding is your only means of survival.
The Dark Descent told a tale of cosmic horrors, recalling Lovecraft: the monsters and villain were extra-dimensional, the protagonist is haunted by an evil shadow he brought back from an expedition, and the action of the game revolves around preventing the villain from opening a portal to not-R’lyeh. The story of A Machine for Pigs (and not plot, a distinction incredibly important in this game) sprinkles the first game’s cosmic horror across a far more personal tale. You play Oswald Mandus, a rich English-man who inherited a massive meat processing plant in London. Tragedy struck Mandus’s privileged life when his wife died in child-birth, while delivering the twin sons that were the couples’ first children. Mandus made a pact to protect the children in his wife’s name, and became obsessed with their safety. Wanting to create a perfect world for his children, Mandus tries to upgrade the vast network of machinery in his factory to better serve the philanthropist goal of ending world hunger. This, of course, ends poorly. I’ve quoted the rest of my summary of the story, and feel free to avoid it if you’re trying to spoil yourself a little less.
Building the machine drives Mandus to bankruptcy. Desperate, he decides to follow in the footsteps of his great uncle – the player character from DD – and search for the same sort of magical artifacts, to exploit the potential of a mysterious substance named Vitae. While, in Dark Descent, people were interested in vitae for personal power, Mandus sees Vitae as a potential energy source, industrial meat-growing serum, et cetera. When he locates one such artifact at an Aztec temple in Mexico, the orb rends his soul in two: he wasn’t prepared to work with the arcane, like his great uncle was. The orb shows him the horrors of the future – most terribly, the death of his children at the battle of Sommes in World War I. The good part of him, which would try to prevent this future through charity, is suppressed by the dark side, who sacrifices his sons at the altar of the Aztec temple to give them a painless death instead of the death that faces them at Sommes. The dark side, known as the engineer, retrofits the industrial meat complex into a massive slaughterhouse meant for the mass execution of humans, spilling their blood on an underground Aztec temple he has constructed underground.
To do all this work, he reverse engineers one of his great uncle’s dark gatherers, and uses the modern discovery of Orgone (a historical discovery that ended up being bunk, of a life substance essentially) to create a race of slaves who are more powerful than humans, and easier to train. He uses what he has on hand – orphans, whores, and pigs for the slaughterhouse – to build his servants. They are servile, ready to be lead, highly consumptive and childlike. After the beasts finish building the new machine, the Engineer’s soul enters the machine to live in it as a man-made god, causing good Mandus to resurface. Good Mandus, horrified by what he sees sabotages the machine in a sloppy, confused fashion. His sabotage exposes him to too much Vitae and Orgone, causing him to lose his memory. And so the plot actually begins…
So far, so good. There’s a bit of silliness (manpigs, compound X), but it’s silliness that fits with the atmosphere established by the first game. Compound X and its components (Vitae and Orgone) add a touch of cosmic horror and otherworldliness to a game much more about the psyche and the body, allowing it to link up more naturally with the previous title. The direct connections between the game – familial relationships, the manpigs being based off the gatherers – are nonintrusive and simultaneously serve to illuminate some of Dark Descents more baffling moments in retrospect (such as the immortal head). The narrative is a more personal and psychological horror story about a man breaking down out of love for his children: his goal is to save the future generations from the era of suffering that was implanted into his head at the Aztec temple. The future was shown to him as absolute unless the blood-tax was paid, much the same way ancient Aztecs paid blood to the gods. Mandus just industrializes the process.
Where A Machine for Pigs begins to falter, however, is when we look at its plot. As a reminder to my readers with less theory background, the plot is the way in which events are organized, shown and presented. Story is the sort of chronological summary I just gave you, devoid of any artistic ordering and presentation. Machine for Pigs channels Dark Soul’s plot presentation: the player pieces together the story that has already happened by reading lore on items, found notes, visual clues and more. The “play” (or ludic elements) is the process of sorting through and analyzing information. I’m a fan of this presentation: it turns the story itself into a ludic element, and puts more control into the players hands. I can understand the story differently than you by reading the clues differently. This is the point of interactive narratives, and in some ways it’s a step forward for games.
However, while Dark Souls often combined vague wording (“According to…”, “sometimes…”, “according to legend…”) and conflicting information to build its play, AMFP obstructs its story under a pile of over-flowery writing. The script in AMFP is constantly working against you. Notes are separated into two piles: found notes and “remembered” notes. Found notes are notes found in the environment, often written by Mandus when either his dark half was in control or before all of these events. On a first play through, most people will not pick up the story at all. The notes are vague to the point of being useless, often more concerned with directly addressing the titular machine than the events that surround it. As Mandus is lead by the Engineer to fix the machine (the Engineer tricks him to do so, by telling him it will save his children), the sparse voice-overs show a man haunted by visions he can’t understand. Mandus is unusually laissez-faire when he sees the Manpigs – his sanity isn’t constantly on the brink, unlike the protagonist in DD, but nonetheless his perception of his environment obviously changes over the course of play. The player’s, however, will not. Look at this example of an early-game note:
Nice descriptive prose, but it says nothing the player can’t see. We are walking through the slaughterhouse, TheChineseRoom. Your notes don’t need to tell us, we get the basics. The ambiguity of the phrase “products” is effective, because the product drifted from pigs to humans when the machine was transformed, but this note just collects information we can see. There would be better ways to tell this than notes in a video game. Let’s look at another:
Again, there’s some good here: referring to the bankers as swine reinforces one of the central metaphors of the game, being the duality of the pig (as the bottomless consumer hungering for more, and the docile weakling sacrificed by the strong), but look at everything you’re supposed to parse from this note: Mandus is obsessed with his children’s livelihood (to the point he’s willing to kill the bankers if they threaten then house); his wife is dead; he is bankrupt; the entire second paragraph of… something? Unnecessarily flowerly language constantly buries the lead. This is the only time you learn that he went bankrupt. If you didn’t know, would you get that? Would you remember that when this is really early in the game, and is never reinforced. See, the writing here is made vague through flower language, irregular metaphors and passive voice.
In the spoken dialogue, this ludicrously flowery and over-written language reaches unmanageable levels: Mandus’s overwrought and meandering poetic prose, which refuses to piece together that his children are dead for so long it begins to feel absurd, is more likely to inspire gobsmacked “huh?” moments than anything else. Although some of the soliloquies work – especially the Machine’s final soliloquies wherein he itemizes the atrocities that will come if the world isn’t sacrificed – but these are few and far between. Most try to channel Lovecraftian Victorian language and instead channel Calculon doing a Shakespeare play.
The overwrought expression, constant vagueness and uselessness of the notes leads to AMFP‘s bigger problem: the game doesn’t want to be played. Most of the gameplay elements that reinforced the themes of cosmic horror in the first game have been stripped away: there are no resources, no sanity and no health. Resources are important in horror games, because they reinforce the fact that the material, reliable world is leaving you. Running out of gas in Dark Descent is when it actually got scary: there is no light for you to rely on. Sanity forced you to look away from the monsters, and (as Lovecraft showed) the unknown is always scarier than the known. in Machine for Pigs, light is unlimited (no fuel) and you can stare at the monsters. The first issue means that you will always have the light on unless it flickers (indicating a monster is nearby, a property with a clever explanation that, again, the game tells you in a vague and useless way), and the second issue means that you will watch the manpigs patrol routes. You can look at them, and after you’ve looked at them for 10 minutes they stop being horrors and start being guards on routes.
The game seems to be aware of this issue, and stops making hiding a possibility at all: manpigs stop being guards on routes and instead simply chase you down corridors at pre-determined, scripted moments. The game becomes “walk down corridor, pick up object x, get chased down corridor and, if you get caught and killed (which takes far too many hits!), you’ll just ‘wake up’ in a cage passed that part so you don’t need to get chased again”. About an hour into the four hour game, it becomes painstakingly clear that you are just walking down a corridor, and any element of play is illusory at best. This is made worse because you cannot die. The manpigs can’t kill you, and again this is justified in the story (in a vague way 99% of people will miss), but that decision which makes sense in the story removes the fear of mortality, literally the most important sensation in horror. This leads to fearlessness, and by the end of the game you will run around Pigs or passed pigs that are chasing you because you’ll get by before they chip through your massive block of health.
It’s interesting because DD, which was about cosmic horror, had psychological horror heavily integrated into its ludic elements: you hid from enemies in cupboards, fearing any glance of them (cut from AMFP), you had to juggle resources and were always just running out of oil before you finished the area (cut from AMFP); you tried to solve puzzles while being hunted (cut from AMFP because there are no puzzles, just ‘pick up A, bring it to B’ with everything clearly labelled). In DD, this was used to great effect reinforce Daniel’s draining sanity; AMFP could have, and should have, used the same effects to reinforce the psychological terror. Imagine running from a pig, hiding in a cupboard, and having all sounds disappear? Was there ever a pig at all?
This is especially baffling because TheChineseRoom very cleverly chose an environment – a massive elaborate machine meant to be run by a collection of people – in which DD style puzzles would actually make sense. The puzzles were integral to the previous game, but ultimately seemed silly in the environment; the exact same puzzles WOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE HERE! AND REINFORCE THE THEMES, STORY AND PLOT! AND GIVE SOME ACTUAL GAMEPLAY! AND THEY WERE CUT! I was baffled. If they literally just took DD‘s gameplay, unchanged, and dropped it into AMFP‘s world, the gameplay and the world would sync better than DD’s did, or this game’s did.
After finishing, I reflected on the game’s great story, and terribly told plot, and asked myself: what moment was the highlight? For me, it’s when you activate the machine and unleash the pigs on London. You see a scripted event in which manpigs tear people from their homes, break into homes, and otherwise begin the slaughter of London. The scene mirrors the two types of pigs (to be slaughtered; capitalist fat-cats), properly echoes the holocaust, which was one of the horrors Mandus saw, highlighting that Mandus (in his insanity) has entered a “Do X to prevent X” fallacy, was beautifully elevated by Jessica Curry’s original score and truly harrowing in all the right ways. However, even then, there was no play: the scene was a Call of Duty system of stringed-together set-pieces. It’s like TheChineseRoom forgot to make a game.
AMFP‘s massive ludic backwards step is highlighted by the end. I understand that dialogue can be problematic in games, and is still the biggest issue contributing to the autonomy of the artform as an interactive one: by its nature, it’s less interactive than the rest of play. Some games try to be as ludic as possible in dialogue, by giving the player’s dozens of choices (Planescape: Torment still existing as the pinnacle of this style), others give the player’s a handful of clearly designed choices that highlight the fact that dialogue is a game (Mass Effect), others use dialogue to temporarily become movies (such as Legacy of Kain), and others minimize dialogue to remove the problem altogether (such as Dark Souls). AMFP falls into the final camp, and I respect that decision because it’s a hard one. Losing control in something as small as the smattering of dialogue reinforces the fate/control element of the theme. What doesn’t work at all, however, is the lack of choice at the end.
At the end, the player only has one path to choose. This is a game that has build its horror through presenting the atrocities of the 20th century; a game in which the villain has been trying to convince you, the player, that humanity is disgusting and modernization will turn the world into a machine built to slaughter pigs: us. The game continuously presents justification for the villain, sympathy for the monsters and more. And at the end, you can’t choose to let the world end. To an extent, this is unforgivable. The precedent of the series is player choice in the finale; again, DD was a cosmic horror and even it let the player reach the credits by giving up and dying in a jail cell. And this game, which directly addresses free will, destiny, what it means to be human etc. doesn’t give you any choice at all.
I’ll say it again: TheChineseRoom made a great story, told it very poorly and then forgot to make a game.
That is not to say the experience is bad: I highly recommend everyone play it, because there is definitely some good stuff, and the story is really quite engaging, raises some good questions, and has the best metaphors I’ve seen used in a game. The presentation and re-contextualization of images such as cages, children toys, pigs, crosses etc. reminds me of a well-composed mise-en-scene. But it fails as a game.
A final note, which I mentioned briefly above: Jessica Curry’s score is beautiful. In many ways, because interactivity is so cut from the game, you could enjoy the emotional journey of AMFP simply by listening to the score. It contains the important bits of dialogue in it, anyways. Best score I’ve heard in a long time. Sure, it often contributes to the overwrought nature of the experience at large, hitting you with a “feel sad!” hammer as hard as it can. But it’s great, and stands really well on its own.