Platform | Release Date
PC | September 10, 2013
Developed by The Chinese Room
Published by Frictional Games
Wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus awakes in his bed, wracked with fever and haunted by dreams of a dark and hellish engine. Tortured by visions of a disastrous expedition to Mexico, broken on the failing dreams of an industrial utopia, wracked with guilt and tropical disease, he wakes into a nightmare. The house is silent, the ground beneath him shaking at the will of some infernal machine: all he knows is that his children are in grave peril, and it is up to him to save them.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent came at the perfect time in gaming history. After a decade of horror-done-wrong, at the apex of game streaming, the first Amnesia was equal parts classically terrifying and eminently watchable. It featured tactile physics puzzles, frantic avoidance of powerful and grisly enemies, and oppressively dreadful story revelations. Frictional Games had been running this same playbook since 2007 with Penumbra: Overture, but it wasn’t until Amnesia that we all realized how fascinating it is to watch others tremble. Two years later, Frictional have teamed up with The Chinese Room (developers of the critical darling Dear Esther) in an attempt to repeat Amnesia’s successes. What results is a better game that is far less of a spectator sport.
Set in late 1899 London, A Machine for Pigs opens in a familiar way. The protagonist, Oswald Mandus, awakens in a sprawling mansion with few memories of the recent past. Scattered notes and journal pages fill in the backstory and the events missing from Mandus’s mind. The voices of his twin sons float ominously about him; always around the next corner, always just out of reach. Here we find the first of many fundamental shifts in the Amnesia series. The Dark Descent was driven forward out of fear of the approaching, undefeatable Shadow. A Machine for Pigs instead draws you deeper into its madness through the constant promise of your children’s lives. The stick has been replaced by the carrot, and the effects are profound.
What amazes most about A Machine for Pigs is its efficiency. The tinderboxes and oil reservoirs of The Dark Descent are replaced by an unfailing lantern that requires neither. Gone too is the sanity management system that forced players to stay in the light to avoid hallucinations and attracting enemies. A Machine for Pigs relies less on shambling enemies and jump-out scares to terrify, reserving its grotesquery for crescendo moments of story revelation. The fear builds slowly, continuously, with few moments of release. The first Amnesia’s success was built on frantic scrambling moments and there are ample here to thrill, but only when they serve the narrative being told.
A grand example of efficiency itself, A Machine for Pig’s story doesn’t contain a wasted word. Mandus’s notes are concise but crucial to understanding the world The Chinese Room have built. While your imagination runs wild from the possibilities one journal entry poses, the next reveals your worst fears to be true. There’s no half-invested skimming of notes to be found here; anything less that rapt attention is unthinkable.
Unsurprisingly, given what was on display in Dear Esther, The Chinese Room have once again achieved sonic perfection. The thunderous groans of Mandus’s slaughterhouse bring to mind some titanic beast thrashing against its bonds deep within the darkness below. Images of Lovecraftian elder gods awakening from eons long slumber fill the mind; chthonic and restless and wrong. When a random journal entry describes the benefits of filling the halls with opera when taking livestock to slaughter, the swell of the score’s next aria causes your every hair to stand on end.
But again, all of this speaks of the longer investment The Chinese Room is asking you to make. The Dark Descent was alluring in small chunks; one could jump in to watch a game being played at any time and be fairly certain to understand why it was scary. A Machine for Pigs doesn’t work this way, which will likely turn-off audience members expecting to see the next generation of “nope” gifs. I maintain the series is better for the change, but it’ll be interesting to see if it propels Amnesia back to the same level of success.
Drawn ever deeper into the steaming, clanking machines of Mandus’s factory, gorged on unimaginable horrors, accompanied by a sweeping operatic score, it’s hard to miss you’re being fed and bled and dragged to slaughter. For fans of the genre, it doesn’t get better than this. A Machine for Pigs wriggles under your skin and into your head like few modern games have managed, and the result is one of the most expertly crafted experiences available. Even now I feel the rope pulling me back to the pigline, beckoning me to play through again to better understand the slightest detail I may have missed.