You are Oswald Mandus, English meat-processing mogul, and you’ve just had a bad night’s sleep. Your recent expedition to Mexico has ended as disastrously as it has mysteriously, you’re plagued with nightmares about a hellish pit of machinery, and you wake up to the realisation that your children are missing.
With Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, The Chinese Room had the unenviable task of following up one of the best-reviewed horror games ever, and it has risen to the challenge. The Dear Esther developer has brought every bit of its florid writing and environmental storytelling nous to this spiritual sequel, while delivering a horror experience worthy of the Amnesia name.
This Amnesia is a slicker, simpler beast than its predecessor. Movement is more responsive. Gone are the tinderboxes and oil of the first game, replaced by an inexhaustible lantern. The graphics have been given a spit and polish, with higher resolution textures for higher resolution nightmares. Sanity and insanity are less a gameplay mechanic than a story element.
And story is clearly where the developers' hearts lie. A Machine For Pigs calls to mind a grislier Portal, but atmospheric chills haven’t been skimped on either. It’s easy to get lost in the dark mazes of machinery into which you wander simply out of fear of alerting enemies with your lantern. Played with headphones and in the dark, this is a paralysingly scary game.
The gameplay ranges from exploration to puzzle solving to stealth enemy evasion. Unfortunately, while each of these gameplay modes is well-executed, the pacing between them can get predictable. On a similar note, the game mechanics can lessen the terror of the experience: once the enemy AI patterns become clear, for example, they become less terrifying and more of an intellectual puzzle.
And while the majority of techniques used to create suspense are successful, others – like the overwrought reverse-reverbed audio flashbacks – are less so. Eventually, even the semi-scripted flickering lantern acts to defuse tension, telegraphing imminent scare sequences.
Naturally, the dingy subterranean machinery of London isn’t without its share of twisted, frightening occupants. The number of major enemy encounters can probably be counted on one’s fingers, but each presents its own challenges and is intense and fraught with danger.
For the most part, players will be too busy running away or hiding to catch more than fleeting glimpses of their enemies, and that’s probably for the best, as character animation isn’t the Amnesia engine’s greatest strength.
Still, the sense of dread and peril mean that even a clunky monster can cause the involuntary loss of body control.
But The Chinese Room has ambitions to do more than empty your bowels – they want to empty your heart. The story kicks off with a pair of kidnapped children, and it gets committedly bleaker as it goes on.
Suffice it to say, the misery of London’s surface is nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath. At one point the game presents players already in a sewer with an improbably long series of downward ladders and staircases to illustrate just how deep into the bowels of London – and by extension, the soul - they are going.
A Machine For Pigs makes the most of its 1899 Victorian setting, creating an Industrial Revolution horror story involving child labour, exploitation, and an obsession with privacy and the invasion thereof. The opening of the game sets up a series of voyeuristic back corridors that leave the player leery of being watched for the rest of the game.
Victorian prudishness about human bodies is taken into a broader disgust at humanity as a whole. The pigs in the title refers to literal pigs, but also to a sneering hatred for people; “pig” and “human” are used interchangeably. It’s all rather disquieting.
In the second half of the game the suspense gives way to a grander scale of horror that is more unsettling than immediately frightening. It’s a horror borne not merely of grue and jump scares but a burrowing, lingering nausea.
When the sickening truth about the titular machine is revealed – through inference and environmental details that require active thought to piece together – the machine ceases to be just a creepy environment, becoming a Lovecraftian entity in and of itself. There’s a lot to think about in this fright show.
Played through at speed, the game can probably be completed in three to four hours. But A Machine For Pigs isn’t about gameplay – it’s about drinking in the details of the story and setting, and nearly drowning in atmosphere. It’s about inhabiting a nightmare.