Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is a dark and mysterious beast. It stalks the rarely trodden corridors that span the gap between gaming and interactive fiction, with cruel dripping fangs waiting to drag away an unsuspecting player to its pit of horror. An experiment, tinged with both success and failure, it stares wildly with its looming eyes, daring you to face it in the dead black of night and still walk away sane in the morning.
Much of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs’ bizarre traits can be explained through its genealogy. Frictional Games, developers of the original cult indie horror success Amnesia: The Dark Descent, have taken the surprising action of remaining only as producers for this release, passing the developing role to The Chinese Room: creators of the convention-breaking Dear Esther. The result is a horror title unshackled by gaming necessities, leaving it free to terrorise the player with unhinged narrative, disturbing environment and a freakish soundscape.
How this beast will affect the player may vary wildly according to their disposition and it is not simple fare to summarise. Awakening in a creaking Victorian mansion we assume first-person control of Oswald Mandus, a wealthy industrialist with a mind ravaged by titular amnesia, as he stumbles through the grounds in search of his children. It is evident that all is not right, their childish voices always echoing in the distance, figures appearing and vanishing at the edge of his vision. We know nothing of Mandus and his life or work, but slowly a disturbing picture is developed through scattered notes and disturbing imagery as we crawl deeper into this bizarre porcine processing machine buried deep beneath his home.
It is a dark Lovecraftian tale steeped in modern analogy, slowly wrapping its tendrils around the player’s mind, waiting for that moment to squeeze and release its unbridled fear. Indeed much the same could be said about its ancestor Amnesia: The Dark Descent, yet where that monster relied on trusted game mechanics such as puzzles and measured sanity bars that distorted reality as it fell, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs has eschewed much of this in favour of narrative progression.
While the familiar tactile mechanics that allow the player to shove open doors and carry or rotate objects remain, gone is the inventory with measured bars of sanity (though you will certainly feel like you are losing it as you venture deeper into the beast’s belly, walls perceivably shaking with fear). Your only friend in the darkness, the trusty lamp, returns, yet gone are the incessant refills and the fear of being left in impenetrable darkness and no longer will this sap your sanity, leaving your vision swirling into oblivion. Finally the puzzles are watered down to merely slow progression, never taxing the mind for more than a few moments. Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs wants you to progress, it wants you to discover its secrets, it wants to tell its tale.
This is both Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs’ blessing and curse. When the player’s mind is completely locked in, perhaps while crawling beneath the altar of a mysterious church trembling at every noise before screaming as mysterious mystical voices echo out of the darkness, it creates a form of fear almost unparallelled in gaming (perhaps one can nod their head towards similar indie titles such as Slender or Anna and indeed its predecessor). It is not the classic shock tactics that we see annually in modern games such as Dead Space or Resident Evil but something far darker and gripping.
Yet there will be a moment, somewhere in its rather overlong four hour runtime, that Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs will shatter its own atmosphere. Perhaps it will be while staring at another low-res repeated texture or model, scattered willfully throughout, a product of its low-budget indie roots. Perhaps it will be while crawling through yet another unnecessary linear length of dull piping searching desperately for a way out. Or maybe it will be in the realisation that the things that scream in the shadows are far less scary when you meet them face to face. It is at that moment that Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs’ vicious grip loosens. Instead the player will plod onwards with no gaming elements to occupy them, fear waning from the mind replaced with simple intrigue, seeing where the story takes them.
And that story, told through scattered notes, conveniently placed recordings and bleak monologues, while stronger, sharper and more intellectual than many a gaming script, fails to completely carry the game on its own. While to talk of it directly may ruin the experience, it can be said that towards the end in particular, when it approaches the absurd and rather clunkily draws parallels with modern society, it begins to lose its weight and direction. Unlike its progenitor Dear Esther it lacks that beautiful ambiguous poetry, failing to draw the mind completely into its plot.
Yet you are not the only creature crawling through the shadows.
Fortunately this beast is layered with some of the most intricate and intelligent soundscaping created for a game. Jessica Curry, responsible for the award winning sounds of Dear Esther, has created a far darker and frightening tour de force. Wicked and dissonant, it rises out at pertinent moments, freezing the mind with fear. Frightening operatic voices cascade into deep rumbling mechanical sounds while silence is tainted with sudden sharp screeches, quickening the pulse, unleashing the fear. In many ways it is these sounds that drive the beast, sounds that line those fangs dragging the player deeper into the pit.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is a dark and mysterious beast. Much like Dear Esther it will split opinions, confusing some and delighting others. At times it is an expertly crafted horror experience blending frightening environments with disturbing sounds, yet this frightful illusion is far too easily dismissed and at these moments it loses some of its appeal. Many who blitzed their way through BioShock Infinite pondered whether the game would survive if stripped of its gun-toting violence, and in some ways Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is something of a response. Without gaming staples, every part of the design must be exceptional to keep the attention of the player and while Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs succeeds in many ways, its bloated story and linear, repetitive, environmental design hold this experiment back from being a screaming success.