Hey, how ya’ doin’?
Frictional Games released Amnesia: the Dark Descent in 2010 with great success despite it being a small game from an unknown company in a genre that, at the time, was much more about action than horror.
2010 was about zombies, space zombies, and the shooting thereof.
Dark Descent changed the way other studios approached horror and survival. It proved that players could enjoy a game that didn’t let them fight back, and that they could enjoy being frightened on a much more fundamental level than Dead Space’s jump scares.
Thanks to the first Amnesia, we also got some pretty glorious free-to-play knock-offs like Slender, which used atmosphere and context to create what is one of the scariest games of all time with no budget and N64 graphics.
Machine for Pigs has a huge and unexpected pedigree to live up to. Frictional games, in a bid to match their own success, teamed up with the Chinese Room, a studio famous for their story-driven title Dear Esther.
So where does Machine for Pigs stack up compared to Dark Descent? Somehow exactly where you’d think it would: it’s a story-driven Amnesia game. The creepy factor isn’t coming so much from the environment and the monsters this time around, this one’s all about the tale of a father’s love and the desolate society of the industrial revolution.
Amnesia-Pig-Machine-2… and bacon?
I pretty much can’t tell you anything else about the story because the story is the whole game. It really is the whole game. Much of the puzzle solving that punctuated each level of the first game has been reduced to one or two instances of collecting items. There are also noticeably less instances when the player can be killed. Actually, come to think of it, there are times when this game went out of its way to show me I was perfectly safe.
The Chinese Room’s influence on Machine for Pigs sounded good on paper, but the heavy push to a story-driven game apparently came at the cost of some key elements in the horror genre. Without the fear of danger I could just go on my merry way, and yes, even though the levels were dark and scary, and there were monsters around occasionally, I went through the game knowing I was going to be pretty much okay.
The biggest flaw comes from the monsters themselves. The original Amnesia gave us an immortal, hate-filled super beast whose presence meant instantaneous death. You couldn’t fight back, do any damage, or out run it. All you could hope to do was hide in the darkness and pray he didn’t see you.
But the monsters in Machine are clearly designed so that you can get away safely. They’re slow enough to be out run, do a negligible amount of damage, and sometimes they just straight-up vanish in a cloud of red mist.
Basically, the game is more a walking tour of the horror factory than… well… than anything at all. Once you realize the monsters can’t hurt you they lose all their edge. Meanwhile, the other game elements from DarkDescent are completely gone. There’s no inventory, sanity meter, or even a limit on your lantern. The only thing left to creep you out is that story they worked so hard to make and emphasize.
Good thing it’s a pretty good story. The Chinese Room has weaved together a Lovecraftian creep fest. The main storyline involves our main character, Mandus, searching for his lost children in his meat-processing factory. The factory’s creepy and awful, but just like in the first game the story’s real bite comes from the journal pages and gramophone recordings scattered throughout the map as though Mandus’ vendetta is against his own personal privacy.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this approach, it’s just that the story is the only element left to frighten you, and all it can do reveal increasingly horrible information. Since the story is primarily told in text, that means all of the scary stuff is being told you, not shown to you in gameplay, and then really what’s the point of making a video game out of it?
The story’s also fairly predictable, which might be the game’s worst sin of all. The sequel borrows too many plot points from its predecessor. If you played the first game, then you can already figure out everything I’m desperately trying not to tell you.
Maybe this game is best considered an experiment in interactive storytelling. I walked away from Machineunsatisfied, but that doesn’t mean future Amnesia titles couldn’t master the “show and not tell” factor to create some truly resonant art.
I expect more from Frictional Games in the future, sadly, this title is more of a great haunted house than a good video game.