Amnesia A Machine for Pigs’begins in darkness, with a man’s voice pleading, ‘Daddy. Daddy, please don’t kill me.’
You awaken in a cage surrounded by bars. Perhaps this is the first clue – why sleep’inside’a cage? Is it to protect you from something, or something from you? But you’re not alone. Someone has just unlocked the door to your ‘bed’. As you struggle to get up, though, you fall unconscious once more, only to reawaken some time later, alone and bereft of memory. You stumble from your strange enclosure and find yourself in a huge, deserted mansion. But is it really deserted? Or do you hear footsteps?
You soon learn that your wife died giving birth to your twin boys. Given the wine bottles littering every surface, you didn’t handle the loss too well, spending many long, secluded nights hard at work somewhere beneath the mansion tinkering with…what? If only you could remember. With the ghostly echoes of your children beckoning you onwards,’you’begin uncovering evidence of dark and unhinged goings on. Scraps you find from your lost Journal start piecing together a mind that didn’t dwell comfortably in Sanity Valley.
A Machine for Pigs is my first experience of the survival-horror genre, if you don’t count The Last of Us, which, though frightening enough in places, doesn’t really compare. In The Last of Us you are a hunter. You can sneak up on anything scary and take it down silently. Or you can shoot it. Or you can molotov its ass. You still have power. You have control.
In A Machine for Pigs, you’re helpless, vulnerable. And that’s what makes it so terrifying. You can barely see and you’ve no idea what’s out there or where it is. Instead of being the hunter, you’re the prey. You’re lost in a sprawling steampunk world, solving puzzles that involve running around in the dark, at risk of encountering…who knows what? Anything your mind can conjure.
Which is where this game’s power really lies.
The moody, vaguely surreal atmosphere and the sickly-sweet evidence of a brilliant mind turned to despair and madness ramps the genius loci to its horror max, leaving your imagination working overtime. As you move through the rooms, tunnels and corridors, which slowly unveil a macabre history, the ground shudders and groans. Flickering lights threaten to plunge you into darkness while half-seen shadows slip away, just out of view.
It’s not so much what you can see but what you can hear that really keeps you on edge. Use of sound in this game is superb. Unintelligible’whispers, weeping, pleading, shrieking. The groan of timbers, the rasp of your own breath, and, as you go deeper, the’guttural’cries of outraged Things. These are your constant companions as you explore. Together with the sometimes discordant music, the game’s’sound is skillfully applied throughout, keeping the nerves tingling, and the terror needle quivering on ‘full’.
With the threat of something nasty lurking around every corner, behind every door, the terror here is not’the shock scare variety, but the creeping,’primal fear of the hidden and unknown. Your own imagination is your biggest enemy, playing as much a part in this game as the blood-chilling screams and murky corridors and whatever’s moving up ahead.
Exploring the surroundings is an essential element and the more you do it, the more disturbing things get. The notes and clues you find (like the copious blood stains) hint that grotesque and dastardly experiments, or something much worse, may have been taking place somewhere nearby.’To figure out what, and learn the fate of your creepy children, you must ultimately leave the mansion and explore a much darker subterranean realm where a sinister’machine lies waiting.
A good part of the story is unraveled through the journal scraps you come across, so be sure to read them. Aside from giving you a breather from the crushing tension, they help you piece together Mandus’s tragic past and learn what dire deeds he perpetrated to bring him to such a pass.
The twisting, maze-like corridors are full of puzzles which only the clues, your courage, and your ingenuity can solve. In fact, these aren’t particularly tricky or frustrating, and they’re not meant to be. They do, however, slow the game down, forcing you to explore the environment and its horrors.
The clues take various forms, from the straightforward notes (which aren’t always that straightforward), to evidence you find tucked away in dark corners. You know you’re on the right track when merely entering a room or corridor triggers a spine-chilling voice or causes the environment to shake. Weird pig masks are placed’strategically here and there like grotesque object d’art, pointing the way.
Thankfully there’s a trusty lantern. Unlike in Frictional previous game, The Dark Descent, this lantern needs no oil and you don’t have to find tinderboxes for the candles: this is the end of the 19th Century. Electric, hello! The lantern stays alight until you cover it. But its welcome glow is just an illusion of safety. The lantern helps you see, but it also helps things see you. Oh, yes. There are things. And the deeper you go, the more vigilant they are, and the more they resent your presence.
A Machine for Pigs is an indirect descendant of The Dark Descent. The stories aren’t connected, but it’s from the same stable (or should I say sty?) using the same mechanics and employing the same brooding sense of horror and menace its older brother delivered. It relies less on the pants-pooping moments (although they’re there), instead letting your mind provide a spine-crawling dread that will have you reaching for the ESC button at regular intervals.
The Dark Descent included a sanity meter, which was affected by time spent in darkness or, if you were brave enough, by looking directly at the creatures prowling after you. Like the inventory which helped control it, this sanity meter has gone from A Machine for Pigs. Instead…well, there is no instead. Perhaps it’s because Oswald Mandus is already bat-crap crazy? Who knows? Whether this makes A Machine for Pigs easier or harder, I couldn’t say, since I haven’t played The Dark Descent, but it might disappoint those who have.
There are fewer enemies in this game, and while you still have to run from them if they see you, there’s none of the hiding in closets until they wander off. They’re shambling and easier to lose. Most of the time, getting past them is a case of using the shadows and picking your moments.
I didn’t find the game as in-your-face scary as I expected. It’s more subtle than that. It’s about anticipation: the manipulation of your fears rather than the strike from the dark. Perhaps what I will take away from it, more than the fear and a new desire to become vegetarian, is the game’s’tantalizing’aura, which stays in the mind, trailing after it like a beguiling scent.
This wasn’t a game I could sit and play for hours at a stretch, but neither could I leave it for long before returning. Its compelling storyline, my own desire to know: "Just what’was’Mandus up to?" called me back. It’s a story, and a gaming experience, I will ponder long after the final credits have rolled.