“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” These words, first coined by H.P. Lovecraft back in 1927, permeate throughout the Amnesia series and serve as a perfect description of its underlying design principle – the fear of the unknown. Many games that bill themselves as a “survival horror” experience expose the player to things like zombies, demons and other well-known creatures, but few of these games truly capture the fear of an imposing and unnatural force constantly stalking and haunting you – except for Amnesia.
The original game, Dark Descent, burst onto the PC gaming scene back in 2010, developed by Frictional Games, with its dark chills and foreboding sense of dread as you controlled the main protagonist, Daniel, in a constant battle against his own insanity. Dark Descent was an apt description of not only just the physical journey he takes into the depths of the castle that serves as the game’s location, but an accurate metaphor for his travels into his own mind. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a lot like its predecessor in some of the most important ways – it’s very dark, there are interesting (albeit relatively easy for the most part) puzzles, terrifying situations around every corner and one of the most atmospherically chilling game worlds ever constructed. However, the ways that it differs from the first game are even more crucial.
First and foremost, Frictional Games is simply the publisher this time around, but not the developer. The Chinese Room, developers of Dear Esther, take the reins and offer their own interpretation on the Amnesia experience. The original Amnesia featured two fundamental gameplay mechanics – the play between light/dark and the battle against your own sanity/insanity. It was a binary system that could easily be exploited if understood well enough, but it worked. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs scraps these mechanics in favor of a much more streamlined experience, at the expense of depth.
Instead of darting between light and darkness in fear of my life, I never really felt truly scared. Three fundamental characteristics must be present for a successful survival horror experience: 1) A chilling and immersive game world, 2) The illusion of danger and 3) Engaging gameplay. First, Amnesia excels at the creation of a chilling and immersive game world, hands down, no questions asked. The ambient sounds, beautifully creepy lighting and a constant sense of dread were constant themes throughout the experience.
The illusion of danger, however, is a bit more difficult to obtain. Fundamentally, the player is not in any true sense of danger while playing a game – they may experience fear, but they know that they are not truly in danger. In order for a survival horror game to be the best that it can be, it has to succeed in forcing the player to suspend disbelief and become immersed in the game they are playing, thus feeling what their character should feel. In Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, these moments were few and far between.
There were plenty of moments I jumped because of a particularly frightening sound, or felt my heart beating faster and faster as I approached a door at the end of a long hallway, but without the gameplay mechanics from the first game guiding and steering my every decision, I never really felt in danger. A safe place was rarely far away and my lantern provided an ever-present source of light. Granted, Chinese Room was clearly going for an overall more immersive experience by stripping away most of the “gamey” features that got in the way of the first game, but didn’t those mechanics act as substitutes for how you would feel in those situations? You can’t force the player to feel like they’re going insane – no matter how hard you try – so a game has to act like a game sometimes.
As far as engaging gameplay is concerned, this one is a bit of a mixed bag in that department as well. Outside of the wandering around an abandoned (and disgustingly beautiful, might I add) factory setting, you’ll complete basic puzzles. I say basic not because they are easy, but because they’re not innovative and are fairly simple. Many situations arose where I got “stuck” momentarily, but by taking a step back and just looking at my surroundings, I almost always found the solution immediately. This isn’t a bad thing or a knock on the game’s design, but it’s worth noting that that’s pretty much it: You solve puzzles and explore a creepy world for a few hours.
Maybe the bar was set a bit too high with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but in the end, A Machine for Pigs is a fundamentally different game than the original. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for with an incredibly engaging and chilling world to explore and one of the most finely crafted narratives of the genre. The story may be only told through letters you find scattered around the environments (meaning you should really explore as much as possible) and phone calls, but it may be even more effective because of this. The fact that such a direct and interesting story could be told in this day and age of cutscenes and motion capturing speaks volumes of not just the writing, but the voice acting as well. I never felt comfortable while playing A Machine for Pigs, but once I realized that my fear was based on the anticipation of something that wasn’t really worth fearing, my enjoyment quickly lessened.
It lacks a lot of the structure and depth from the first game, Dark Descent, but it attempts to makes up for these pitfalls, with varying degrees of success, via aesthetic immersion and atmosphere. That being said, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is still one of the most cerebral gaming experiences I’ve ever had and despite its title, it’s a game I won’t soon forget.
This review is based on a digitally downloaded version of the game for PC provided by Frictional Games.