In the second part of my retrospective review series, as promised last week, I’ll be taking a look at the second installment in the Amnesia franchise – A Machine for Pigs. Although, it’s first important to note that while the sequel was published under the original creators, Frictional Games, development was instead handed over to The Chinese Room this time, who are best known for Dear Esther, and, more recently, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Set in London on New Year’s Eve 1899, A Machine for Pigs follows the story of wealthy industrialist and butcher, Oswald Mandus. The story opens with the protagonist having awoken from an unwitting fever that left him incapacitated for several months, after returning from a disastrous expedition to explore Aztec ruins in Mexico. From the moment he wakes up, however, Oswald hears the voices of his two sons Edwin and Enoch calling for him, which, in turn, lead him through a series of horrifying and bizarre events in his quest to find them.
For those who are also wondering, The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs are not hugely related via any overarching story – however it is strongly implied throughout the game that Oswald is the great grand- nephew of The Dark Descent’s protagonist, Daniel.
From a storytelling perspective, A Machine for Pigs follows a very similar pattern and structure to The Dark Descent. Both protagonists awaken from a haze in which they’re unable to recall recent events, and are slowly fed information about their missing memories until the entire story is pieced together. The use of collectible notes left by Mandus and telephone calls from an enigmatic figure known “The Engineer” act as the primary platform for narrative delivery, and provide a way to convey both the current emotions of Oswald as well as restore a sense of backstory to the events leading up to his awakening in an effective and harrowing manner.
As a player, I felt myself far more drawn to Oswald as a protagonist as opposed to Daniel, and I believe a large part of this was reflected in the constant conversation that he has with “The Engineer.” It strongly reminded me of the unsettling relationship between Jack and Atlus in Bioshock, in which there was an immediate sense that something that was not quite right with the entire picture. Upon reflection, I think this aided in providing a stronger overall story, where as The Dark Descent chose to focus solely on the character of Daniel.
Upon its release, however, A Machine for Pigs was highly divisive amoung fans of the series for not being as scary as The Dark Descent – and to be perfectly honest, I can understand why horror purists would have been disappointed with it. A Machine for Pigs featured far less current day horror tropes (such as jump scares), and instead focused on creating a sense of horror through setting and scenario – a style far more typical of Hitchcockian type horror which focuses more on the story and positioning to create a sense of fear or unease. I’m personally conflicted, as I do enjoy both types of storytelling – but if Amnesia is to be defined as a “Horror” series of today’s standards, then, in this instance, The Chinese Room failed to deliver on the experience.
One thing I was a little disappointed by in A Machine for Pigs, however, was the absence of voice acting from the notes, which was a prominent component of The Dark Descent. Personally, I felt it helped add a sense of purpose and weight to the situation when spoken – as often context or emotion is harder to experience through written words, especially in something so interactively focused as a video game. Regardless, in dropping extra audio content, A Machine for Pigs does make up for this in part by the game’s far better, streamlined mechanics.
Removing some of the unnecessarily complicated and frustrating puzzle mechanics, as well as systems such as the inventory and lighting system, allowed for a more involved focus on the narrative and atmosphere. Another achievement which A Machine for Pigs managed to succeed in was an increase in scope for the game, ranging from Mandus’s stately mansion all the way to the under depths of the London sewers. This helped vastly in making the whole experience feel like a full-fledged adventure and added an exploratory feeling of which was somewhat lacking within the castle confines of The Dark Descent.
While taking a more precise approach to the mechanics of Amnesia, The Chinese Room also focused on changing some of the gameplay mechanics from the Dark Descent to freshen up the experience for veteran players. By opening the game to deal with more physical interactions rather than logic puzzles, it also allowed for more involvement with the environment to advance the journey forward – which was a refreshing and welcomed contrast to its predecessor. In saying that, A Machine for Pigs also managed to retain the original natural feel from The Dark Descent where you’re able to interact with nearly everything around you whether it’s purposeful or not.
I do have to admit, though, that at the time of finishing the second game, I kind of felt as if I had been cheated out of content – considering it took me half the time to complete A Machine for Pigs as it did The Dark Descent. But then again, in hindsight, this arguably comes down to the revised gameplay which didn’t leave me confused as I tried to work out an elaborate puzzle of pipes to send steam through to a machine in order to advance forward in the game.
Where I did feel that The Chinese Room came into their own as developers, however, was the style in which the game was crafted. Lovingly focused on Victorian/Gothic period design, the setting entirely reflects this and helps add a real sense of nervousness and anxiety as you plumb the depths of a dark and dreary London. In keeping with the style of Amnesia, the music used is also crafted in a way to compliment the atmosphere rather than overshadow it in times of panic, desperation or fear, which is an essential feature that is well suited.
In focusing on the setting and environment of A Machine for Pigs, The Chinese Room managed to separate the parts of The Dark Descent, which were both enjoyable and frustrating, and crafted their take on the series into an entirely different experience of its own. In this, they have to be praised – as the two games feel so distinctly different.
For those who enjoyed The Dark Descent, I thoroughly recommend checking out A Machine for Pigs. While it may not be the same experience, the game can stand on its own merits and delivers an entirely fresh perspective and experience for fans of Amnesia. As a worthy second entry into the series, only time will tell if Frictional Games will grace us with another release in the Amnesia catalogue. Although, I sincerely hope they do as it almost certainly has the potential to become one of the most acclaimed horror franchises of all time.