A Machine for Pigs, A Feast for the Mind

I’ll come out and say that I’m an avid fan of horror games. At times, it’s a position a little difficult to explain, as with any particular passion, but it’s just one of those things that’s like an onion: many-layered and often drives people to tears.

The genre had a bit of an identity crisis around the early 2000’s, when the last truly great titles came out, and since then, things have moved much more towards an action-y kind of deal. Creativity seemed to be lagging in a serious way, so most of the titles became either trashy, buggy messes or trite, tired rehashes of ideas a decade old.

In 2010, tiny developer Frictional Games released Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that just pushed just about all of the right buttons, ticked all the prerequisite boxes, and largely reinvigorated the survival horror genre. It was intense, wonderfully written, atmospheric, and terrifying. There are no guns, no weapons with which to defend yourself, so even the slightest hint of a creepy-crawler just forces you to bolt in the opposite direction, praying there will kindly be a cabinet to quietly soil yourself in until it passes. It wasn’t without flaws, but blah blah, that’s a different discussion for a different day.

Jump to 2012, and enter British developer The Chinese Room, another small studio only responsible for, at that point, game modifications. Dear Esther, and Korsakovia, were games originally based off of the Half-Life 2 engine, and gave very cerebral, plot-heavy games that were usually short, but very unique. They announced their cooperation with Frictional Games to release a new Amnesia title, A Machine for Pigs. Lovely, great, fantastic. A little curious, seeing how small both teams were, and how few games Frictional had released up to that point. Giving the reins of their hit IP second game to another team was a rather interesting turn of events, I must say.

The game was released early September 2013, right before my trip overseas. Tempted as I was, I had literally no ability to enjoy the game for a year, until just a short time ago, when I got the laptop that I now tik-tak-type this all out upon. Was it worth the wait?

Mmmmmnnn, I’m not entirely sure yet.

It’s good. It’s interesting, the story is solid and engaging, as imagined. It is terribly short, I’m afraid. At the same time, it definitely didn’t overstay its welcome. Though having beaten it once, I fear I’ve missed some key points along the way, so certain things weren’t made clear. In these types of games, one also must remember, sometimes there just isn’t a clear answer or satisfying resolution. AMfP also tunes down the puzzles and scares found in the first game in favour of atmospheric storytelling.

Details! And an obligatory spoiler notice if you wouldn’t figure by now. The Amnesia series has claimed, in its 2.5 games (there was also an extra story that was released in conjunction with a ad campaign that Valve had begun at the time for Portal 2) a repeated fascination and importance to the notions of self, fate, and morality. All of the protagonists of had been rather terrible people, for one reason or another (not small reasons, either). AMfP begins in mid-Industrial London on the eve of the 20th century, with a butcher-turned-meat-baron waking alone in his mansion, looking for his children. Whereupon you slowly come to see the first signs of something rather amiss- hidden rooms throughout the house; crude, sometimes violent drawings scrawled next to one-way mirrors behind bathrooms. Phonograph conversations and diary pages describe the shift from an entrepreneurial butcher to a self-proclaimed vessel for humanity’s moral salvation. Saving the masses by slaughtering undesirables in a massive underground abbatoir. Orphans, prostitutes, the infirm, the homeless, all swept from the streets and fed into the machine. Then it became industrialists, bankers, politicians. Lured in by promise of debauchery and excess, they were drugged and similarly fed into the machine.

The important part is that the protagonist, Oswald Mandus, is seeing it with the player for the first time, as well. He has no memory of his actions from the prior few months, following a recent trip to Mexico. So as you, as he, descend into the bowels of the complex, you begin seeing the true scale and scope of the factory’s ambitions, but neither you nor he know it was by his hand alone that it all came to be. He’s a man fighting the faceless, terrible master, even though the master is himself. He sees all of the workings with abject horror and repulsion, and only continues in the hopes of saving his children, who somehow got trapped in one part of the works. Again, it’s one of the main themes of the series, whether one’s actions are truly what they want, or whether the same person would have chosen differently under different circumstances.

I love this concept. It harks back to the annals of survival horror, where the scares were almost secondary to the story. Like Silent Hill 2, which is the easy answer to give, where you have complex, damaged characters and a brutal cleansing (or perdition) of their past “sins,” so to speak. It’s a wonderful conflict, knowing that the character you control is capable of such reformation, yet was still capable of doing any number of atrocious, disgusting acts just prior to the game’s setting. They’re not like grizzled space marines with daaaaark, (generic) troubled histories, they’re by and large normal people put into the worst of situations and didn’t or couldn’t make a morally sound choice.

It’s a twist of existentialism that is often too difficult to depict, or too risky for most companies to bother investing in. They don’t shy away from bad endings, or at least morally questionable ones, and at times getting a satisfying ending is a rather difficult task. The same does stand for most (good) survival horror games, I may add. It’s disturbing, sure, but by god they’re also smart.

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