Oct 292013

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a game I did not love. For the sort of person who thought The Chinese Room’s previous outing Dear Esther was not a game, I should note that A Machine for Pigs conforms more closely to certain norms. There are traditional puzzles, for instance, and levers you must pull to open secret doors, and scraps of diaries that you can read, and furnaces you can throw lumps of coal into, and ugly violent monsters from which you must hide lest you get knocked back (or occasionally forward) to a checkpoint. This should relieve the people who think that The Chinese Room are engaged in a scheme to subvert the medium, if there are any. I personally didn’t find the expanded set of mechanics made for a better game.

A Machine for Pigs is about a man, Oswald Mandus, who found an artifact in an Aztec temple that allowed him to see the future. What he witnessed of the 20th century, especially the brutal deaths of his sons on the battlefields of the first World War, so horrified him that he decided to build a giant machine that would essentially end the world by transforming people into brutal, venal pig-men. Under the cover that he is building an abattoir, he constructs this monstrosity, then sacrifices his children to bring it to life. At which point he changes his mind, breaks the thing, runs up to his room, and forgets everything that happened (it’s in the title, innit?).

For the most part, I don’t think the mechanics included here did much of anything to illuminate this story or its themes.

I think there are a few ideas worth emphasizing about the above. The first is seeing as horror. Oswald’s glimpse of the future is what drives him over the edge. His fear is not of what will happen to him, but of what he envisions will come to pass in the future. This is an idea that sits very comfortably in the series – the sanity mechanic in the previous game penalized the player for seeing its enemies. It’s also a concept that’s right up The Chinese Room’s alley, considering that their previous effort, Dear Esther is essentially a game about walking around and looking at things.

A Machine for Pigs doesn’t do too badly with this idea – some of its best sequences involve non-interactive looking. The occasions when the player can see the manpigs eating, or pathetically trapped in their cells, seem intended to provoke feelings of horror in the player that have nothing to do with fear for the “self”. However, seeing the game’s horrors doesn’t play back against Mandus’ sanity mechanically, and this is a terrible mistake because it was seeing that drove him mad in the first place.

A manpig enjoying dinner.

A manpig enjoying dinner.

Another idea worth mentioning is inevitability. What horrifies Mandus is his sons’ eventual deaths in war. He doesn’t choose to do something that preserves his sons while preventing the war; perhaps he can’t choose such a thing. The solution he comes up with is to kill his sons now to spare them the future. Similarly, his remedy for those who will die in the Great War and the 20th century’s other disasters is not to come up with methods that prevent war or social injustice, but simply to kill everyone, or at least viciously transform them, before the new era arrives. Mandus only changes the nature of death, not the fact. In the end, he doesn’t even change that – the world rolls on without him.

Hand in hand with this goes the idea of substitution. Mandus constantly does what he thinks to be the lesser of two evils. The death he gives his children is preferable to the one they will experience in WWI, from his perspective at the time. He also decides that a corrupt society populated by “pure” human flesh should be replaced by a world in which the corruption is physical and the society, though brutal, has an animal purity.

These themes only really get expressed in the game’s best sequence – Mandus’ emergence into the nightmarish London under attack by the manpigs. Here again the main avenue of horror is seeing (and hearing), rather than experiencing physical danger. During this segment the manpigs are near Mandus several times, but they attack and imprison other people in the town (seeing, substitution). When a manpig at last has a free path towards Mandus, there is no option to hide – rather, Mandus must flee, with the manpig constantly bearing down on him (inevitability).

Most of the rest of the game, however, features mechanics that don’t really connect. For the most part, the manpigs are easily avoided, playing against the sense of inevitability that led Mandus to the point where we found him. Similarly, repairing the machine, while it fits the story’s plot, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with its themes, which treat the machine as merely a means to an end, rather than anything symbolic in itself.

What does work mechanically is Mandus’ search to understand his own past. Gathering the scraps of journals and finding the game’s audio logs, although many are at least somewhat ridiculous, has a conceptual relationship to the amnesia of the title. But Mandus’ act of forgetting is the least interesting of the story’s ideas, and exists primarily as a conceit allowing the playable part of the story to happen at all. Amnesia may be in the title, but it is peripheral to the themes as written.

This is why I felt that A Machine for Pigs, despite being light on gameplay by some standards, was actually weighted down with mechanical cruft. Mechanics oriented around physical peril don’t jive with the story’s emphasis on the terror of seeing. Hiding from monsters is wildly inappropriate for a man whose response to horror is to create a grandiose way to swap one evil for another. And the game’s few puzzles give the impression of being busy work that exists so you will feel like you’re playing a game. Even the game’s aesthetic tendency towards grungy darkness seems at odds with the pure bodies / corrupt system – corrupt bodies / pure system substitution that Mandus is after. The real trouble I had with A Machine for Pigs is that much of the gameplay The Chinese Room chose to include doesn’t resonate with the story they’re telling.

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