Oh what a fool I was.
What a fool I was to place my faith in the unsteady hands of The Chinese Room, the team responsible for creating Dear Esther, one of the worst games I’ve ever had the misfortune of being suckered into buying; rarely will you find a more plodding and pretentious experience, writhing in esotericism and utterly devoid of design. But I had felt them to be a natural fit for the world of Amnesia: with its already-light systems firmly established by the seminal Dark Descent, The Chinese Room could focus on the ambiance that they so clearly had a knack for. I was half-right and twice-fooled.
Shame on me.
The story — far too clever for its own good — places you in the role of troubled industrialist Oswald Mandus, who awakens from his fevered sleep in search of his sons, always seeming to stay two steps ahead of Mandus as he gives chase into the depths of his facility. Narrative is often delivered by painfully rote mechanisms such as an army of strewn-about notes, conspicuously-placed telephone stations (with the aural equivalent of an objective pop-up on the other end), and the occasional phonograph recording, because of course we haven’t had enough of audiologs. Regardless, the plot itself isn’t bad at all, the more gruesome developments lending a menacing air to environments that stand well enough on their own. Only near the end do affairs begin to bog down into incomprehension under the weight of one too many poorly-handled supernatural story beats; my final moments with the game were spent thinking, “this would be really great if I had the faintest idea what the hell I was doing.”
So a step up from Dear Esther, in sum. Where The Chinese Room really hit their marks is exactly where I had hoped they would: ambiance and environmental design. Even stripped of all context, the metallic labyrinth of Mandus Manufacturing Company is a constantly disconcerting place, with the incessant pounding of machinery keeping you on edge at all times. While lacking the dry, inhuman dread of cold Brennenburg stonework, A Machine for Pigs makes up ground through sheer variety, putting its predecessor to shame with a healthy spread of unique locations you would just as soon be leaving. Even the hideous blue fog that is often smeared over the screen does little to put a damper on things.
Masterful sound design completes the look, draping the ominous environs of underground London with nightmarish cacophonies that do their damnedest to make you as uncomfortable as possible, creating a tense atmosphere punctuated by the occasional crashing of metal or the screeching of some horror unknown. Of particular note is the booming repetition of the fully-functioning piston room, managing an impressive feat in turning an average object into a machine for terror unto itself almost entirely on the strength of its audio. It’s quality stuff from beginning to end.
What makes A Machine for Pigs so frustrating is that The Chinese Room absolutely nailed the aspects of the game you would expect them to. They may not have mechanical chops to save their lives, but all they had to do was take Frictional‘s work on The Dark Descent, maintain the status quo, and we would have another horror classic on our hands.
They just had to meddle, didn’t they?
Gone is the original’s brilliant sanity system, which went such a long way in turning the environment itself into a hostile, oppressive force. Standing in the darkness would keep you well-cloaked from the game’s grotesque enemies, but would trigger Daniel’s nyctophobia and cause your sanity to slowly drip away. Conversely, standing in the light would stop sanity loss, with the obvious downside of exposing yourself. Bouncing between the two meant your sanity was often damaged, and much of the game was spent dealing with the ever-present and terribly unpleasent sound of Daniel grinding his teeth nervously, accompanied by a distortion of the screen that conveyed a sickening sense of claustrophobia. On top of that, even so much as looking at a shambling Grunt would send Daniel into a panic, which was quite an effective way to transfer that fear onto the player as well. Enemy encounters and environmental traversal were colored by the sanity system at every step. This system was crucial — absolutely woven into the fabric of Amnesia’s success. And A Machine for Pigs does away with it entirely, with nothing offered to take its place.
Gone are tinderboxes and lantern fuel, the finite consumable resource that gave the player a degree of control over the darkness, and sanity by extension, of Amnesia. While both were always in ready supply, just the simple idea that you could conceivably lose the ability to create light was totally petrifying, keeping you ever-mindful of its use. Not only can A Machine for Pigs’ lantern be used indefinitely, it now casts its gaze forward like any other video game flashlight, as opposed to the proximity approach of The Dark Descent that always kept the path ahead shrouded in shadows. It also telegraphs spookiness by flickering, which was a terrible idea when F.E.A.R. did it eight years ago. The end result is this: The Chinese Room has rendered darkness, and the system of darkness, irrelevant. That sounds simple, but it means everything.
Gone also is the inventory, replaced by nothing yet again. While this alone seems little trouble, the result is that A Machine for Pigs no longer requires an accumulation of items to solve more complex puzzles, or the application of items long held in conjunction to progress; every puzzle in the game can be solved either directly or with objects accessible in the immediate vicinity, to be carried awkwardly to their assigned place. It is an absurd exclusion in a game filled with them.
It took me over a year to drag myself through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, often in 30 minute sessions that would strategically end right before I could expect my night to turn restless. A more terrifying game has never been made, and it deserves every bit of high praise it has received. It took me two days to beat A Machine for Pigs, and I slept like a baby. The Chinese Room did their best to Dear Esther-ize Amnesia, stripping out nearly every mechanical element of significance with absolutely no consideration for the repercussions, of which there are two: A Machine for Pigs isn’t particularly scary, and A Machine for Pigs isn’t particularly good.
I suspect The Chinese Room made precisely the game they wanted to make. Shame on me for expecting anything else.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs was developed by The Chinese Room and published by Frictional Games. The game is currently available on PC.
A digital copy of this game was provided to Save/Continue by the publisher for review purposes.