Browsing the internet hours after I finished Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I could’ve sworn I heard a pig snuffle in my room. Sure, it was a blind scraping against a wall that sounded eerily like the game’s effect, but it was enough to set me on edge and convince me that A Machine for Pigs is a great horror game.
The most surprising about A Machine for Pigs is how unlike its predecessor Amnesia: The Dark Descent it is. The Dark Descent did things differently to ‘revive’ or at least redirect horror games. It removed combat, used a first person view, minimised interactions with other characters and had a simple (frankly stale) story. If this doesn’t sound revolutionary, it is only because almost every horror game since The Dark Descent – from Outlast to Slender – has been heavily influenced by it: when it was released, it was highly innovative. So the fact that A Machine for Pigs gleefully disregards this template particularly with regard to story is more than strange, it’s admirable. I loved The Dark Descent but if I wanted to play it again, I could, and so to have a very, very different approach to horror (interestingly from a different developer) in the same franchise is a treat. Because while A Machine for Pigs is still a first-person horror game with no combat which visually resembles The Dark Descent (it even shares a good number of assets) it’s narrative heavy, character focused horror.
Most of your time is spent walking between objectives and learning about your character, Mandus, as you descend into a meat processing factory (the titular ‘machine for pigs’) in search of your children. Enemies are scarce and the long spells spent hiding from them which almost became a trademark of The Dark Descent are all but absent. On the whole it’s a more ‘directed’ experience with only a handful of puzzles and nothing that can’t be ‘solved’ (if that isn’t too strong a word) by thirty seconds backtracking. Where The Dark Descent had large hub areas with multiple puzzles to solve for progress, one in A Machine for Pigs where I had to pick up two gears lying in a small room and slot them in is typical.
I don’t mean to diminish the game when I say it’s simpler: The Dark Descent was mechanically simpler than older horror games, so it’s fitting that even compared to that, A Machine for Pigs is skeletal. Gone is the limited lantern oil and the tinderboxes used to turn on lights around the castle. Instead there’s a brighter, unlimited torch with the disadvantage that it goes out when enemies are around. This isn’t quite as clunky as it sounds since environmental lights also flicker and die and these beings interfere with electricity. It’s a good way to prevent you from getting a good look at enemies and a step forward from the thankfully removed sanity meter (which really was exactly as clunky as the phrase ‘sanity meter’ suggests). While I’m overjoyed to see the end of that meter, the amputation of mechanics in other areas isn’t so appreciated. The setting’s electric lighting means that tinderboxes and lantern oil couldn’t conceivably have returned but a substitute would have been welcome. Occasionally there’s the feeling that A Machine for Pigs exists to ferry you between story triggers and just a little more mechanical depth would’ve alleviated that. The Chinese Room have been overzealous in their simplification of an already simple game.
The meat of the game isn’t its gameplay, but its writing. A Machine for Pigs delivers its story through diary pages scattered around its world, dialogue, environments – virtually everything, even the loading screens, are in service of the story. Crucially, the story is important throughout: all too often in games like The Dark Descent and Outlast, the story is limited until so close to the end that it feels squashed. Both games, consequentially, had an absolutely appalling final hour which A Machine for Pigs sidesteps through its focus on story first. It’s an emphasis that’s well rewarded in a game which has a lot to say about exploitation and industrialisation. and if nothing else, A Machine for Pigs demonstrates that industrialisation can be terrifying. Moreover, this isn’t at the expense of the atmosphere – which is relentlessly threatening – but in support of it. The game makes use of pigs for its atmosphere and, if you like, its ‘meaning’: both are creepy, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who sees pigs differently when they finish with the game.
There’s one aspect of the writing worth briefly unloading both barrels into, namely when the game tries to make sense. A Machine for Pigs really does not need to explain itself as much as it does. How exactly the enemies exist is a question the game seriously attempts to answer, for some reason. Silent Hill 2 never felt the need to explain its creatures, their ‘thematic’ significance (I’m thinking particularly of the creatures who were women’s limbs sewn together) just became clear towards the end. The same is true of A Machine for Pigs, but for some reason it isn’t enough for them to make thematic sense as part of the ‘pig’ motif, they need to be literally explained with one of the game’s few ties to the lore of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s never convincing, and worse it makes you consider all the other nonsensical things which the game happily accepts make only ‘thematic’ sense. Near the start, we learn that part of the factory is literally underneath the main character’s house and he seems to live next door to the main entrance. That’s daft on the face of it but it would be fine – in fact the idea of this mansion literally built on top of the factory is a neat little way to tell a story – if they didn’t insist on having exact explanations for the enemies, for instance. The rest of the game is damaged by the inclusion of these few storytelling threads, which boil down to ‘magic’ anyway.
If anything deserves a special mention next to the writing, it is sound design. Horror games can by elevated or crucified by their sound effects and the difference between a convincing and unconvincing effect is enormous. A Machine for Pigs, much like The Dark Descent, excels at having just the right creepy sound effects for each occasion. No matter how much I did it, I was startled by every machine I’d start up due to how eloquently the sounds they make whirring to life were chosen. Similarly the enemies are really carried by their snorts, snuffling and roars: it’s their sound, not their sight, which is scary.
For everything A Machine for Pigs might lack in mechanical depth, it makes up in a depth of writing has been unseen in horror games ironically since the rise of Amnesia. It’s by turns scary, intriguing and revolting. If it doesn’t have the same raw jump scares that The Dark Descent had, it has an abundance of atmosphere and it’s haunted me for longer after I’d closed it than any other horror game.