“Amnesia” is one of the most oft-abused concepts in fiction, a longtime staple of bad soap operas and other lazily written stories. For instance, I was just watching the Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle Oblivion where it was used to predictably unremarkable effect. (If only I could self-induce amnesia to forget the two hours of my life I had just wasted.) Amnesia is the title and central conceit of 2011’s The Dark Descent and its follow-up, A Machine For Pigs. My trepidation in playing this game was two-fold: There was the more obvious fear that my nerves—frayed from long years of coffee overconsumption—wouldn’t be able to handle the promised super scariness, and also the suspicion that relying on memory erasure would render the story, and really the experience as a whole, impotent.
Your character wakes up in a Victorian-style bedroom with no inkling how he got there. There’s some kind of cage surrounding the bed, which seems abnormal, but who knows what kind of weird sex stuff they were into in fin de siécle London? And then you hear it, the creepy voices of ghostly children: “Daddy! Daddy!” they say, and your suspicions about the unspeakable perversions perpetrated in this house are totally confirmed. And there’s an unsigned note. Something about a man “dressed in jaguar skins and feathered like a blooded saint” and the “foetid heat of the jungle, mirrored somewhere behind my forehead.” Without any memories or context for this den of iniquity, though, it’s tough to really make heads or tails of this fevered madness. All you know is that you have to find your children.
And so you set off on a quest through this classically constructed murder mansion—full of secret panels and one-way mirrors—piecing together the story from carefully placed notes, Victrola-born audio recordings, and occasional phone calls from an ominous benefactor who begs you to descend into the bowels of the property and fix a machine that has been flooded with poop water. Making the repairs will save your kids. It all sounds a little suspicious, but without better options, you do as the voice on the phone says.
There’s a lot of great detail in the house. Opening desk drawers usually reveals a lot of strange odds and ends. The game lacks an inventory, so there’s no amassing a collection of books, medical instruments, and used dentures as you go. All you have throughout is your not-so-trusty flashlight, which tends to flicker out at grossly inconvenient times. Not having to worry about managing all your stuff works wonders for immersing yourself in this dark, vaguely harrowing environment. The room with taxidermied big game is especially appropriate.
A Machine For Pigs starts off a little slow. A good stretch of the game is over before you come into contact with another soul. (Do monstrous perversions of life and the natural world even have souls? I’ll leave it for better minds to resolve.) The game’s sound is incredible and engrossing enough to hold attention, though. Even when you’re not running for your life, the sound of echoing footsteps and the occasional blasts of terrible opera music (meant to soothe wild beasts and likely provide background noise for brandy snifting in the days before everyone in the house turned dead) really do create a sinister atmosphere that stays with you for the entire game.
Like “amnesia,” that word, “atmosphere,” is another brutally abused concept, especially when it comes to horror. “It’s so atmospheric!,” an enthralled reviewer like me might write, like that actually means something. That being said, A Machine For Pigs is so atmospheric! I am enthralled! As you descend deeper into the Earth, learning about this infernal machine you helped create, the feeling of doom, total and complete, is never far away.
But the game, it should be noted, isn’t terrifying in the usual sense. It’s nerve wracking in that you’re helpless, stumbling down corridors with your glitchy flashlight and directly into Satan’s boudoir, but the utter strangeness of the storyline invites confusion as much as it does horror. It’s unsettling in the same way as The Island Of Doctor Moreau (with which it shares similar themes), but neither could strictly be called “horror.” The gameplay itself is a bit of a departure from The Dark Descent, even as it gives subtle nods to its predecessor throughout; A Machine For Pigs doesn’t employ much in the way of stealth. Machine’s puzzles, which usually involve tinkering with machinery or replacing worn out parts, are engaging, if formulaic. Once you’re deep into the machine, it’s generally true that anything you can interact with is necessary to move on, and that knowledge lessens the furious head-scratching.
A Machine For Pigs doesn’t just overcome its trite titular conceit, it capitalizes on it to great effect, using confusion to build something that’s less scary than it is intensely discomforting. It’s best to take the whole thing slow, mind the poop water, and pay close attention to your journal as you go, which helps clear up much of the story’s more opaque components. The payoff, when it comes, is a fitting, bizarre ending to a pleasingly strange ride.