Review

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

Not Kosher

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs isn’t heart-stoppingly scary, but it might make you think twice about eating bacon.

By Drew Toal • September 18, 2013

“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.

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

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.

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

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.

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

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.

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac
Price: $20
Rating: N/A

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47 Responses to “Not Kosher”

  1. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    Whoo! Amnesia! I could play this game for hours. Well, five and a half, to be precise. I hear the general reception online is surprisingly negative, all things considered.

    It’s been years since I’ve played The Dark Descent, but I think I prefer it to A Machine for Pigs. They’re both pretty great with atmosphere, given how reluctantly I crept down every empty hallway, but this sequel never feels as threatening as the first one did. I can take or leave the few mechanical changes they made, but I do think one or two more unscripted encounters, or making the existing ones a little longer, would’ve gone a long way.

    My favorite touch was finding the secret passages in the manor you wake up in. Seeing just how extensive they were really opened up the possibility that there were other people (or things) there watching me, even if I never saw them. There were also a lot of one-way windows into the bathrooms, which was appropriately off-putting.

    The way the notes and background are presented out of order is something that could be annoying, but the plot is simple enough that you can understand the gist of the plot from before the start of the game without recreating an exact timeline of events.

    Does anyone remember “Justine”? It was free DLC for the original Amnesia that I don’t recall finishing; if I remember, it didn’t support saving and I chose not to start over after my first attempt. I bring it up because a forum post mentioned it as a kind of game that could be made with all the same mechanics and style as The Dark Descent without retreading quite as much ground as A Machine for Pigs does. I don’t recall “Justine” being any more removed from the original than this sequel, but there were a few details that differentiated it.

    • huge_jacked_man says:

      The problem with Amnesia is that the gameplay consists almost entirely of lame physics-based puzzles (some of which are identical to those found in Half Life 2 over a decade ago) set in a very generic dungeon environment, and you need to balance that aspect with the competent hide-and-seek horror mechanics. Still an impressive achievement in terms of atmosphere and general creepiness considering the obviously limited resources the game was made with.

      I played Justine, it’s fairly short and indeed there is no save feature but I liked how there is an extra challenge in saving the prisoners. I have yet to play Machine for Pigs but from reactions to it I might regret having preordered it. 

      • GaryX says:

        I played the Penumbra games years before Amnesia came out (thanks Steam and my random horror binges!), and I thought it at least felt a little more unique with its underground ice mining dungeon taken straight from Lovecraft story. Red (the character) was also used effectively.

        I seem to remember enjoying the sequel a bit more, though, since it completely left out combat. I’m not opposed to combat in horror games, but I remember it being quite bad in the first. The setting and puzzles were a bit more generic in the second as well.

        It’s a bummer to see people reacting tepidly to the new Amnesia, but maybe that’s in part due to sticking so closely to the original.

        • MintBerry_Crunch says:

          I think it went above and beyond (I played this with a friend who wore the headphones while I controlled it. We split the heart attacks and laxative effects) by removing the “insanity meter”, a videogame-y thing that people are actually lamenting the loss of! 

          There’s less dumb collecting of the same basic stuff throughout the entirety of the game in the different environments (there are still notes)—and I thought it was kind of brave of them to make bipedal Manpigs/Pigmen the monsters of their new game.

          Scary things they are!

        • Raging Bear says:

          @MintBerry_Crunch:disqus You didn’t find the pigmen too cute to be scary? More than once, even as one was savaging me to death, I looked up through the reddening screen and thought “aww, look at his flopsy ears!”

        • MintBerry_Crunch says:

          @Raging_Bear:disqus 

          Okay. So maybe I lay eggs. 

          And cluck when the going gets–*looks over own shoulder* 
          *sees spider in display case, shakes both legs involuntarily*

        • huge_jacked_man says:

          I still need to play the Penumbra games, they’re sitting in the big pile of unfinished business in my Steam account. In the same vein I have Cryostasis sitting there, another spooky game where concept is a lot more exciting than execution.

  2. Effigy_Power says:

    Are pigs even qualified to operate machinery?

  3. SamPlays says:

    Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs review summary:

    “It’s so atmospheric!”

    – Drew Toal, Gameological Society, Sept. 18, 2013

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      “It’s best to take the… poop water… which helps clear up much of
      the story’s more opaque components.” – Drew Toal, Gameological Society

    • Effigy_Power says:

      “Not kosher […] coffee […] in a Victorian bedroom […] with […] children […] is […] is generally […] engaging, […] formulaic […] and head-scratching. […] The payoff, when it comes, is a fitting, bizarre ending to a pleasingly strange ride.”

      Drew Toal, Gameological Contributor.

  4. WELCOME_THRILLHO says:

    I do find it hard to believe that anything at all could make people think twice about eating bacon, given the fever-pitch of bacon fetishism lately. But I also haven’t finished the game yet, so it’s possible I’m wrong.

    Cool story bro about me:  When I still ate meat in college, I went to a lecture called “The New Grotesque”. I think I had a light dinner that night because when it got to the clips of a cadaver preparation documentary, I started getting very hungry seeing all that meat. Enough that I had to run to Taco Bell down the street in order to quell my hunger for flesh.

    So I decided to become a vegetarian after that, before I could fully explore exactly what had happened there.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      Several years ago, the “Health Ranger” of naturalnews.com posted a bunch of macro-zoomed photos of different meats in order to show how disgusting they were.

      “Look at that huge glob of fat, isn’t that disgusting?”

      Uhhh…considering that glob is about a millimeter in size, no, not really.  In fact, now I’m really hungry.

      Also, the “Health Ranger” turned into the “Every Goddamn Conspiracy Theory Ranger” so gradually I hardly noticed.

  5. Raging Bear says:

    To be honest, I found it a bit boaring.

  6. aklab says:

    I had never really played a horror game, and Amnesia sounded really terrifying, but I wanted to “work my way up” by playing the Penumbra games first. I got through the first one, thoroughly enjoyed it and was terrified. That was a couple of years ago and now I don’t know if my blood pressure can handle any more great horror games. 

    • GaryX says:

      It’s not that scary, really. Just play it at home by yourself with all the lights off and headphones on. Leave your door unlocked, and maybe crack a window so a breeze can come in and shuffle things about the house a bit while you play. Let that figure out of the corner of your eye, covered in darkness so that you can only just make out the form, just stand there and watch you in total silence.

      Then maybe it’ll be creepy.

      • aklab says:

        Even better, I have small children who are loud as all hell during the day, but at nighttime they turn into Solid Snake. Most of the jump scares happen when I’m inching along a corridor in the game and then a tiny hand silently taps me on the shoulder IRL… long story short, my children know a lot of swear words. 

  7. snazzlenuts says:

    Thanks, Mr. Toal for spoiling Oblivion. Now I’ll never watch it for another reason, besides it looking horrible.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      It is like a lesser copy of the director’s earlier effort, TRON Legacy. It’s pretty, it’s got a cool soundtrack, and it has some interesting action, but in the end, it just doesn’t hang together all that well. Also, while most films borrow from other works of fiction, no sci-fi movie ever had me name-check as often as this one did. Also, the climax isn’t very good.

      Andrea Riseborough is quite excellent in it, though.

  8. The_Misanthrope says:

    “Horror” as a term to describe this kind of genre is really overused.  I tend to go with the three orders that Stephen King establishes in his book Danse Macabre:  Terror, Horror, and Revulsion.  Revulsion is just the cheap gross-out, gag-reflex response, the lowest (but easiest to write) order.  Horror is the anxiety that come with seeing something so strange and unnatural that you can’t process it rationally.  Terror is the overwhelming dread before horror, the ovrewhelming sensation that something is capital-W wrong.  The dividing line between horror and terror is sometimes tricky, but I think this quote from the book best sums it up:

    “The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

    [Granted, now that terrorism is a international concern (not that it hasn’t been for a long time but, well, you know what I mean), the word “terror” carries extra import, but the idea is still not far off.  One of the goal of terrorists is to disrupt our sense of normal life.  Even if we know their motivations, it doesn’t play to our normal sense of how warfare works.]

    • Effigy_Power says:

      For a misanthrope you sure seem to have some good insight into the human emotional state.
      I suggest you change your name to “Reformed Misanthrope”.

      • The_Misanthrope says:

        I’m also good at cognitive dissonance. I like most people up until I have to spend a great deal of time with them.

        Tell you what, I’ll change my handle if you change your to “Effigy Powder“.

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          If you know of a cure for cognitive dissonance, I’d love to hear about it.

          It’s currently breaking my heart that my father is buying into all of these conspiracy theories, and any “scientific” study that confirms them he accepts without question, but any study that refutes them is “pseudoscience” to him.  Of course he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s HIS studies that are pseudoscience, claiming results with no proof and attacking anyone who disagrees with them.

    • Shain Eighmey says:

      Just the word’s I’ve been looking for to explain the differences between The Walking Dead and At the Mountains of Madness! 

      Perhaps I should start being more specific and saying that I’m into Terror stories more than Horror.  

  9. Knarf Black says:

    I was slightly disappointed in A:MfP. Not so much because they trimmed the mechanics down to the bone, but that everything they left was so similar to the first game. There really weren’t many surprises.

    I would recommend that any potential Amnesia n00bs play this game before the original. The stories intersect, but not nearly enough to create spoilers by playing out of sequence. Plus, many of the encounters in MfP almost feel like tutorials for their Dark Descent counterparts.

    Pig monsters were a great choice, though. I worked as an assistant maintenance guy during Summers in college, and one of the buildings in our AC fixing jurisdiction was a pathogen free swine laboratory. I never saw a pig, as you needed to be fully decontaminated before entering their domain, but I had to fix* stuff on a mezzanine directly above the clean areas. First time I was up there just happened to be feeding time; it sounded like angry goddamn velocirapters echoing through the metal.

    *by ‘fixing’ I of course mean ‘handing tools the guy who knew what he was doing’

    • And by “tools” you meant “a selection of hammers”. 

      Amnesia:ADD has yet to scare me but I’m only 20 minutes or so in and have yet to encounter my first monster. I thought the tricks they do to build up tension and get to you would have me jumping by now as I get scared with games pretty easily but as yet, nothing.

  10. STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM says:

    pretty good game, but I had two problems with it 

    1. screen tearing out the wazoo! I tried to fix it but I couldn’t, dunno if it’s a glitch or what but it was annoying and a PC game really shouldn’t have to suffer from that

    2. the story doesn’t really make much sense, I was left largely scratching my head at the end, for one thing, how did the protagonist get amnesia in the first place? in the first game *SPOILER* it was because you drank a potion that made you forget, did the protagonist in this game do the same? if so where did he get that potion and why exactly did he drink it? (that’s just the first of many questions though)

    I get that vagueness is just how The Chinese Room rolls and I can dig that, but the first game had a bizarre story too that nevertheless made sense if you were paying attention

    all that aside though I enjoyed the game, I loved exploring the vaguely Steampunk Victorian era industrial environments and whatnot

  11. hcduvall says:

    This particular description of the game makes me think of Sleep No More, the interactive theater where you walk around an deeply designed set and run across MacBeth, and how my reference points for the experience were often the video games I’ve played. I walked around opening every drawer and peeked behind every curtain, and for something I knew didn’t involve being hunted by eldritch horrors–what a terrible show that would be–creepy and dislocating. It was indeed very atmospheric.

    Not all the video game things in my head enhanced the experience–maybe none actually, since it made me relate to it like a game. But there was some tinny music playing through the halls sometimes, and instead of being atmospheric I’d think, “That’s my favorite song from my favorite Fallout 3 station.”

  12. needlehacksaw says:

    Since I’ve already posted a bit of egghead-trivia yesterday and am thus outed — who is spending his time on Gameological instead of writing his PhD? me is spending my time on Gameological instead of writing my PhD! –, I can safely by pedantic today again.

    So, I’d like to refer to that part of the review:
    “‘It’s so atmospheric!,’ an enthralled reviewer like me might write, like that actually means something.”

    You know, there is a school of thought claiming that it DOES in fact mean something. The so-called “New Aesthetics” (which is a thing of not totally obscure status in Germany at least) has developped some pretty elaborate concepts of what “atmosphere” means. It’s scientific, and everything!

    There is even a book scheduled to come out soon which tries to apply  those concepts (for the first time, as far as I know) to videogames. Part of that project is also a series of (non-academic) interviews with developers talking about their idea of what “atmosphere” in games could mean, which you can find — along with the Call for Papers for the book — here:
    http://christianhuberts.blogspot.ch/2013/05/betweenworlds-interviews.html

    …none of which is a compelling argument against the statement that “atmosphere” is a widely overused word, of course. But maybe it’s interesting to some of you nevertheless.