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Disappointments: Amnesia a Machine for Pigs

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a game that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a masterpiece not only of the independent scene but of the entire games industry, succeeding brilliantly at delivering a truly terrifying experience that stuck with me long after I finished it. When the sequel, A Machine for Pigs, was announced, I preordered it as soon as I was able. Frictional’s games have only improved with each new title, and I was confident this latest release would be even better than the original.

As it turns out, that’s not the case.

A Machine for Pigs (AMFP from here on out) is developed by TheChineseRoom, best known for their experimental narrative game Dear Esther, with Frictional taking a minor role as producer and publisher. I absolutely adore Dear Esther for what it is: a beautiful dream of a game with breathtaking visuals and fantastic atmosphere. For all that, however, it’s very linear and involves no environmental interaction whatsoever, and unfortunately this design approach is carried right over into AMFP. Dear Esther was an extremely focused game; no element was included that wasn’t directly necessary to tell the story they were looking to tell, including many conventions considered standard in a first-person-perspective game, such as the ability to crouch and jump. While crouching and jumping are still in place in AMFP, it’s astonishing just how many other core systems were removed from the core Amnesia gameplay.

Simplifications in interactivity
Nearly every object in the world of Amnesia: The Dark Descent (just Amnesia from here on) could be picked up and manipulated. Books could be taken from bookshelves, bricks could be used to bash a hole in a damaged wall, and barrels could be stacked to collect out-of-reach items. AMFP limits interactivity strictly to puzzle items, doors and desk drawers. One memorable moment during my playthrough was when I came across a tubular object on the floor and picked it up, overjoyed to have found something to physically connect me to the world I was trying to immerse myself in. As it turned out, the object was a fuse that belonged to a fusebox in the next room. I plugged it in and went on my way.

object

While the lack of clutter in a level might seem like a petty complaint, the ability to interact with items in Amnesia’s environment was one of the things that really made me feel like I was inhabiting an actual space, rather than proceeding through a tightly directed tour. In AMFP, if you find an object you can pick up, make sure to take it with you, because you’ll definitely need it to solve an upcoming puzzle — or what passes for one in this game, anyway.

Disruption of Balance
Amnesia’s sanity meter has been criticized as being unrealistic and distracting, but I think it’s one of the game’s best mechanics. In a castle filled with murderous creatures and without any means of defending yourself, the obvious tactic is to skulk around in the dark to avoid detection. Amnesia made this very approach inadvisable with the simple rule that the darkness itself is your enemy too, causing hallucinations and insanity if you spent too long without coming into the light. It forced you to balance the preservation of your sanity with the knowledge that standing in the light made it possible for a monster to see you as well.

I’ll never forget one time in particular when I encountered a monster after having spent far too long in the dark. He roared as he spotted me and I sprinted away, veering madly. As I ran towards the door which would take me back to the safety of the main hall, I tried to make a minor correction in my heading and instead spun completely around to face him as he wound up for a swing. I turned again, view flailing, fumbling at the door just as his attack landed. I made it out. Barely.

In AMFP, the sanity mechanic is completely gone. You can creep around in the shadows to your heart’s content with no ill effects. In Amnesia, taking more than a quick glance at a patrolling monster was a good way to induce a noisy panic attack, but in AMFP you can stare at them with impunity, effectively removing the risk involved in learning patrol patterns and turning such segments into uninspired stealth gameplay. Far from being vulnerable and helpless, the player is just as empowered as the hero in any other sneak-em-up.

boss

At least, until you get to the boss fight against this teleporting cybernetic hogman.

Resource management
As with every other aspect of the game, resource management has been simplified to the bare minimum. The inventory has been completely removed; all puzzle elements are physical objects that you carry in your hands, laudanum is no longer available to sooth wounds, and tinderboxes have been replaced with the ability to conjure fire from your fingertips onto certain candles.

None of the above issues are really that big of a deal, but one more mechanic was removed that I can’t come up with a satisfactory justification for: the lantern no longer consumes fuel and can be used infinitely. Ultimately this decision cascades from the removal of the sanity meter and the fact that there’s no downside to being in the dark, but the tension produced by the knowledge that your fuel could run out at any time is noticeably absent. Yet another crucial element falls on the chopping block in the name of accessibility.

Direction over systems
Amnesia had its fair share of scripted events; whenever a door blew open in the wind or a monster broke into the room just after you picked up a puzzle piece, that was a scripted event firing off. For the most part, though, Amnesia was content to leave you to your devices. AMFP, on the other hand, is filled with scripted moments. You can hardly go a dozen steps without triggering a piece of expository voice-over, slow-motion walking sequence, or level-shaking earthquake. Not only do these get tedious after the first fifty or so occurrences, they always broke my immersion for a simple reason that can be applied across all types of games:

There is nothing safer than a scripted event.

When the game takes control away from me and forces me to watch as a monster shuffles through a doorway ahead of me, I know that at that moment there’s no way I’m in any danger. AMFP indulges in these moments all too often, and each time any tension that has managed to build up is dispelled. The director has called for a scene and I am to watch.

Another addition that I found strange is a new behavior of the lantern. If, while creeping around in the dark, you should happen to aim the light at a monster, it will flicker and go out briefly. While the game makes a halfhearted attempt at explaining this effect, the true reason is obvious; it exists wholly as a safety net to give me an opportunity to quickly put out the light and hide. For a horror game, AMFP is surprisingly keen on keeping me alive. Rather than designing systems that terrify, TheChineseRoom has created an experience in which I am constantly reassured that I’m completely safe.

Narrative flaws
AMFP will undoubtedly be praised for its writing, which somehow manages to be even more florid than that of Dear Esther and is the very epitome of style over substance, littered with tangentially related references to great works of literature. The protagonist, Oswald Mandus (whose own name is itself a reference), makes elaborate mementos that reek of thesaurus abuse — why say “earth” when “loam” sounds so much more profound? The two words aren’t, in fact, equivalent; one does not “descend into the loam” when taking a trip underground. This is just one example of the pseudo-intellectual language found throughout all text in the game, from dialogue to notes found in the environment.

When Oswald isn’t making tortured similes in his journal or waxing poetic in one of his frequent monologues, the environmental storytelling is just as confused. No justification is ever given, for example, of the village church’s stained glass windows featuring pig-headed saints and altar piled high with butchered swine. If the titular machine is such a well-kept secret, some explanation is necessary for this inclusion, but there is none. Tom Clancy has been quoted as saying that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense, and when studied carefully, AMFP does not make sense. Gaping plot holes, inconsistencies, and leaps of logic that strain verisimilitude are scattered all throughout, and the climax is never satisfactorily resolved.

I really, really wanted to like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but it seems as far removed from the spirit of Amnesia: The Dark Descent as is possible before losing all resemblance. TheChineseRoom might excel at creating introspective art games, but masters of horror they are not, and AMFP manages to be neither a worthy successor to Amnesia nor a compelling horror game in its own right.

  • Peter

    My thoughts, exactely.

  • Peter

    *exactly

  • WIWWM

    I have a problem with your complaint about scripted moments.

    If your properly immersed you shouldnt be thinking “Oh, look a scripted moment” perhaps something more like”oh hey look, a murderous fucking pig”

    • Immersion is all about consistency. When I take a step through a doorway and suddenly lose control entirely as a sequence plays, it’s impossible to retain any suspension of disbelief. Why did Mandus lower his lantern without my input? Why, is the camera looking directly at a huge monster and preventing me from looking away? Why am I unable to move, to get away and hide, as any reasonable person would do in the same situation? It’s at times like these that I completely disconnect from the character I’m supposed to be identifying with; I think “Mandus does” instead of “I do”.

      I find it ironic that you suggest that my problem is immersing myself enough to overlook the scripted sequences, rather than realizing that they themselves are responsible for my inability to do so.

      • orbital

        “Why did Mandus lower his lantern without my input? Why is the camera looking directly at a huge monster and preventing me from looking away? Why am I unable to move, to get away and hide, as any reasonable person would do in the same situation?”

        Wait, you’re OK with Daniel going completely apeshit in The Dark Descent once his sanity meter drops below a certain value but when Mandus freezes in shock like pretty much everyone would have done in that kind of situation you cannot identify with the character anymore?

        • Daniel’s insanity manifests itself concretely in the gameplay mechanics. Input becomes less precise, vision blurs, and hallucinations occur, but all throughout the player is left in control. This increases the tension considerably; you never know when you’re going to run into a monster with your faculties in less than perfect condition.

          The reason that the player is safe when the camera takes away control is that the game designer will never force you into a situation that will result in a failure state. If the only door you can walk through results in a scripted sequence where you get ambushed, it had better be a part of the story and not a game-over, or the game simply isn’t fair. Amnesia did this well at the point where Daniel is captured in the Chancel, but even in that case the player is left in complete control, resulting in the illusion that escape is possible and further amplifying the terror.

          You know what the ironic part is? As soon as I saw the monster I immediately hit my lantern key, and would have put it away myself if it hadn’t been done for me. At that point I probably would have indeed been frozen where I was; not sure if I should back away slowly or wait it out. The fact that the game made that decision for me is a failure in interactive storytelling.

          Even discounting all of that, the scene I’m talking about isn’t even the first
          time Mandus sees a pigman, so the excuse that he’s in shock
          doesn’t hold any water. There’s at least one segment beforehand where
          you can sneak around in the dark and look directly at the patrolling
          monster without any ill effects.

  • Alex

    I agree wholeheartedly and was left pretty disappointed too. The Chinese Room couldn’t fill Frictional’s shoes.

  • Rabelais

    I’m trying to translate some notes and found documents to portuguese, and it gets really hard, this passage: descend into the loam, can it mean “descend into the mud”? “into”, immerse in the mud. I got really confused.

    • The whole game is written in incredibly poor English, so it makes sense that you’re having trouble translating it. A more accurate phrasing of “descend into the loam” would be “descend below the surface of the earth”; as in a cave exploration.

      The original wording really means exactly what you say; loam is a term for rich soil that plants can grow in easily. The game uses it as a synonym for “earth” (the planet), where it’s actually a synonym for “earth” (soil). It’s a subtle yet critical distinction that unsurprisingly doesn’t come across in other languages.