Being handed the reins of a popular franchise must be a pretty daunting task. Over and over we’ve seen the successors to beloved franchises try and fail to make lightning strike twice, sowing contention and bitter resentment among established fans of whichever property they were ‘lucky’ enough to inherit. When The Chinese Room, creators of Dear Esther, were chosen to create a sequel to indie horror darling Amnesia: The Dark Descent the pressure to recreate that game’s terrifying magic must have been intense. A less courageous developer would have tried to give fans of that game everything they expected; instead we got a game that gives us almost nothing we expected out of an Amnesia sequel, but offers far more in return. The Chinese Room has created something astonishing in A Machine For Pigs- an atmospheric, horrific, darkly beautiful interactive story.
Wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus has returned to London after an expedition to Mexico to do….. something. He can’t remember- the last few months of his life are a haze. He wakes from a feverish sleep on New year’s Eve, 1899, convinced that he must rescue his two sons from some nebulous danger. No easy task- his estate is mysteriously empty, his mansion shakes and trembles and disturbing noises echo from the shadows. Below his feet a vast machine begins to stir.
A new century is about to begin.
If you’re a fan of The Dark Descent and you haven’t bought A Machine For Pigs yet then there are some things you should know up-front. This isn’t the game you probably wanted. The inventory and sanity effects are gone. Enemy encounters are few and far between, and usually pretty easy to escape. Your lantern never runs out of oil. I realize that stripping the majority of the first game’s systems out is probably going to be an immediate deal-breaker for many Amnesia fans, but there’s a trade-off for what’s been removed. The Chinese Room want to tell you a story- a mystifying, horrifying, intricate and at times profoundly beautiful story. A Machine For Pigs aims far higher than its predecessor, telling a grandiose, epic tale that simultaneously manages to be far more human than perhaps any tale a video game has tried to tell before. It also manages to be one of the very few examples of the modern steampunk genre that is both well written and responsibly told, wading neck-deep in a lot of the subject material that Victoriana-fetishising stories tend to gloss over. By the time you witness A Machine For Pig’s haunting conclusion you are probably not going to long for a return to the days of corsets and monocles.
As you guide Oswald Mandus deeper into the darkness you’ll encounter gramophone recordings, diary entries, resurfaced memory voice-overs, telephones and journal scribblings from Mandus himself commenting on what he’s just witnessed. At times it can get a bit overwhelming as you can barely walk ten feet without having another chunk of story dumped on your head, but the different plot delivery methods for the most part tell compartmentalized story threads that can be largely followed independently until they start to intertwine in subtle ways – a location mentioned in a recording hours before popping up in the game or a weird and inexplicable sight from the beginning of the adventure explained in a diary entry near its end. You’re going to have to pay close attention if you want to understand everything.
The Chinese Room’s previous game, Dear Esther, employed a writing style that is described by its fans as poetic and its detractors as pretentious and hopelessly stuck up its own ass. I haven’t played Dear Esther but I’m willing to put A Machine For Pig’s prose (and you’ll be reading a whole lot of prose) firmly in the former category. This game never uses one word when twelve will do but they’re such exceptionally lovely words I was perfectly happy to shovel everything offered me down my throat. Recurring motifs and themes- eggs, temples, the centre of the Earth, the dawning of the 20th century and of course wall-to-wall pigs- are woven elegantly throughout the game. Not all of this actually ties directly or even tangentially into the plot. Describing the metal core of the planet as the “egg of the world” doesn’t really mean anything in terms of the game’s events or back story. And yet it’s not just pointless fluff- there’s a reason that phrase was put there. A Machine For Pigs is a thematically tightly-constructed story, even if initially its grandiloquent writing can seem like pointless literary rambling.
At the same time, The Chinese Room know when to throttle back on the delightful wordplay and just speak plainly to the player, usually to convey something horrible. A Machine For Pigs uses actual visual gore sparingly, but the same can’t be said for the notes and journal entries you find lying around, many of which describe some truly horrifying events. The back story of this 19th century world is one of unspeakable cruelty, absolutely drowning in vomit and faeces and rivers upon rivers of blood. The game generally plays coy with exact details, giving you just enough clues to fill in the blanks, but at times the curtain is swept away and you’re told explicitly what’s been happening in the months Mandus has forgotten. Those moments can be genuinely hard to stomach at times.
The Chinese Room aim big with their story, creating a game that feels like an adaptation of some lost 19th century sci-fi epic. They may in fact have aimed a little too big. Neither the HP Lovecraft engine that also powered The Dark Descent nor the developer’s own visual artistry are consistently up to the task of conveying some of the things the story calls for. Empty corridors and dark tunnels are all well and good, but the game attempts some scenes that are usually the domain of big-budget AAA developers, and with good reason.
While we’re on the subject of visuals, this game is a decidedly mixed bag in the graphics department. For same reason there’s a layer of blue fog draped over everything that comes across like a last-minute attempt to make the game darker but just ends up rendering everything muddy and indistinct (thankfully there’s an easy fix to turn it off). Light and shadow end up frequently being the game’s achilles heel when to comes to graphics, as I frequently had to fiddle with the gamma slider to find a compromise between maintaining a spooky atmosphere and being able to see what the hell I was looking at. Many locations and scenes in the game could have had a far greater impact with more contrast and stronger lighting to highlight important sights; as it is it’s easy to miss things or feel as though you’re left squinting into the gloom. This isn’t to say the game looks bad, it’s just not as good as it could have been nor is it up to the standards that The Chinese Room themselves reached with Dear Esther, which frankly is on a whole other planet in terms of graphics.
I guess it’s time to answer an important question: is A Machine For Pigs scary? Yes and no. Early on I found myself absolutely terrified while creeping through a gloomy church, listening to the sound of something moving around nearby. The Chinese Room have taken the approach of relying more often on the threat of an enemy encounter to generate fear than the reality of one, which is a laudable idea but relies on getting the balance between tension and threat- a balance that this game gets wrong. Simply put, there aren’t enough monsters. As the game went on I quickly realized that the initially-terrifying grunts and screams that frequently echo through the walls and dark shadows that flicker down hallways don’t actually signify an impending attack 80% of the time, and lost my fear of them. I’m not exaggerating when I say that you can almost count the number of times you are actually in danger in this game on one hand, and usually the monsters menacing you are slow and easy to escape from (although there is a faster variety easily capable of outrunning you and killing Mandus in two hits that pops up for some heart-attack inducing moments, and a far more powerful and frightening opponent shows up right at the end). Personally I was so invested in A Machine For Pig’s story that I could have easily dispensed with the enemies completely, but the game tries for horror and so it should be expected to achieve horror consistently, something it fails to do. Even just two or three more enemy encounters sprinkled throughout would have alleviated this problem. For me a strong story easily counter-balances the lack of scares, but it would obviously have been even better to get both simultaneously.
A Machine For Pigs may miss the mark when it comes to horror, but it excels at one of horror’s most important aspects: sound. Whoever did the sound design for this game obviously had a mandate to troll the player as hard as possible, something they succeeded at gloriously. Grunts, squeals, crashes and wet scraping noises fill the darkness of this game’s corridors and tunnels, frequently employing some ingenious stereo trickery to add directionality to the soundscape so that you find yourself chasing the laboured breath and grunting of an unseen monster around corners or listening to something seemingly moving in the walls beside you. Then there’s the game’s soundtrack. The Chinese Room tapped previous Dear Esther collaborator Jessica Curry, who creates a musical score every bit as beautifully dark and pulsing with malevolent energy as the titular machine, employing wailing, haunting operatic vocal and violins to great effect in the game’s most powerful moments. In terms of its importance to the success of the associated game and just sheer quality I’d compare it to Akira Yamaoka’s legendary work on the Silent Hill franchise. Anyone familiar with the video game music world will recognize this as being among the highest praise it’s possible to give a game’s soundtrack. I sincerely hope that Curry is snapped up by other developers and joins the new wave of respected game composers alongside the likes of Austin Wintory and Daniel Licht.
(A quick head’s up- the soundtrack is available to listen to on Curry’s bandcamp page, but some of the tracks actually incorporate the monologues that play over them in the game, many of which include huge spoilers)
Ultimately, I can’t tell you whether you’ll like A Machine For Pigs. If you’re expecting another Dark Descent you’re not going to get it, and I’d almost be tempted to recommend this more to people who didn’t play or even didn’t like Frictional’s magnum opus. In my opinion, what this game lacks in horror it more than makes up for with a complex, disturbing story that speaks to themes most games wouldn’t even dream of touching. Here is an ostensible indie horror title that addresses as its central concern not the quasi-mystical steampunk elements of its plot but the tragedy of human suffering. Here’s a game that spends its final, incredible moments launching into an utterly bleak misanthropic tirade. When the story reached its climax and the true nature of the machine for pigs was revealed all I could do was sit and stare, my jaw hanging open in shock and wonder.
The Chinese Room spit in the face of expectation and blazed their own path with no concern for genre or franchise conventions to create a unique bloody, beautiful machine, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.