Saturday, 20 February 2016

Thoughts on Amnesia A Machine for Pigs

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs [The Chinese Room/Frictional Games]
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a first-person horror game developed by The Chinese Room as a sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent; one of the most infamous indie darlings of the past decade. But in my mind, it also functions as a spiritual sequel to their previous title, Dear Esther; one of the most controversial indie thingiemabobs of the past decade. One of my main issues with Dear Esther was its insistence on pushing the player away from any kind of agency or involvement in the story, which crippled it as a video game. This wasn't helped by dialogue that dripped with more purple prose than the Hebridian island's cliffs after a nearby dye-factory explosion. This is a crucial point, and I’ll explain why.

<Contains minor spoilers>

The premise of A Machine for Pigs, as you might expect, is not too dissimilar from The Dark Descent. You play as Oswald Mandus, an eccentric factory owner living in the smoky twilight days of Victorian London, just as the industrial revolution prepares to usher in a new era of technology and destruction. Indeed, it is this aspect of the setting that's carried over to the game's primary themes of greed, industrialization and corruption. Waking up in his mansion with no memory of the past few months, he is drawn deep into the bowels of the deathly-silent factories in pursuit of his children, who he senses are in mortal danger from some unknowable evil.

Speaking of smoky, what's with the blue tint?

If there’s one thing The Chinese Room are good at, it’s atmosphere, and A Machine for Pigs is as stellar as any of their other titles. The eponymous machine groans and rumbles in the belly of London, it’s steaming tendrils occasionally seen twisting up towards the surface, roaring like some kind of steampunk Lovecraftian monster gasping for air. It succeeds at bringing the machine across as being more of a living, breathing animal than an actual machine, which isn't too far off the machine's true identity. This isn’t mentioning the (also eponymous) pig creature enemies, who occasionally show up to squeal at you in a way that’ll make you regret ever using headphones for gaming. It’s effective at first, but a series of rather poor level design choices soon make you realize the lack of any real threat posed by these pork-pies.

Concept art.

The best way to summarize my feelings here would be to recount one of the encounters in detail. Around the middle of the game, I had just finished winding my way through a series of gangways that led into a fairly open factory floor. A shrill squeal behind me alerted me to the presence of a pig creature, although it’s location didn’t appear to make much sense given the geometry of the level (having appeared from the gangway I had just walked off). After a brief chase, I looked behind me only to find the piggy was barely moving faster than walking speed and hadn’t actually caught up with me. Every enemy encounter follows this formula, to the point that I no longer felt remotely threatened by anything else the game threw at me. The original Amnesia utilized these tightly scripted encounters as well, but also broke them up with moments of very real danger and difficulty, such as the Cellar Archives and the Choir. A Machine for Pigs has no such variety though, and enemies later became more of minor nuisance than a threat.

Moody, but rather linear.

This poor level design also carries across to a key change The Chinese Room made to Frictional’s style that I found so utterly contrived and moronic that it grated on me constantly throughout the entire runtime. In the original Amnesia and Penumbra games, Frictional made use of a click-and-drag system to open doors & drawers and pick up random objects, which could then be flung at enemies to give you a small window of escape. It was a brilliant system that allowed players to interact with the world in an intimate and visceral manner. This created a sense of exploration in the levels that tied in well with the story. In A Machine for Pigs, however, interaction has now been limited to certain doors and puzzle items. You no longer interact with random objects (except chairs, strangely), so the personal connection you once had with the world in no longer there, and most doors and drawers not necessary for progression are locked by a series of hinges. Putting aside the fact that no-one would go to such absurd lengths to lock up their own house (although curiously not the doors that actually lead you out of the mansion, which don’t have any evidence of such a locking system), I’m astonished that The Chinese Room thought this idiotic piece of level design was the most logical choice for a game like this.

Yet still the way forward is open, for some reason.

The changes made to the inventory system might provide an explanation for this decision. To put it simply, A Machine for Pigs ditches the inventory completely. Gone is the ability to carry items, so puzzles rarely get more complex than carrying a knick-knack from one room to another before placing it in a slot and pulling a lever. Health regenerates on its own, so healing items are no longer necessary and tension from monster encounters is blunted even further. Most importantly, because your lantern is now electric, there are no tinderboxes or oil cans to worry about, so therefore no reason to rummage in drawers except to find story-related notes. These changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing given the faults of many of the original mechanics, but rather than fixing these flawed systems – like the somewhat overabundant tinderboxes and occasionally obtuse puzzles – The Chinese Room have instead opted to excise them entirely without paying any mind to whether they served an actual purpose to the core experience – such as insanity effects discouraging you from looking at enemies and therefore giving them an air of mystery, or consumable resources encouraging you to explore levels at every opportunity.

Exploration played a key role in the first Amnesia.

To iterate what I said earlier; the writing in Dear Esther, for me, was one of that game’s biggest downfalls. The dialogue was stuffed with utterly pretentious self-congratulatory flap that sounded like it was being written by a sentient thesaurus. So does A Machine for Pigs improve in that respect? I would have to say it’s a considerable step-up from Dear Esther.

The central themes that underpin this story are a lot more grounded and intriguing than The Dark Descent’s more scattershot haunted house premise. It’s hardly original, but I found myself becoming somewhat enthralled with Oswald Mandus’ descent into the machine as the bigger picture is slowly pieced together. This is also helped by the decent voice acting, which is also a fair improvement over The Dark Descent’s sporadically corny delivery which sometimes made disturbing moments more goofy rather than horrifying. Dan Pinchbeck still has a tendency for overworked metaphors, including the title “A Machine for Pigs”, which is obviously an allegory for lowly factory workers in the Victorian age being compared to pigs, which the story repeats almost to the point of insult, as if the player is too daft to decipher its meaning the first dozen times it gets brought up.

Metaphors aside, the writing is still fairly solid stuff, but is undone by a final act that descends into utter nonsense. After a slow-burning build-up towards what is obviously meant to be a big twist, the plot quickly loses direction and starts throwing increasingly ridiculous concepts at the player (including an electric pig), before finally reaching a conclusion that baffles more than it inspires. It’s a real shame that a yarn that started off so intriguing went off the rails towards its end, but by actually letting the player be involved in the story, I found myself a lot more invested in the motivations and struggles of the characters than Dear Esther.

Overall, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a decent horror game when judged on its own merits. It’s got some intriguing themes and a palpable quasi-steampunk atmosphere that ultimately makes it an improvement over Dear Esther in pretty much every respect. As a sequel to The Dark Descent though, it suffers from overly linear level design, a lack of tension in the later game and an absence of survival mechanics that ultimately make it a regression from the original Amnesia and Penumbra titles in almost every possible way. As someone who greatly admires the effort that Frictional is making to push the storytelling of the medium forward with each new title (SOMA being perhaps one of the most thought-provoking games I’ve yet played), it saddens me that The Chinese Room chose to play it safe and even take several step backwards in the process. Even if the writing in their games were to improve drastically, it still wouldn’t change the fact that they seem to be telling their stories in a way that doesn’t suit the medium.