Dear GamePlus readers,
My name is Dr Oswald. I’m a clinical psychiatrist, and I’m writing on behalf of a new patient of mine: your regular indie game reviewer, Michael. He seemed to be a fairly well-adjusted guy up until this week, when he apparently experienced something very traumatic.
He was agitated when he walked into my office. I tried to calm him down and ask what the problem was, and amidst his ramblings I heard him say he had Amnesia, for the second time, followed by some high-pitched screaming about A Machine For Pigs, whatever that means. Concerned and confused, I tried hypnotic regression, and what he recounted was extremely disturbing.
He told me he awoke one night in 1899 to find his children calling to him to find them. A mysterious voice guided him down into an immense steam-powered machine, that he himself built beneath the streets of London. He expressed a constant, suffocating sense of dread as he descended.
My concern for his mental well-being deepened. “What are you afraid of?” I asked.
He just burst into tears. He told me he’d always thought a teacup pig would make an awesome pet, but now he was terrified of them. Apparently, mutant pig creatures had been stalking him.
“What’s so scary about pigs?” I scoffed.
“That’s the thing!” he wailed. “Pigs are usually really unthreatening, almost comical. It’s no easy task to make them so genuinely disturbing, but this Machine For Pigs has done it incredibly well.”
He shuddered. “I could hear them snuffling around in the dark. All I could do was hide. If I was unlucky enough to be spotted, the squeal they emit is seriously bloodcurdling. It always signaleda quick death.”
“You … died?”
“Heaps!” he sobbed. “The first time was one of the scariest. I was crouched in a dark corner, and a pig-thing was shuffling past. My jaw was trembling. Like, actually trembling! The creature passed out of my line of sight, but I didn’t dare turn to watch it, in case it saw me. I could hear it close by, off to my right, and it must have turned around and come back, because it… it bumped into me! And it squealed! Then I squealed. And I got up and ran and it chased me and I couldn’t find a place to hide and I couldn’t fight it and it… killed me!”
By now I realised the patient was delusional. But whatever this Machine For Pigs was, it obviously had a profound effect on him. I was curious.
“So how does it compare to the first time you had Amnesia?” I enquired.
He sighed, with what looked like mild relief. “Thankfully, it wasn’t quite as scary this time. The original experience had a terrifyingly effective catch-22 built in: you had to hide in the dark so monsters wouldn’t find you, but doing so for too long made you start to hallucinate and panic, giving your hiding spot away. To keep yourself calm, you had to light areas up, but of course that made you more visible to the creatures hunting you.”
When a horror game’s well-lit rooms are scarier than its dark ones, you know you’ve got something special.
“And that didn’t happen this time around?”
“Not really. At first I was kind of glad, because the first game was too tense to get through. But I missed that trade-off, after a while. It was unique, and a really effective way to build horror.”
It finally clicked: he was talking about a computer game. A game had messed him up this badly!
“But look, even without that mechanic, it was still incredibly tense. Although being in the dark didn’t freak your character out, it can be hard to fight your own panic when you can hear a monster nearby, but can’t see it. You want to turn on your lantern to see, but doing so obviously attracts attention. Maybe that’s the trade-off here? It’s less effective than in the first game, but it works.
In a weird way, I came to appreciate the darkness for the cover it provided. I actually ended up fearing the light more! It made me feel exposed. And when a horror game’s well-lit rooms are scarier than its dark ones, you know you’ve got something special.
It’s all in the power of suggestion. Looking back, I wasn’t directly threatened all that often, but I constantly felt like I was, and the soundscape is a huge part of that. It does a fantastic job of building suspense, and rather than the usual horror game trope of eerily quiet environments, all that steam-powered machinery is really loud, making listening for monsters all the more stressful.
Every level also has its own set of ambient sounds, so you need to keep adjusting your mental filter: is that new, pipe-dragging sound a threat or just a harmless background noise around here?
The intriguing, although somewhat hammy (thought you were gonna get out of this without a pun, didn’t you?) story takes the mood of the game a step further. Most of it comes through journal entries; a horror game cliche, but these are strikingly darker. There’s a truly disturbing amount of detail provided about the origin of the enemies.
These creatures are given a metaphorical significance, as well. Pigs traditionally symbolise greed and filth and corruption: all of which are key themes of the narrative. The tale of the depths of human evil ties the whole atmosphere together.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is utterly terrifying when played alone, in the dark, with headphones on. It’s not technically a difficult game, but man, it can be really hard to summon the courage to keep going.”
He paused, breathless after that long spiel of weird things that sounded vaguely like a review.
“Why didn’t you just play it during the day, then?” I asked. He said he tried that, and it didn’t help. The atmosphere was strong enough that he still got sucked in, even in the comfort of daylight.
So I asked why, since it disturbed him so much, he didn’t just stop playing. He looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “because it’s fantastic. I love it.”
All right, enough of the silly letter format. Seriously, A Machine For Pigs is a fantastic horror game, if you’re strong-willed enough for it. It almost broke me.
Any game can turn the lights down, play ominous music, throw some monsters in and leave the player fairly creeped out, but the Amnesia series excels at less-is-more horror. I’m a little disappointed at the absence of the Sanity mechanic that made The Dark Descent so powerful, but even without it, this Machine For Pigs will make you wee wee wee wee all the way home.