Long-time fans may argue that mainstream horror just doesn’t terrify like it used to. While the occasional rarity like The Conjuring has proven that contemporary horror isn’t entirely dead, most big-budget horror releases these days are too safe to go that extra mile in spooking bored audiences who have seen it all before. For movies, this includes the over-saturated release of franchises like Paranormal Activity, or shot-for-shot remakes of classics like Carrie. In video games, there are action-infused sequels to games like Resident Evil and Dead Space, which are mere shells of what made these series so wonderfully disturbing to begin with.
In order to find sustenance for their horror cravings, many fans have turned to low-budget, indie-created endeavours, from YouTube videos like Marble Hornets to false-yet-unsettling urban myths and “creepypasta” content from 4chan. Naturally, this reliance on indie horror has also found traction in the realm of video games, with Amnesia: The Dark Descent being one name uttered in both celebration and terror. Despite its namesake, the first-person PC game proved to be a truly unforgettable experience, its gripping terror resulting in many sleepless nights and hilarious online videos of grown men shrieking with fright.
When the anticipated sequel was finally announced, its name alone was enough to fill fans with a mix of dread and excitement. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs promised to bring back the lurking horror created by Frictional Games, though this time with the help of developer The Chinese Room, already famous for Dear Esther, their interactive arthouse film.
A Machine for Pigs takes place in London, 1899, and features a new protagonist named Oswald Mandus, an industrialist returning home after an unmentioned tragedy in Mexico. Upon returning to his estate, Oswald is shocked to learn that his two young sons have gone missing. A mysterious voice over the telephone instructs him where to find his children, setting him on a downward spiral into the deep recesses of his home leading to underground factories and the horrific experiments lurking within. Much of Oswald’s story is kept under wraps, with bits and pieces revealed through hallucinatory dialogue and hidden journal entries, all written in the style of author H.P. Lovecraft (ever a favourite among indie developers and a source of inspiration for their games, horror or otherwise). It’s not the easiest story to piece together, but every bit of written text and spoken dialogue is conveyed with enough ominous dread anyone should be able to get the message: bad things are happening and there is no God, save for the grotesque imitation men are trying to create.
The gameplay in Amnesia’s sequel is an exact carry-over from the original: players engage in a first-person tour of madness across dark hallways, filthy sewers, collapsed caves and other dark and cramped areas filled with locked doors and unsolved puzzles… as well as the occasional horrific creature lurking in the shadows, yet all too eager to make a mad dash toward the nearest human intruder. The game utilises the same item-manipulating mechanics since the developer’s first horror adventure, Penumbra; using the mouse and keyboard, players must making sweeping motions to simulate on-screen actions such as pulling a drawer back, pushing a door open, rotating a wheel clockwise, and other physics-based physical gestures. For the first time ever, controller support has now been added as an option, and works surprisingly well to the point that it may end up as the preferred method for some.
In a possible attempt to cater to more players beyond the hardcore horror buffs, Pigs has removed a few of the more cumbersome aspects of the original game’s mechanics. Players will no longer have to constantly refuel lanterns or other light sources, as they now have a permanently-burning light to keep the darkness at bay. Health is also no longer a finite source that requires items to recover, and instead regenerates over time. Both of these changes may be considered casual detriments to the original game’s challenge, but they can also be looked at as removing some of Amnesia’s more cumbersome mechanics; after all, less time managing inventory means more time nervously reacting to every spooky sound or eerie imagery.
However, that is not to say that every scaled-back decision in A Machine for Pigs is a positive one. The insanity meter from the first game, which would increase as players would stare directly at frightening imagery or creatures, is curiously absent. Likewise, key items are no longer stored in an inventory, and instead must be manually carried from Point A to Point B. Nothing breaks the tension of escaping a pursuing pig-monster behind you then having a gas tank hovering in front of you, to say nothing of having to keep a button held down at all times to carry it.
Were that the only instance of immersion-breaking in A Machine for Pigs, it could have been overlooked. Unfortunately, much like a bored security guard standing in plain sight at a Halloween Horror Nights exhibit, there are other technical impediments that detract from Amnesia’s consistently unnerving atmosphere. Depending on what kind of graphics card you are running, players may run into stuttering issues while progressing through the game, which result in half-second pauses whenever a visual or audio cue loads up. This includes disembodied voices from the distance, crumbling architecture and other scripted events designed to throw you off your feet. As minor as a half-second pause may sound, this ultimately results in an indicator that something spooky is about to happen, thus ruining the effect of a jump-scare.
While not every PC user may experience this issue, they will all be given the same lee-way treatment concerning death; rather than reloading players to the nearest checkpoint before meeting an untimely end, the game instead propels players ahead of where they last died. This decision may garner mixed reactions, as there is some argument that players come into these kinds of games for the story and aesthetics, not the challenge. However, with no threat of losing progress, those sudden moments of holding onto dear life are ultimately reduced to momentary distractions that in no way hinder progression. In layman’s terms, it’s like having infinite health and ammo in a Resident Evil game.
Despite these complaints, there is no denying that Amnesia’s sequel does a fantastic job in creating an utterly terrifying atmosphere. The moody writing, dark visuals and ominous sound are unmatched by even the most mainstream of horror franchises, and The Chinese Room have used their staggering attention to detail to really leave their mark on this game. Much like Dear Esther, the locations in A Machine for Pigs have a very natural, lived-in feel, whether it be the cluttered furniture and antiquated paintings adorning the protagonist’s estate or the wicked experiments and pulsing machinery found throughout the underground factories. The areas of Amnesia’s sequel are also larger than ever, and even include a few outdoor environments, though the lack of a map also makes it a bit easier to get lost during similar-looking hallways and corridors. This, once again, may be considered a positive removal for some, and it does lead to more sudden encounters with inhuman enemies silently waiting around the next corner.
Overall, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is like an otherwise expertly-crafted haunted house where someone has neglected to polish visible strings and seams, breaking the illusion and fear. Like many horror games before it, the technical issues and questionable gameplay choices mar what is otherwise a fantastically frightening experience – which I can still recommend when all is said and done.