Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Forgotten Nightmares – Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

Forgotten Nightmares – Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

 By Owen Jones (Resident Indie games fanatic)

It’s been quite a while since the release of the latest Amnesia game, and since then it’s received mixed reviews (to say the least). I’ve sat down, played it, and thought about it for a while and am now ready to share my thoughts on The Chinese Room’s latest survival horror.
Here's a trailer:

Before I begin prodding the game unmercifully to see how well it holds up, I shall answer the inevitable question of whether or not you should buy it. The answer depends on a number of things. Firstly, the game is a spiritual successor rather than a straight out sequel. Developed by The Chinese Room rather than Frictional Games, much has changed since the series’ last outing. No longer must you collect items in your inventory or ponder over (occasionally) intricately assembled puzzles, but most importantly there’s no worrying about the innovative sanity meter from The Dark Descent. Although The Chinese Room have overhauled the game, scrapping a number of the features that made the first game dear to so many, they have created a game they can truly call their own and if you’re of a similar disposition to me, this is by no means a bad thing.
The game has also strayed considerably from its survival horror roots. In my opinion it was less of a H.P Lovecraft inspired fright fest and more of a traditional M.R James ghost story. Mind you, even these elements of horror are ditched in preparation for the finale. So if you’re looking for a game that will leave you in a state of stark terror then a game along the lines of Outlast (which I have yet to play) might be more appropriate. However as a direct consequence of this it tells a far better story that has a chilling atmosphere and subtly implements rather than relentlessly throws jump-scares at you. Also if your keen on the atmospheric wonder-'em-up (along the lines of Dear Esther – Chinese Room’s cult hit) but aren’t too keen on the visibly shaking in terror, then you’ll be pleased to know Machine for Pigs is a more accessible game for you (kind of like Anna but actually good).

Just your run of the mill church. Other than the pigs. And that giant machine underneath it.

So if you aren’t yet convinced as to whether or not this game is for you then I still have more to say. To begin with the story is fantastic, and I mean that as my highest of praises.
The plot follows successful industrialist Oswald Mandus at the turn of the century. Fearing for his children’s life he sets out to save them from drowning by fixing a machine that was damaged by a saboteur. The plot is actually quite basic, other than a plot twist pretty much everyone will see coming. Still, the final act has an engaging plot that will grip you to the core, and more than makes up for the slow building but necessary opening.
The protagonist, Oswald, is pretty much the only character that’s properly developed, which makes sense. Anyway, playing as Oswald was one of the few times I wasn’t frustrated by a non silent protagonist. I cared about him far more than the dull and bumbling Daniel from TDD. It felt as if I shared his pangs of sorrow, guilt and fear (mainly fear, lots and lots of fear).
The game takes place in all manner of locations, which we’ll return to later, but they fit the story remarkably well and are immaculately designed. As I mentioned before, one of AMFP's great strength’s is the well crafted, yet truly frightening atmosphere. Though AMFP can’t rival TDD for shit-your-pants-in-terror moments it has a more sinister atmosphere that can really creep you out.
The writing is bloody good as well. When reading notes or listening to monologues the writing borders on poetry, which is hardly surprising considering this is the team that penned Dear Esther. Speaking of monologues, the story is masterfully told. Reading notes or listening to phonograph like devices will fill you in on what you forgot (hence Amnesia) prior to the game. As well as this when you walk into a room Mandus will jot down his thoughts, though this does lead to the questions how and why did he do this? There are also phone calls from ‘The Engineer’ strategically placed throughout the game, and though it’s an interesting inclusion the actual content of the writing never felt necessary. Perhaps calls that told a separate narrative that ran parallel to the main narrative would have worked better, or something along those lines, I just never felt that I gained anything by listening to what he had to say.
But the real selling point is the metaphor at the heart of the game. I’ve seen some people complain about how early it exposes the metaphor, but I think their missing the point. I mean the tagline “This world is a Machine. A Machine for Pigs. Fit only for the slaughtering of Pigs.” kind of gives it away, right? To me the joy comes from watching this metaphor expand until it bares the full weight of depicting not only society at the turn of the century, but also takes a bleak look at the modern world.
In my opinion the most interesting part is how things gradually become more and more surreal as the machine's architecture stops making sense and doors you just passed through disappear behind you. These what-the-fuck moments that make you question the reality of the game’s events really made this game for me. I understand some people don’t share my love of ambiguity, but like it or not its present here. This is great because video games need to be more ambiguous in how they tell stories and allow room for interpretation, as when compared to other mediums it falls rather short in this aspect.

Yes there is a foot in this picture. And a knife. And also a weird baby thing. Other than that though wouldn't you love to have this picture on your wall?

Not only does AMFP have a great story but the gameplay, although disappointing to some, has also got good things going for it. The lantern never runs out of oil, and though it attracts pig-hybrids switching it off no longer leads to you going nuts. I’m personally quite glad these didn’t get in the way of the story (though TDD simply wouldn’t have worked without these features) the lack of sanity events is rather disappointing.
I’ve pretty much covered the gameplay already because there isn’t much of it. Now that the puzzles have pretty much gone there isn’t much to do other than explore and uncover the story, which may be a problem for some. There are puzzles but they're pretty basic. However it does drop hints as to how to solve them in an interesting manner. Instead of just straight out telling you or leaving you on your own, notes or visual clues will help you. Entrances to secret passageways will be hinted at in dialogue or there might be marks to show something has been moved regularly. This type of design is something it would be nice to see in more complex puzzles, though if more complex puzzles were in AMFP it would probably effect the immersion and atmosphere, so I’m still not certain where I stand on this.
What it may be lacking in gameplay is made up for in the game design. The level design is excellently executed . Though the game is linear is doesn’t always feel like this and the game guides you through each level in a way that feels incredibly intricate. In the early mansion levels this is especially true, after navigating the place through secret passageways to find yourself in an area that’s familiar was a joy to do, despite the minimalistic gameplay.
And the machine, my god the machine. The machine weaves in and out of reality, churches, streets and factories are all interwoven with your progress. The final act opens and closes with two pieces of incredible architecture, and despite the aging engine they are stunning to behold.
But despite some incredible level design it’s the sound design that steals the show. Jessica Curry’s score, along with some well recorded sound effects accompany you on Oswald’s journey. Despite becoming interwoven with the game, you can’t help but notice how much of a triumph the sound design is. It ebbs and flows with the game, building to epic proportions with the story as it reaches the conclusion. Make no mistake; this is a game to enjoy with a good pair of headphones.
The game’s also been designed in a way with attention to detail in mind. The really creepy moments come from keeping your eyes peeled. These scares aren’t forcibly forced down your throat like in numerous other horror games, you can play the game without realizing they’re there, but if you do notice them they can really creep you out.
 I mentioned before you might find yourself somewhere you’ve been before (but perhaps having come through a previously locked door or looking down at the place from a walkway) but things often have changed. One example is that you head through a secret passage way early on in the game. Through a window you see a room with a bed and one of those things in it. You then pull a lever or something along those lines. You then return to find that the pig’s gone. Coming out of the passageway a locked door has now been broken, and you can now enter the room you saw through the window to progress. You can continue safe in the knowledge that a pig hybrid is on the loose. 
 And then there are the masks...
The pig masks are incredibly creepy, and they’re everywhere. Turn your back for a few seconds, and when you return you might find one of them fuckers waiting for you. I can’ count the I-swore-that-wasn’t-there-before moments during the game, but needless to say they were too numerous to ever feel comfortable during the short playthrough.
 And it is ever so short. Being a relatively slow gamer it took me 6 hours to complete the game, and to faster players it might only take 4-5 hours (though I urge you to read and listen anything you find). This has its advantages as a shorter time opens the possibility to play the thing in a single sitting and the scares would soon become old if the game was any longer. There's also a worry it might lose pace as the six hours are incredibly intense and there's no grinding or faffing about with puzzles of course. 
It is noteworthy that for £13 these 6 hours might be a bit steep for some, in which case if you get an opportunity to pick it up on sale that would be ideal.

The pig masks... they know. They know.

So to conclude The Chinese Room have made a game that doesn’t feel like the original Amnesia, which is understandably a problem for some, but have made an original and thought provoking game because of this. If TDD was a Penumbra style Amnesia game then AMFP is a Dear Esther style Amnesia game, though I felt a lot more engaged than I ever did with Dear Esther. With some negative reviews and a relatively low score on Metacritic (which is a broken system by the way) it would be quite easy to give AMFP a miss, and this is a great shame considering it takes the medium of video games into a direction I’d like to see more games follow.Despite the price and length this is definitely a game that's worth picking up if you're happy to forgive its negatives.

You can buy the game from GOG or Steam, and The Chinese Room's website can be found here.

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