The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 9

By RPS on December 9th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

The elves at the North Pole are unionising and some have even begun to strike at the front of Daddy Chrimble’s toy factory. It’s all on account of the latest addition to the machine room floor. They say its gears hunger for little elven fingers and they refuse to go near. Let’s take a look and see what all the fuss is about.

It’s Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs!

Adam: Outlast might have been more startling from moment to moment, but A Machine For Pigs is my favourite horror game of the year by some distance. It’s an ode to the dying days of one century and the anxieties of the next, told with bombast and force. Rather than jumping from behind a corner and saying ‘BOO’ before ripping off the nearest face, AMFP’s monsters limp and grimace. The fear, for most of the running time, is not of the dangerous but of the diseased and the broken. Certain vignettes even dredge up a terrible pity.

As well as individual moments of tension and terror, the horror is in the sweep of the story. When I wrote about the game, some readers mistook my fixation on theme as a suggestion that those themes are delivered subtly. That’s not the case at all. There is subtlety, sure, but the game is called A Machine For Pigs. It’s wearing its heart (and quite a few others) on its starched sleeve. The trickiest sleight of hand that the game employs is the use of that title, Amnesia, which transmitted false expectations.

But, no, this machine is not subtle. I compared it to Dover Beach but it’s as much penny dreadful as poem, a widescreen diorama of nineteenth century angst that becomes a cry against progress, corruption, class divisions and industry. The key word is ‘cry’. In its most effective moments, AMFP is a series of screams, shouts and sobs in darkness. Sometimes they are the result of a terrifying confrontation but more often they represent a railing against inexorable tides. AMFP traces both the revolt of a great mind recoiling upon itself like a fist and the vanishing speck of a soul diminished by concrete, steel and meat.

A game about politics and faith, then, as much as murder and mayhem. It’s also a very British creation. M R James (Montague Rhodes, if you’re wondering – HOW BRITISH IS THAT?) doesn’t immediately come to mind when exploring the abattoir-grim world beneath thechineseroom’s London, but his stories are a fine example of the tradition of hauntings that AMFP belongs to. So often, they are stories of dignity and intellect undone, usually by curiosity or pride.

This uncanny and indiscreet species of horror is a means by which to caution, to clear the air and to dispense with polite talk for a moment. It isn’t about sanity meters depleting as enemies approach, it’s about being lost in the city and the cosmos before the battle has even begun. It’s about howling at the moon, not because there are still wolves beneath England’s skin, but because the wolves have all been chopped into messes.

And, naturally, it was the pigs that held the cleavers.

Jim: Games do a few emotions well: lag sadness, space feelings, car joy, open-world exuberation, battle feelings, digging a hole in block mud authenticity feeling, and the appalling fear emotion. It’s the last of these that seems to have come under the most pressure in the past few years, and Amnesia’s bold moves in that area seem to have made a lasting impression on all efforts to scare humans at their desks. A Machine For Pigs is no different: this is about tumbling forward into the horror, helpless.

Occasionally games about horror remember that empowering the player – making them a gun-toting super human who can slow time, for example – tends to undermine the feelings of being threatened which terror-games need to invoke. A Machine For Pigs hasn’t forgotten this, and although it loses much of what Amnesia did (this is a far more minimalistic ghost train, for all its audio-visual plumpness) it is about cowering at the idea of what is hammering on the other side of that door, rather than actually facing it, or trying to despatch it with an axe. There’s even a nod, early on, to the desires of most games (and I suppose gamers) to be armed. You pull at a gun on the wall of the sinister mansion, and instead of arming you, it opens a secret door. One of many.

Horror games find themselves with a lot of work to do, and they have to keep up the pace if they’re to succeed. While there’s the occasionally faltering step in A Machine For Pigs, and the odd wince-worthy piece of writing, this is by and large a gripping, gothic experience. A Machine For Pigs is, essentially, an overwrought ghost story, told by the fireside of games. We know that it’s just the storyteller making those knocking sounds which add spooky context to his tale, but while we buy in, while we’re engrossed, it all makes a horrible sort of sense.

Back to the Calendar!

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38 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    “Not scary enough!” cried the gallery.

    Let’s just say my undercrackers beg leave disagree.

  2. MuscleHorse says:

    As someone who wanted to like Amnesia for the atmosphere and story, but disliked the ‘ghost train’ elements and how scripted much of it felt, would AMFP be worth a look?

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      Henke says:

      No, AMFP is just as scripted.

      (Just for the record, I love both of the Amnesias.)

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        Imaginary Llamas says:

        I would also mention that AMFP doesn’t really have any puzzles,so it feels like even more of a ‘ghost train’ (but the story is much better than in TDD).

    • Steven Hutton says:

      No, A machine for pigs is way more linear and constrained.

  3. Eddy9000 says:

    I didn’t think AMFP was good at all. It removed pretty much all the gameplay mechanics from dark descent, in fact it was barely a game to speak of.

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      AngelTear says:

      Here it starts: *gets popcorn*

      —-The big “Is it a game” debate —-
      (Where, of course, “game” = has a chance to be good, and “not game” = it sucks)
      Also, books are not videogames, therefore they suck. They’re excessively scripted.

      (My, not so mine, contribution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgu76ql6FSo )

      • ViktorBerg says:

        Call it what you will, but the game failed to meet the expectations of people who enjoyed the first Amnesia, and all of Frictional’s other horror games, for that matter. In fact, for me, even the first Amnesia was disappointing. It lost the sense of exploration that Overture and Black Plague had, offering a much more streamlined experience. There was SOME involved (such as the amazingly crafted part in the Storerooms, or the detour into the study), but it was nowhere near the same level as the Penumbra games, at least in my opinion. AAMFP just accented that streamlining.

        • Ernesto25 says:

          I felt that, i liked penumbra games for the puzzles which i was terrible at that added to the atmosphere amnesia never made me feel that.

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        Oozo says:

        Save some popcorn for the days “Proteus”, “Gone Home” and “The Stanley Parable” will show up in the calendar, then.

        2013 was a good year for whatever-people-who-don’t-like-to-call-those-games-games-like-to-call-those-games, wasn’t it?

        (Btw: That could be the official acronym for the genre: wpwdltctggltctg. No more debates about what they are. They clearly are wpwdltctggltctgs. Talk. Done.)

        • Jason Moyer says:

          I thought “Gone Home” was much closer gameplay-wise to “The Dark Descent” than “A Machine For Pigs” was.

        • Sherlock1986 says:

          Don’t forget Dear Esther…

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            Oozo says:

            Oh, I don’t. But “Dear Esther” was already in last year’s calendar, so I didn’t mention it.

        • phelix says:

          I think Stanley Parable doesn’t really belong in the “game/not game” debate because the lack of player agency and its complications is the entire point of the game. I think it does deserve a mention on the calendar, purely because of the writing: so much wit, humour and thought poured into one game.

          • DerNebel says:

            Did you seriously just say “It’s meta so we can’t argue about it”? Gameplaywise the Stanley Parable has a huuuuge similarity to Dear Esther and AMFP. Are you implying that the Stanley Parable is excused because it obviously knows that it is not a game and makes fun of it? The only way that can make sense is if we assume games that doesn’t specifically mention that they aren’t “really” games haven’t actually made a conscious decision about it. They just, as it were, sort of fell into the non-game pile on launch day.

            Point is, you must be stupid to think that it wasn’t a conscious decision by all these “non-games” to deliberately cut out player agency, either by force through budget or deliberate wil to focis on the story. What the story is about, how well it’s told, if the game attempts to mask how linear it is, all of that is just content and carries no relevance in the discussion, even if the contents are commentaries on the wrapping.

            If we want to judge, at least don’t excuse games on the basis that it made you laugh. In fact, you could stop judging these games and think that maybe you like some of them (Like, say, Stanley Parable) and most others you can’t stand. It’s okay, you do it already with everything else.

        • WrenBoy says:

          I liked both Gone Home and Proteus (I had to check to convince myself that that was a 2013 game – how time drags) but I thought the fact that they got rid of the insanity mechanic meant that they didnt get Amnesia DD. It was very effective.

          I admit that I havent played Pigs though, mainly because I thought they couldnt have understood what made its predecessor great. Maybe Im wrong and it didnt need it. But I doubt it.

    • Laurentius says:

      What is it then ?

    • Meat Circus says:

      The mechanics in Dark Descent were a bit wank though. Really just gating progress with some arbitrary and annoying fetch quests and the occasional chuck-object-at-object physics puzzle. Really, they served no purpose. I don’t see how their removal from A Machine for Pigs made it a worse ghost train, it helped the game flow better.

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        Lars Westergren says:

        Exactly. And while the “don’t look at the monsters” mechanic was brilliant, it was wearing thin by the end of the game. So doing something new was a necessary step, in my opinion.

    • Synesthesia says:

      Here we go again…
      I think the guys from EC handled the issue quite well:

      http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/what-is-a-game

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Sorry, perhaps i put that badly, I loved The stanley parable and also think the “what is a game” debate is pointless.

      I suppose I was dissapointed that it was introduced as the next Amnesia game, but seemed to remove much of the mechanics, and I thought for a puzzle/exploration/interactive fiction ‘experience’ that the puzzles, story and exploration were not interesting enough to carry the game without any other mechanics. I think interactivity is the unique selling point of computer games (I think the term ‘interactive experience’ is better and would end the whole ‘what is a game’ rubbish actually) – I’ve heard people criticise some games like MoH as games trying to be a film, I think AMfP is a game trying to be a book – the interactivity of AMfP is underused and adds little to the experience in my opinion.

      • Philomelle says:

        I’d rather have no interactivity than bad interactivity, which was a major problem with Frictional games. While interesting stories with some great level designs, they were often awful to interact with. So awful that Frictional actually removed combat from their engine after their first attempt at it because fighting was an exercise at self-loathing.

        • Jalan says:

          Physics-based combat mechanics in the first Penumbra game. A neat effort in concept, a true nightmare in execution.

  4. airtekh says:

    And here’s one I disagree with.

    I wasn’t impressed with AMFP. Maybe it was because it was released a week apart from Outlast, which I enjoyed more; or that it simply didn’t meet expectations because of the bar set by The Dark Descent.

    However, I will say that AMFP makes a grave error, by attempting to humanize the monsters that are following you. If you’re trying to write a horror narrative, that is the last thing you want to do; and I lost respect for the game after that point.

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      AngelTear says:

      I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with you on this point

      “AMFP makes a grave error, by attempting to humanize the monsters that are following you. If you’re trying to write a horror narrative, that is the last thing you want to do.”

      Even if it is cliche as far as horror narratives go, humanizing the monster is far more interesting than having it as “just a monster”, totally different from us. The latter leads to confirming stereotypical differences of race, gender, nationality, the Other as something completely different from myself. The former, instead, leads to compassion, to feeling that, if events had been different, that monster could have been me; that the Other is not absolutely Other, that Evil is also a possibility within me and not totally alien to me.

      I think it’s far more philosophically interesting this way. Unless of course, all you’re looking for are “jump-scares” or similar feelings of fear without ulterior significance.

      • qrter says:

        If only you could talk to the monsters..

      • airtekh says:

        What I meant to say was: ‘a horror narrative in a game’.

        In other media, yes I agree with you. It’s like in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’; part of it is trying to figure out if Jack Torrances’ demons are supernatural, or far scarier, of his own creation. The same is true of films.

        In a game though, making the monsters human is disastrous. Why? Because YOU are the one running from them. You’re the one experiencing it, and you can’t be fearful of something if you know how it works, or how it feels.

        The feeling of being chased, of being hunted, and being scared by it; is unique to videogames; and when that illusion is shattered, it destroys the experience.

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        VelvetFistIronGlove says:

        Which is the more awful: the terror of an unknowable monster, or the horror of knowing that you could so very easily be that monster?

  5. clumsyandshy says:

    The sound design and music is great!
    Other than that I don’t get it. I really liked both TDD and Dear Esther, but this merging of the two came out boring as hell.

  6. mechabuddha says:

    I’m gonna have to disagree with the dissenters. I found AMFP to be a better experience than TDD. In TDD, I was completely rushed by the mechanics – sprinting, trying to advance the plot to restore my sanity. Running through complete darkness, which isn’t scary because I can’t see anything, trying to find some oil. There wasn’t enough time for me to fully explore areas (I’m a slowish gamer), and even if there was, the insanity mechanic made sure everything had a nice vertigo-inducing blur to it.

    AMFP at least gives me the chance to examine my surroundings. I got a really good feel for the world around me, and felt more invested in the environment. I was less stressed throughout the game, which isn’t the same as being scared. And being less stressed let me enjoy the scary bits more. It also made the monster encounters feel more like I was responsible for my deaths. Balancing the risk of my torch, how far do I think I can run to the next hidey spot? In TDD, half the time my lantern would be out, and I’d have to crawl on my hands and knees without warning. One could argue that makes things more scary, but it really just ended up being frustrating for me.

    Taking these mechanics out for AMFP made it a bajillion times better, in my opinion. Plus, it had a better story.

    • Synesthesia says:

      Yeah, i’m on the same boat as you. This one is a LOT scarier, too, for the same reasons. I managed to finish TDD on my own, the more traditionally gamey parts made it easier to take a step back and relax, see the systems. Here nothing interrupts that.
      It’s too much sometimes. I haven’t been able to finish it yet, let alone play it without my girfriend close enough to run to her sobbing like a little girl.”BUT THE BAD PIGMAN IS HIDING THERE I KNOW IT I DONT WANT TO OPEN THAT DOOR NO DONT MAKE ME”

  7. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Jim – I wish you’d write a bit more for RPS!

    • The Random One says:

      Jim is having babies!

      Or- was that someone else having babies? So many babies. Entire website is babies!

      • Volcanu says:

        PAH. Video game journalism is clearly paying too much these days. These entitled RPS-ers with their luxuries like ‘having a family’.

        Wasn’t like that in my day, I tell thee….

  8. povu says:

    ‘AMFP’s monsters limp and grimace’

    In fact they limp so badly it’s incredibly easy to outrun them, making them not scary at all for me. I was stuck in a dark room with one, running around, not knowing where to go. I managed to get myself into a dead end with that thing chasing me, and I was able to turn around and sprint straight past it without getting hurt.

    So In the very rare occasions where there was an actual monster with AI that could actually harm you I still wasn’t scared at all, because their dumb ass AI didn’t make them threatening. I didn’t come even close to dying once in that game. The magic just broke for me when I realized I was almost never in any danger at all.

    I’m all for The Chinese Room doing narrative experiments where actual gameplay elements are cut back to a minimum and they go all fancy with the writing and obscure references but I feel that it shouldn’t have been an Amnesia game. It’s too different.

    • Philomelle says:

      The magic was reinforced for me when I realized that Wretches are not very good at being monsters. They are sluggish, clumsy, have serious tunnel vision problems and lose interest in chasing you easily. Oswald constructed them that way. He was never interested in breeding monsters, he was interested in improving humankind. So he melded them with the creature he considered to be the kindest, the most loyal and sympathetic. The pig.

      There are multiple reasons to run from Wretches that don’t involve fear, so long as you’re taking the protagonist’s POV into account. They are obstacles and a waste of time on his quest to rescue his children, not worth fighting or struggling with when there are more important things to do. Their horror is ultimately not in their actions, but in the truth behind their existence.

  9. Wedge says:

    As I find the attempts at “gameplay” in Frictional’s games mostly an exercise in frustration and annoyance, I think I’ll probably be down to pick this up at some point.