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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 9

A Festive Feast

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.

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