This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs.
If you're gonna call a horror adventure game "Amnesia", you might as well call a first-person shooter "Bullets". It'd be quicker to list horror adventure games that don't involve amnesia in some way; it's the reliable old menopausal carthorse of videogame narrative, but especially adventure games: you wake up in a room with no memory of why you're there or who you are and can only find solace in your predicament by stealing everything that isn't nailed down.
Fortunately, lest one get confused, the Amnesia series is the master of the clarifying subtitle; firstly The Dark Descent because it's chiefly about descending into a place that's very dark, and now A Machine for Pigs, which is about a big machine with a lotta pigs involved. As subtitles go, it's certainly informative, if a little offputting, but that's kind of why I like it. 'Cause I can picture an average big-name publisher looking it over, lips moving and brows hanging low over his beady little eyes, before looking up and saying "Couldn't we just call it Amnesia: Revelations or something?"
The Dark Descent was a miserable, horrifying experience that really cheered me up, it being the only horror game in years to understand subtlety and atmosphere and how little they are improved by micropayments. And right from the title screen of M for P, I knew I was in for a good time when a large stringed instrument started threatening to eat me. If you need some kind of primer on the first Amnesia game, put on a blindfold and shit yourself, that'll about bring you up to speed!
Don't worry too much about the plot, 'cause the new game is largely unconnected, besides from the fact that it's basically the same plot: you are a very British man who wakes up alone in a spooky mansion with the eponymous headfart, and must make his way down through an increasingly scary environment, gradually piecing together why it's gone all scary and how involved you were in the process, and I'll put down a spoiler warning here in case you work at the paint-tasting factory, but the answer is a lot.
More specifically, you are looking for your missing children, which a mysterious and very trustworthy-sounding voice from a telephone says can be found if you descend through a giant, broken-down machine, and actually, while you're there, if you wouldn't mind reactivating it, that'd be grand. And I'm sure this'll all work out entirely for the best; what do you call this one, duck egg blue? Yum, tastes like dying braincells!
The ancient castle and dungeons of Amnesia: The Double-D have been replaced in Amnesia: A Sausage for Breakfast with a Victorian industrial theme, with all the delightful things that come with it: copper pipes and steam , child slave workers getting their little heads caught between gears until they pop like fragile china teapots full of beef casserole. The game does a good job of making the titular machine feel like a groaning, inescapable monster given a hideous, lurching life by whirring engines and boiling steam, with you an insignificant speck lost uncomprehending in its workings, like a terrier in a sex orgy.
Dehumanisation is a central theme, and the whole pig motif gets worked to death like the liver of someone playing a drinking game where you take a shot every time pigs are mentioned. "Hey, the pigs are an analogy for human beings in the eyes of an uncaring industrialized society! Did that come across?" Yes, thank you, Amnesia, you're very clever. It is all rather effective, and, like the previous Amnesia, if you don't find all the text documents and shit, you might feel a bit in-the-dark about what the fuck's going on (as well as in-the-dark generally). But you might as well look for all the documents 'cause there's not really much else to do.
Quite a few gameplay features have been stripped out, starting with the sanity metre, which was probably smart; I don't like it when a game tells you how you feel ("YOU ARE SCARED. THIS NUMBER SAYS YOU ARE SCARED. PULL A SCARED FACE.") when it could just be, you know, scaring me, without trying to keep score. It's like when a game introduces a lone female character who you talk to for five minutes and then it says "YOU LOVE THIS PERSON, GO RESCUE HER." But on the other hand, the sanity mechanic in the first game afforded mystique to the monsters by discouraging you from looking at them, and now you can just ogle them to your heart's content, you freak.
Also, your character is apparently wearing some kind of one-piece leotard with no pockets, 'cause there's no inventory and carrying a physics object from one room to the next is about as complicated as puzzles get. Having to back-and-forth between several rooms trying to solve inventory puzzles while a monster is sniffing about with eyes on the prize of your thighs is a thing of the past, and your path through the machine is mainly a linear sightseeing tour occasionally spawning monsters to chase you to the next part when it feels like you're not taking things seriously enough.
A significant portion of the way through the game, I ran into a pig-man ("See, the pig-men represent–" Yes, very subtle, Amnesia, well done.) in their little network of passages, trotting along a fixed path then turning around and trotting back, requiring me to pick the right moment to stealth past. "Blimey!", I thought, "I think I just found the first bit of fucking gameplay in this game!" But even when I did get trapped and trotted to death, I just woke up in an unlocked cage elsewhere on the map. And while being chased through a darkened factory by a pig-man squealing like his pork scratchings got caught in a door hinge is not something I would enter into without first making room in the household budget for reupholstering the computer chair, not being killed takes the edge off a bit.
And for all that dingy tunnels and noisy plumbing can do to build the atmosphere, I went away with a distinct awareness of how infrequently I was ever in actual danger, not that you know that. In the first playthrough, at least, you're about ready to squirt piss out of every single orifice at the merest whiff of bacon, but, looking back, I almost feel cheated, like the maintenance man showed up three hours late and just stood outside my window making ominous noises with his lips.
If you're after horror, then Amnesia: A Question of Sport is still several thousand times more worth-your-time than, for example, Actually-Surprisingly-Lively Space 3. The atmosphere and writing are rock-solid, but with the simplified gameplay it's a bit too linear and over too quickly. And even the story was losing me towards the end; there's a bit where some big atrocity is supposed to be taking place in a city, and you're running through the streets as it's happening, but the Amnesia engine is suited mainly for exploring narrow hallways, obsessively checking desk drawers, and seems unwilling to let you interact with any character that doesn't have its jawbone stapled to its kneecaps, so the atrocities are all going on off-camera.
I know that the guiding principle is that what you can't see is scarier, but if violence against an innocent is supposed to horrify me, it would help if I had in some way seen or heard from them before they got liquidized. Being hunted through a tunnel by something that's gonna pull my twat out through my nose if it finds me, now that is horror I can get a sense of! The sense is smell, and the smell is piss!
- A tureen for figs: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Also don't make beef casserole in teapots because I have found that nothing ruins an evening faster than a misbehaving spout
- It's also better than Actually-Surprisingly-Lively Island
Extra: Escapist Expo 2013
Hey, it's Escapist Expo time again soon! October 4-6 in Durham, North Carolina, just like last time. You'd almost think it's a regular thing now! Just lettin' ya know I'm gonna be there again, 'cause it was a lotta fun last time, and I'm looking forward to seeing open-quotes all of open-quotes you open-quotes again.