After having lived through the enjoyable nightmare Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it’s time for a change in storytelling direction. Sometimes things lurking in the mind can be even more terrifying than the things stalking the shadows…
Frictional Games leaves game design and storytelling duties to The Chinese Room, but will Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs pull off the same survival horror tricks or be something a bit more substantial than scares coming from abominable creatures?
Industrialist Oswald Mandus awakes from a fever and has to find his children who are in grave danger while also learning of a more sinister plan which threatens London society and the world in general.
A story torn in pieces
The Chinese Room is known for their fragmented storytelling in Half-Life 2 mod Dear Esther, and the technique of piecing together the past shows in A Machine For Pigs as well. In theory, it’s not a big deviation from Frictional Games’ title or how other survival horror games present some parts of the story in hidden messages and notes. But the way these short text segments are written is quite different. They read like Modern or Postmodern poetry with the often harsh images they evoke, full of beauty but also pathos. Phone calls by a strange man calling himself ‘The Engineer’ also appear to be cryptic at first with disconnected sentences, and finding old recordings from gramophones only slowly helps to understand the background story.
The plot is a lot more mysterious and hard to grasp but also more interesting with its social commentary than the bleak and rather standard Lovecraftian tale Frictional Games spun with their first game. Again there are no characters to speak to directly, but the main protagonist and his motivations make him more memorable than Daniel. It’s also one of the few horror games which deliver a moral message and have a climax and ending which are both horrifying and touching. But as with the way the diary entries, monologues, dialogues and phone calls are written, a reprimanding finger and social injustice pointer are always felt to an exaggerated degree. If one was always sceptic about poetic language’s superiority and the writer/poet’s often condescending attitude, one will probably find little to be convinced otherwise with many text parts being overloaded with flowery imagery.
Where did all the horror and puzzles go?
Expecting the same gameplay as the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent offered can only result in disappointment. Even if there are some enemies at certain points in the game, the scenes in which stealth or running away is required are few and far between. These are actually the most annoying parts, as they unnecessarily break the flow of narration and lead to frustration. Using oil for the lantern or lighting candles to stay in the light and therefore sane is also completely dispensed of. This obviously has a positive effect by making it easier to concentrate on the tasks at hand and don’t be distracted by finding the way through darkness (as the lantern has an unlimited supply of oil now). The negative and maybe more important effect for survival horror fans is that the tension and fear of being stalked or knowing death can come in many ways is simply not there anymore.
Puzzles are still present though, the only difficulty being to find the correct items (without the more elaborate combination of them, as it was necessary in the first game), as the solutions are usually pretty obvious when one comes to a closed area. For most of the playtime, the player simply tries to figure out what happened and what is happening now, always a step behind piecing together the big picture. It’s simply a different tension than in a standard survival horror game and demands a bit more involvement on the part of the player. In that respect, it’s more Silent Hill 2 without the fighting and key-searching. The insanity meter is also gone, so one doesn’t have to stay in the light or be scared of one’s life, except in some segments of the game, which takes a big chunk away from the original concept.
Frightful sounds and terrifying visuals
Graphically, the game offers some beautiful environments, especially in the old and creepy mansion, but this has more to do with the art design than the engine itself which doesn’t pull any particularly impressive tricks when it comes to lighting or enemy design. Sound effects are again one of the most important tools to achieve a creepy atmosphere, while voice acting is a bit too exaggerated, although this is influenced more by the writing than the delivery of lines. Something the game does pretty well but which can also raise the same question as the poetic language (namely, if it’s not a bit too much) is how music builds up emotional scenes. In a way, the game has a much more cinematic feeling to it, or to use another more fitting image considering the type of language used. It is as if one reads a book and hears music playing in the background for more immersion.
A poetic tale of terror
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is a strange sequel to a survival horror title which had more scares and terror than story. By spending less time on puzzle solving or avoiding enemies, the experience becomes more like a short story (as the playtime of around 4 hours attests) than a stealth and running-for-survival title. The connection to its predecessor is almost non-existent, which raises the question why it should have the title at all.
On its own, the game is definitely not for everyone when it comes to storytelling (especially not those who can’t stand poetic imagery when less words suffice) and not for everyone when it comes to gameplay (which is too easy for an adventure or survival horror title). Still, despite its obvious flaws, The Chinese Room delivers a thought-provoking horror title which sucessfully bridges the gap between art and game design.
If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every Facebook LIKE or comment is appreciated :).
Using one of the Amazon links and buying the products also helps ;).