Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released in late 2010 and, contrary to the popular image of record breaking unit shifting and midnight queues at shopping centres, not a lot happened for a while. While the terrifying Penumbra titles from Frictional had become very respected in their own right the curveball survival horror title initially reached a small audience. And yet something fairly extraordinary happened as The Dark Descent became a self-perpetuating marketer's wet dream thanks to the burgeoning Let’s Play movement. The growing reputation of “scariest game ever” propelled the game to unimaginable heights as millions watched shrieking man children film themselves on webcam creeping around in the dark. Although some of the movement’s biggest players, who often aim for lowest common denominator humour and overacting, have soured the integrity of Let’s Play over the last few years it has provided an invaluable shot in the arm for the horror genre and now there is a huge audience who want to be scared out of their wits.
Muted disappointment greeted the news that the development of A Machine For Pigs was to be handed to The Chinese Room. The relatively new and somewhat small studio are best known for Dear Esther and the interactive novel/experimental “art” game is still occasionally, albeit unfairly, mocked as the equivalent of videogame hipsterism. Detractors worried that with the removal of balancing your finite sources of light and your quantifiable level of “sanity” the game could be all sizzle and no pork chop. Fortunately this expansion to the Amnesia universe is more than a competent sequel and the cries of “not that scary” are simply unfounded.
The Chinese Room play excellently to their strengths and the twisting narrative that lies at the heart of A Machine For Pigs is far more compelling than the plot of TDD - An experience that felt as though Frictional had created an excellent game first and then fashioned a story as a secondary objective. Instead of an intentionally ambiguous castle, A Machine For Pigs drops the player, very intentionally, into their protagonist’s familiar surroundings: The year is 1899 and wealthy industrialist Oswald Mandus wakes from a fever dream within the confines of his lavish mansion unable to remember the months leading up to New Year’s Eve. He also finds that his young twin sons are missing and feels the presence of an infernal machine that stirs into life beneath the streets of London.
The design of levels that range from churches to sewers are inspired and where there isn’t as much heart attack terror as TDD, there is a sustained and unshakeable feeling of dread that permeates the entirety of A Machine For Pigs. The late 19th century tropes of a grimy underbelly beneath a smooth veneer strikes the player immediately: Beneath the lavish interiors of Mandus’ mansion, grubby secret passages behind bathtubs reveal hidden windows that peer into bedrooms and oppressive cages surround beds.
A Machine For Pigs is every inch the successor to TDD as your protagonist journeys towards the rotten core of a sinister world and, in turn, their own damaged psyche. It is a shame that the aforementioned brilliant gameplay mechanics have been dropped but this streamlining of the Amnesia experience is, on balance, an overwhelmingly positive change. Emulating what had worked so well in TDD would arguably endow the player with the opportunity to simply repeat what had made them feel safe in Brennenburg Castle (hoarding supplies, hiding in cupboards, etc). There is no inventory to distract you from Mandus’ descent or the grotesque swine that stalk you in the dark.
The visual and aural distortion that greeted sinister moments in TDD has been replaced by the sudden flickering of your lamp and, much like the radio static from the Silent Hill series, it is a supremely effective way to swell dread and drop a few decent scares. Encounters with the monsters are admittedly not as nerve-shredding as they were in TDD but the anticipation of them is much worse. Without spoiling too much, there is a sense that the beasties are perhaps a little too detailed to be as effective as the twisted monsters that stalked Daniel in TDD. The scares are preserved by the studio’s decision to not simply write off jump scares altogether and while they can be a cheap tactic if overused, here they are used at unpredictable intervals for maximum effect.
There are excellent subtleties but it is also fantastically operatic and grandiose at times. Victorian horror is often schlocky and over the top and the game’s design and writing doesn’t shy away from this. Dan Pinchbeck’s writing needs to be commended here: His gleeful use of imagery and shifts in tone are a perfect way of bolstering this quintessential Victorian ghost story without ever falling into the realms of cliché. It is especially satisfying to see him nail horror so well and effortlessly leap from what many considered to be his more subtle and carefully crafted style.
The same is true of Jessica Curry who stitches together lumbering stabs of guttural brass into a soundtrack that could easily rival any AAA title in terms of establishing mood and leading the player on. Like Pinchbeck, her more recognisable and, undeniably very beautiful, more ambient work surfaces occasionally but the terror is never far away. When you couple this with the squeals and screams that mingle with the persistent throb of the titular machine, you have an experience that sucks you in almost immediately.
Gamers and critics will inevitably try and discern which of the two is superior but it is ultimately an exercise in futility: TDD and A Machine For Pigs share the same spirit but they engage their player in different ways. As a result of this they both offer two very different and equally unsettling experiences. TDD will remain one of the scariest games ever created but much of its success owed to the fact that it was the first of its kind to really frighten its players in an interesting and sincere way. Now we are so used to checking over our shoulder for the Slender Man or running ragged through Outlast’s Mount Massive Asylum that A Machine For Pigs couldn’t simply go bigger and louder. Instead we have a game that is fully aware of this and triumphant in weaving a convincing tapestry of horror.