Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Nightmare I: Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

A few weeks ago I had the incomparable honor and pleasure of reviewing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the highly anticipated semi-sequel to one of my favorite video games of all time. Enchanted to the point of gushing, I wrote as much about it as I could without giving too much away -- spoiling such a beautifully horrifying experience would be worse than treason.

However, there is so much more that can and should be said about it, and so for this first nightmare I wanted to revisit the game and peel a few more layers back, this time sans length and spoiler restrictions. Enjoy, and feel free to share your own comments or constructive criticism regarding this monster of a masterpiece.

BE YE WARNED: BEYOND THIS POINT, THAR BE SPOILERS. For an absolutely spoiler-free look at the game, feel free to check out my original IGM review.

A Fever-Dream: Oswald's Psychosis

Aside from the monsters, what gamers probably remember best about the first Amnesia is the sanity meter. While not the first game to use this mechanic (some memorable precursors include Clock Tower 3, American McGee's Alice, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth), it was one of the few to use this tool to its best advantage, pitting players' natural fears of both deadly enemies and the unknown darkness against one another in one epically diabolical catch-22. It's fair to say that most fans of the original (myself included) were probably betting on finding a similar feature implemented in the sequel.

Instead, we got Oswald Mandus and his unreliable-yet-indestructible electric lantern. Unlike previous protagonist Daniel's severe nyctophobia, which caused increasingly distressing hallucinations and even blackouts if he was deprived of light for too long (or attempted a staring contest with a monster), Oswald's psychological issues were presented in a more subtle, organic fashion. From the start of the game there is an inkling that something is terribly wrong -- what sort of man voluntarily sleeps in a cage? -- but as the story unfolds, his god complex and repressed guilt over dreadful past crimes mix with fevered visions to produce one interesting cocktail of crazy.

That being said, I can't help missing that meter just a bit -- or, more specifically, the hallucinations. I imagine it's been harped upon a lot across the internet, but there really was something special about how elegantly the first game trapped players into terrible, unforgiving situations with no right answer. While it certainly would have been a bit cheesy to give Oswald the exact same brand of insanity as Daniel, I don't necessarily think removing the mechanic entirely was the only solution. For example, Oswald hinted several times at harboring strong sentiments (not unlike those of a phobia) towards dirt and decay. This could easily have translated into a sanity mechanic in which the player could not endure the sight of blood, corpses or derelict environments -- not to mention the Manpigs -- for too long without experiencing some sort of breakdown. Oh, what fun we could have had in the bowels of the Machine, where blood flows like water and virtually every surface is coated with a fine layer of rust, dust and porcine refuse!

Still, Oswald's visions (or were they ghosts?) fit the bill as far as spine-tingling observable representations of Our Beloved Protagonist's deep mental scars -- and I admit without shame that those first few fleeting glimpses of the children nearly sent me into cardiac arrest.

Look, Don't Touch: Environmental Interactivity

Strangely, the lack of a sanity mechanic (which didn't even occur to me until more than halfway through the game) didn't bother me nearly as much as the significant decrease in environmental interactivity. The first game allowed the player to pick up, carry, toss and even damage or destroy most objects in any given map, including a lot of objects that had little, if anything, to do with the current objectives. (Fans of PewDiePie's and Toby Turner's "Let's Play" videos, for instance, fondly remember "Stephano" the statuette and "Boon" the rock, neither of which helped with actual progress but nevertheless served as oddly comforting inanimate companions during the playthroughs.) While not a necessary mechanic, this level of semi-realistic interactivity boosted the game's already sky-high immersion levels -- not to mention starting some amusing cheat/glitch theories, including one which stated that a desk drawer could serve as a successful shield to hide the player from monsters.

In A Machine For Pigs, very few non-essential objects can be manipulated by the player. This, for me, presented multiple problems. First and foremost, I couldn't throw those damned pig masks across the room or out the window, no matter how very, VERY much I wanted to. Nor could I toss some breakable object down the hall as a means of distracting an enemy -- a tactic which has saved my life more than once in the world of survival horror. Furthermore, after discovering most objects were not interactive, I assumed that I would only be allowed to play with essential items, which led to some confusion when I encountered a moveable hatch with no in-game purpose, or an cage door that could be opened but not entered.

But most importantly, not being able to pick up even small, easy-to-handle objects felt distracting. I've grown so accustomed to it since the first installment that when I first realized this small privilege had been revoked, it actually briefly took me out of the game. Mind you, the very next creepy sound effect dragged me right back in, but that tiny, disjointed moment is exactly the sort of thing Frictional Games and the chinese room have been trying to avoid in their quest for ultimate gaming immersion.

On the other hand, I might have been very easily distracted by my personal vendetta against those masks I mentioned -- perhaps not allowing players to whip them about like Frisbees wasn't such a bad idea.

Heart of Darkness: The Monsters and the Machine

Despite these minor -- not even complaints, let's call them critical observations -- A Machine For Pigs is a breathtakingly deep, layered experience, an unflinching expedition into the dark, dank core of human psychology and history. The sheer amount of research that clearly went into the concept and writing is inspiring, and investigating the multitude of references and real sources behind the already complex and enigmatic fictional surface of the game has proven as diverting for me as the actual game itself. Many a passage in Oswald's journal will sound awfully familiar to anyone who ever read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle -- the phrase "so very human" takes on a new and especially haunting tone in the context of the game -- and the look and feel of the worlds both above and within The Machine are so spot-on Victorian it's difficult not to suspend disbelief.

But even beyond this, what impressed me the most about the game was how extensively layered and complex the story was. The first, most obvious example of this is the Machine itself. With only the title and a few years of horror gaming experience to go on, my first instinct was to imagine the Machine as some sort of mass production version of a butcher shop; the English major in me added that it would probably symbolize everything wrong with capitalism/industrialization/society/etc. Not far off the mark, really, but still off.

It turns out the Machine isn't just for pigs. In fact, in the eyes of the Machine, we are all pigs. And yes, it's a criticism of society and industry and the pursuit of progress for the sake of progress without consideration for the consequences or collateral damage -- but between fantastic writing and a wealth of excellent historical/literary backup, the argument is both sound and poignant, and every bit as deeply horrifying as the game itself.

Worst of all, however, is the true nature not of the Machine, but of the monsters it spawned. At first glance it's pretty obvious that once again our feared enemies come from vaguely human origins. Just like the Grunts and Brutes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, these Manpigs appear to be part person, part something utterly other, and in general it's the "other" part that seems to be in control. Yet the chinese room takes this idea one step further in the sequel; this excerpt from Oswald's diary says it all:

". . . I watch them sleep and eat and play and they are so very human, so very childlike. And I will not think of what I have seen, of the chairs and the cages, and I will not think of how such monsters may be sculpted."

The full meaning of this entry is not revealed until a later stage of the game. The secret is this: the Manpigs are not merely people-pig abominations (which, let's face it, is terrible enough on its own), but really something more akin to pig-children hybrids. During one memorable sequence, the player catches glimpses of the creatures going about their daily lives; one can be seen playing with blocks, just like a human child. While the exact origins of the Manpigs are never completely revealed, it is speculated that they may actually be indirect descendents of Grunts and Brutes.

Personally, however, I linked them with the countless orphans who died in the bowels of the machine, hired for their small stature and youthful agility to clean the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies deep within. Like the real-life chimney sweeps of the 19th century, many of the orphans died on the job, and new, younger recruits would then be sent in to clean up the mess. Though nothing in the game definitely points to this, I can't help but think that the Manpigs and the orphans are connected, either spiritually (possession?) or physically (my first reaction was to think that the Manpigs were literally mash-ups of pigs and the dead children -- waste not, want not, right?). Whatever the case, the monsters of the Machine, these children of Oswald's nightmares, may not be quite as obviously scary as their predecessors, but casting them in such a pitiable, even sympathetic light somehow makes them infinitely more disturbing.

Seriously. The scene from which that journal excerpt was taken will haunt my dreams for years to come.

In Conclusion: I Double-Dare You

It's not for the faint of heart, and if you're more interested in panic attacks than slow-developing philosophical dread, you'd best turn elsewhere. (Like Slender. That's about as shock-scary as you can get without a shred of actual in-game story.) But Halloween ain't Halloween without a few good psychological scars, and A Machine for Pigs definitely cuts deep. Really, anyone who doesn't give it the ol' college try is truly missing out. At the very least, check out a bloody walkthrough on YouTube or something. Just don't forget to turn the lights off and the volume up.

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