Monday, November 24, 2014

Review of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

In previous reviews I've generally followed a rigid "bullet point" format.  I'd like to try something a little different, and focus more on critiquing games as pieces of art, rather than trying to cover every part of them.

The Pig metaphor is overused and somewhat confusing.

Given that Amnesia: The Dark Descent helped pioneer the modern horror game and is considered by many (including myself) to be one of the most frightening games ever made, it's understandable that there were certain expectations for its sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.  And it is likewise understandable that--upon discovering the sequel to be a completely different sort of game for a completely different sort of person--there was a fair amount of fan backlash against it.  Especially since original developer Frictional Games was replaced with controversial "walking simulator" developer, The Chinese Room.  A Machine for Pigs was not exactly received with open arms when it released last year.  Many fans decried it as an insult to the series and instead turned their attention to the schlocky freakshow that is Outlast.

Many have accused A Machine for Pigs of being mechanically weak, and... well, they are absolutely correct.  Most gameplay elements from The Dark Descent have simply been removed.  You no longer lose sanity when standing in the dark, your lantern doesn't require any fuel, you can't light candles with tinder boxes, your health automatically regenerates, and you don't have an inventory.  So, what's left?  Walking around and picking things up to solve basic (really really basic) puzzles.  And reading notes.  I mean, I will happily rant all day about the "fakeness" of the original's gameplay, and in theory I'm fine with stripping away the facade of its sanity/fuel system and the needless complication of an inventory.  But at the same time, A Machine for Pigs really does feel like a bare skeleton in comparison.

These lights are super awesome.

And it's not just gameplay that's been removed.  Most environmental interaction has been removed as well.  In The Dark Descent, anything that should be interactive was interactive.  Any object you found could be thrown or dragged, any drawer could be opened, any door could be tried.  In A Machine for Pigs, this is not the case.  The majority of objects seem glued to whatever surface they are on, only certain drawers and cupboards can be opened, and while some locked doors can be rattled, most are just part of the scenery.  What's more, you'll find that certain barriers appear and disappear at random to make sure you're going in the right direction and don't miss any important bits of story.  I'm talking solid iron bars and industrial doors, here.   

This may sound like nitpicking, but in a game so focused on conjuring immersion out of thin air--a game so completely devoid of anything else--it's nearly disastrous.  A Machine for Pigs is just... it's not immersive. At all.  It really does feel like a computer game, and a rather shallow one at that.  You're constantly given subtle reminders of just how "not really there" you are, and how "not really happening" and "not really interactive" the experience is.  I am baffled that a game Frictional was involved with could get this wrong, given their legacy of detailed physical interaction, and given just how important said interaction is to creative director Thomas Grip's theory of feedback loops (which is by the way the one part of his theory I wholeheartedly agree with).

The pig enemies aren't frightening as much as they are sad.

 And it's not frightening either.  Sure, the first hour is suitably tense as you wait for enemies to appear.  But once they do, the tension just withers away over the remainder of the game.  Its scares are woefully underwhelming--just the stuff you've seen hundreds of times in other indie horror games, executed without any of Frictional's magic touch.  Enemies are a little threatening at first, but quickly devolve into mere grotesque speed bumps.  And for whatever reason--the lack of interactivity, the stripping away of mechanics, the cheap scare tactics--A Machine for Pigs never manages to create the same visceral sense of dread as The Dark Descent.

Now, given all this complaining, it will probably come as a surprise that I actually like A Machine for Pigs.  I like it significantly more than The Dark Descent in fact.  The thing is, The Dark Descent was a very good "visceral terror" simulator with nothing else to offer in terms of story or gameplay.  And I found it to be thoroughly unpleasant as a result.  I mean, I'm a horror game fan and a horror game developer.  I'm not opposed to being scared.  But I think there comes a point where fright actually starts getting in the way of horror.

There's tons of awesome Industrial Revolution machinery to look at.
 That may sound utterly counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if you think about it.  Horror games put the player in situations that nobody would actually want to be in.  It provides experiences people wouldn't actually want to experience.  The idea of horror as entertainment is reliant on there being some emotional distance between the player and their avatar.  Not only that, if the player is just scared out of their wits all the time, there's no room for a game to do anything else.  Or to make them feel anything else.  The experience becomes nothing more than a shallow endurance test.
A Machine for Pigs does fail to scare, it's true.  And I don't know that a horror game should ever be praised for not being frightening.  On the other hand, it's not a chore to play, so there's that.  And what's more, it really pours its heart into the story.  This is probably some of the best writing in any horror game I've played.  The prose is lovely.  Lush, creative, metaphorical... really metaphorical... ok, really really metaphorical.  In fact, let's be honest:  In terms of prose, A Machine for Pigs is overwritten just as often as it is poetic.  It relies on metaphors to a silly extent, and is sometimes needlessly flowery.  But still, it was obviously penned by someone who knows how to write, and knows how to tell a good intelligent story.

My favorite note in the game.
And that's what really kept me going.  The story.  By about the half way point I'd lost all semblance of fright or immersion with the game world, but was kept glued to my seat by the unfolding narrative.  It's not the most original plot in the world, nor is it without issues.  But it does a wonderful job of slowly weaving pieces of narration together into a subtle, intelligent, thought-provoking, and horrifying tale.

So does that make it a good horror game?  Well... no.  Paradoxically, A Machine for Pigs exhibits both how story can ruin gameplay and how gameplay can ruin story.  By stripping away mechanics in pursuit of a more narrative-focused experience, what scant gameplay it does have is robbed of any power to terrify.  Yet at the same time, that same gameplay keeps the story from cultivating an atmosphere of slow-burning, insidious horror.  There are too many overt threats in the game--too many tangible things occurring--for its atmosphere and narrative themes to be anything other than background decoration.

Glorious pipe pornography.

 In that sense, I think Machine for Pigs is a failure.  But it is such an interesting, artful failure that it's nearly a success.  I'm not sure how much I'd recommend it to horror fans, but I think it's a must-play for anyone interested in developing horror games.  First, because it tells one of the most intelligent stories in horror gaming, and second, because it provides so many great examples of how not to make a narrative-focused horror game.  Some of which aren't immediately obvious.  I personally didn't realize before how important environmental interaction in a narrative-focused game was until I played A Machine for Pigs and saw how detrimental static environments could be to immersion.  And even setting all that aside, I'd personally sooner play another Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs than another Amnesia: The Dark Descent, or another Outlast.

Of course I'd prefer another Penumbra: Overture--quirks and all--to any of them.  But I doubt that will ever happen.