What is it, exactly, that makes a game scary? The lack of ability to defend yourself? Threatening, uncomfortable environments? An unreliable narrator? Some combination thereof? No matter what your criteria for a game being classified as ‘horror’, many gamers agreed that 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, produced by Frictional Games (developers of the cult favorite Penumbria series of horror adventures) was one of the most terrifying games in recent memory, due to your inability to fight back against any encountered monsters and a sanity meter not unlike Eternal Darkness that affected your character’s ability to determine reality from hallucination.
Originally announced by fellow indie developers The Chinese Room (creators of stellar Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 mods such as Dear Esther and Conscientious Objector, respectively) as a small add-on, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs eventually ballooned into a full-size semi-sequel, carrying with it many similar gameplay aspects without being a direct sequel plot-wise. Despite not stepping into poor, beleaguered Daniel’s shoes again, and even with some scaled-back gameplay aspects, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs carries all the weight and horror of the previous game.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs places you in the shoes of one Oswald Mandus, turn-of-the century businessman and bigshot in the meat-packing industry thanks to a revolutionary steam-powered factory he constructed for…well, pigs. Taking place on New Year’s Eve 1899, you find yourself suddenly recovering from a violent fever and set upon by what seem to be hallucinations of your children. Following a trail of bloodstains and cryptic notes throughout your house, you gradually begin to put together what kind of man Mandus is, what may have befallen his children, and what sort of horrific fate is waiting for you. While the opening chapters, set in Mandus’ house/workspace (as the factory seems to be connected to his spacious mansion in more ways than one), recall the previous game in its claustrophobia and sprawling indoor settings, you quickly find yourself exploring factory corridors, dank wine cellars, and (shockingly enough for an Amnesia sequel) outdoor cityscapes. But don’t think this game suddenly takes place in Columbia; the environments manage to remain claustrophobic and traumatizing, even when you’re ostensibly outside.
The core gameplay remains basically untouched from the previous games, with a few modifications to streamline and focus everything. Your time is primarily spent solving puzzles and manipulating objects in the environment, in a fashion not too dissimilar to a point-and-click adventure game, or something along the lines of the very first Alone in the Dark or the first two (maybe three) Silent Hill games. Combat is non-existent, instead forcing you to escape from whatever it is that’s out to kill you and even then the enemy encounters are surprisingly sparse; you don’t even encounter anything that could be considered a ‘bad guy’ for the first few hours of gameplay. This lack of combat shouldn’t imply a lack of action or interactivity; you are instead given much more pressure to solve puzzles in a quicker fashion while unknown forces bear down on you, and you are able to explore the environments and work through the plot at your own pace (at least when you’re not fleeing in terror).
In keeping with this scaled-down focus, a few elements of the first Amnesia have also been taken out to provide more emphasis on the plot and settings. Thanks to the advent of electricity (it IS a few hours before the twentieth century begins, after all), the oil and tinder have been removed; while you still get a lantern for darker corridors, most electric lamps throughout each level are still in functioning condition, and you won’t need them too desperately anyhow. The inventory has also been taken out, meaning each puzzle can be solved by something found not far away, in a fashion faintly reminiscent of the physics puzzles in Half-Life 2. While some may bemoan this as making the puzzles ‘too easy’, it’s clear that the inventory was only removed to allow the player to focus more on their immediate surroundings and the overall plot, instead of spending time playing ‘match the widget with the correct lever’.
The graphics aren’t going to win any awards, but match the gameplay very well and are effective at conveying an overall mood. Every area you enter feels worn-down, grimy, and lived-in, looking more like something you would walk through in the real world and avoiding the abstract ‘you’re only here to get in a gunfight’ areas so many other games use. Rust and filth cover every surface, your lantern playing shadows off of long-abandoned workspaces and disused machinery, your every step into the labyrinth of steam tunnels carrying a deep sense of foreboding. Excellent sound design does its part to help; the creak of doors and clank of long abandoned mechanical devices playing against the nearly musical hissing of pipes and plumbing, echoing deep into a mineshaft of gears and meat hooks. This is one of a small handful of games that can honestly be improved by playing with a good pair of headphones in the dark, all the better to further that fragile and fleeting sense of immersion so many games strive for and that the Amnesia series (and, by extension, much of Frictional Games’ library) seem to excel in.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is the rare sequel that welcomes new players without alienating old ones. While some may grumble about the seemingly simplified game play (what with the less frustrating puzzles and lack of inventory), true horror aficionados will welcome the chance to pay more attention to the story and the scares, which is really the most important part. Other games striving for terror could stand to learn a lesson from this focus, as too many games trying to be scary find themselves either bogged down in extraneous mechanics, an overpowered player character, or both. Amnesia allows the player to feel alone and vulnerable without providing backwards-thinking and counter-intuitive controls (which was the excuse the older Resident Evil titles tried to use) and forces the player to use their brain without trying to solve any ridiculous puzzles equating types of birds to notes on a piano, or whatever that Silent Hill puzzle was (you know, the one in the school in the first one, it was kinda nuts). Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs takes both the design of the previous Amnesia games, as well as the last 15-20 years of survival horror games for various platforms, and boils it down to what truly matters. Anyone looking for a horror title that actually manages to be oppressive and scary without being frustrating, and manages to make the player feel vulnerable without stupid controls, would do well to hold their breath, grab a lantern, and try to figure out just what became of your kids with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.