Games

'A Machine for Pigs' and the Failure of Psychological Horror

When a game removes a physical danger, its psychological danger has to be even more effective than before. If not, all horror is lost.


Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

Publisher: Frictional Games
Developer: The Chinese Room
Release Date: 2013-09-10

Last week, I wrote that Amnesia: The Dark Descent undercut its psychological horror by tying that horror to game mechanics. If we assume this to be true, then the obvious solution would be to make a game without those mechanics. Don’t tie the horror to any kind of system that can be exploited by the player, thus ensuring the horror stays above any possible gamification. In that case, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs should be the perfect sequel, as it does exactly that. Developed by The Chinese Room (the makers of Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), A Machine for Pigs removes most of the survival mechanics that made The Dark Descent famous in favor of a game more focused on narrative and theme. I appreciate the new direction, and I think it's a step in the right direction for evoking and maintaining horror. However, it's also a risky direction since it puts all the weight of success on the story. The entire game will be judged on the success of that one facet, and unfortunately in this case, the story can't support the weight of its own themes.

What begins as a fascinating mixture of Lovecraftian horror and economic anxiety eventually grows too big for its own good. The story oversteps its bounds in search of its themes, and then, just to fully shoot itself in the foot, puts the blame for all of its horror at the feet of one man. What was once a Lovecraftian nightmare is reduced to a madman's plot for revenge.

A Machine for Pigs, like its predecessor, tells the story of an amnesiac who wakes up in an unknown house. You quickly learn that your name is Oswald Mandus, and that you have two children who are missing. A quick search takes you through and around the house until everything shakes in it shakes as if an earthquake has occurred. You then get a mysterious call that tells you a machine below the house is flooding, and the quakes are an attempt to clear the water. You’re also told that your children are trapped below in the bowels of the machine. So down we go to fix the machine and save our kids.

Of course, things are not what they seem. When we do finally activate the machine -- or rather The Machine -- we realize that we’ve been duped. Our kids are already dead, killed by our own hand before we lost our memory. The Machine itself seems to be alive, a kind of steampunk artificial intelligence, and it wants to destroy humanity because that’s why we built it.

Mandus, as it turns out, was an absolute misanthrope before he lost his memory. He despised society, capitalism, and people of all classes. In one of his journals he rants, “These so-called men of vision! They would shackle the masses to a wheel and turn it until their backs break. All for the opiate, the lure of profit. These fools who lackey them, these priests, these officials, this... government. They make pigs of us all!”

He despised the world, and wanted to punish it for... well... that's not entirely clear. His rants are almost too good in that he says a lot of words while saying very little of substance. At first he seems to rage against the new economy of industrialization, but then his rantings get more vague, before he decides to punish us all through the power of... industrialization: “As we disembarked [from Mexico], even through my fever I saw the detritus of this so-called progress. I saw starvation and disease, rot and destruction polluting the waters of the Empire. We are ruiners, you and I and all of us, and we make the world unclean... I am constructing an architecture to wrestle our damnation to the ground and smother it with steam.”

Throughout the game, you'll find a series of notes that describe the automated production line for his factory slaughterhouse. The notes go into detail about how the body is moved, gutted, sliced, and packaged, all without manual intervention. The processes described are horrible and violent, but they're described in the most plainspoken, textbook-like fashion. The intent is clear, even before we realize the bodies in question are human and not pigs: to portray the dehumanization of industrialization; how easy it is to accept violence when it’s all automated. This is the horror we cause when we disconnect ourselves from the horror.

It's a potent theme, and a great idea for a horror story to explore. However, A Machine for Pigs fails to follow through on this premise. It undercuts this great idea at every turn.

First of all, if industrialization is supposed to be a dehumanizing Lovecraftian monster, then why does Mandus turn to industrialization as a solution? This would seem to imply some goodness in the new economic order. Yet his solution to build a massive underground machine is just more destruction at the hands of automation. He rants against industrialization, then uses his industry to destroy the world. His actions and thoughts make no sense, and confuse the game's themes.

Even worse, when we start to dig into the story, it becomes clear that all the horror can be traced back to Mandus himself, not industrialization. The game tries to make the economy into the boogeyman, what with all the notes and the symbolic Machine, but Mandus is the one who wrote those notes and built that Machine. More importantly, he did those things after he lost his mind in Mexico. That's the key problem here. Mandus wasn't corrupted by industrialization. He was corrupted during his mysterious trip and brought that corruption back with him. The notes and The Machine and really the entire game don't actually portray the horror of industrialization itself, but rather the horror of industrialization in the hands of a madman such as Mandus. Industrialization isn't inherently bad, it’s just a tool, and in this specific case, the tool is used to kill and dehumanize.

This is a lessening of the horror. Rather than pitting the player against something as large and ethereal and powerful as an idea, something Lovecraftian in nature, in truth we're just pitted against a man.

The game seems to realize its mistake and at the last moment tries to expand its scope outwards again. In the final five minutes, we learn that Mandus found an ancient artifact in Mexico, and it showed him visions of World War I -- a real life example of technology and industrialization working to dehumanize people. This is a good topic to bring up as it's an undeniable example of the technological horror that the game wants to warn us against. But if the industrialized horror of WWI drove Mandus to hate the world, why did he build The Machine -- a "living" symbol of industrialized evil? Why build the very thing that he fears?

Bringing up WWI is a good Hail Mary play, but all it really does is reiterate the game's premise that "industrialization is evil" without actually doing anything to prove that point. The central problem with A Machine for Pigs is that we're never actually shown the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. We're told about those effects quite often, but Mandus is always the one doing the telling and he's not exactly the most reliable of narrators. The narrative so utterly fails at arguing this point that the developers have to break the logic of the fiction, resorting to a fortune-telling-prediction of WWI in order to make a kind of meta-argument that "No really, industrialization is evil! Just look at WWI!"

And yet even after this desperate, fiction-defying leap of logic to justify its central premise, the game still can't help but undermine itself.

Mandus kills The Machine by sacrificing himself, thus saving London from his industrialized apocalypse. This raises the question, "If a man can stop this industrialized evil, why can't we stop the industrialized evil of WWI as well?"

From our privileged position as an audience in 2016, we know that World War I was an event that actually happened and that it was horrible. But within the fiction of A Machine for Pigs, that future has yet to happen, and we just watched a man singlehandedly destroy the very symbol of industrialization. Any Lovecrafitan monster that can be defeated so easily is no Lovecraftian monster at all.

A Machine For Pigs ultimately fails as a horror game because it doesn't actually give us anything to be scared of. There's a reason that the slasher’s hand always pops out of the grave at the end of the horror movie. Metaphorically speaking, horror stories aren't supposed to be stories of victory. That's especially true for Amnesia's brand of Lovecraftian horror. This kind of horror is all about failure and how we can cope with it.

A Machine For Pigs creates a potent thesis statement about the human cost of societal growth -- how the individual is expendable in the context of the good of the whole-- but then it fails to back up that easily proven statement. It creates a perfect modern Lovecraftian god, then reveals Mandus as the man-behind-the-curtain. It’s a thematically rich game that has no idea how to properly express its rich themes.

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