"Lost in the dry paper soul of the world" - Amnesia - A Machine for Pigs
ecently Christof looked with understandable regret at Gone Home and how its clarity, its explicitly stated goal of presenting a puzzle with one “correct” solution, robbed it of the chance to be more than “just” a game. It’s an all too common dilemma in this medium: Instead of forcing us to interpret, games provide us with answers, feed us definity and the “right” solution, lead us onward with official walkthroughs, past the intentionally hidden easter egg and towards the end of their one-way trip, paved with achievements.
Why? In short, because engineers are used to dealing with binaries, not ambiguity. Mostly.
There is another way. Up next: A song of praise for Dan Pinchbeck’s Amnesia - A Machine for Pigs, which points into an entirely different direction - one in which games outgrow their explicit, technical training wheels and finally get to defend their place on the pantheon of culture with reason and confidence. Something akin to spoilers ahead.
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The forums are full of confusion: What the hell is A Machine for Pigs about? One thing in advance: Not only am I not about to answer that question, I want to point out that asking it already contradicts the idea of the open work that Pinchbeck uses to astound his largely unprepared playerbase, here as well as in Dear Esther.
dgar Allan Poe, to offer a heavily abridged introduction, created both the ghost story and the modern murder mystery, which now go hand in hand, even after 100 years and an entire century of literary modernism. Ooh, there’s a ghost - and finding the cause for its haunting will not only deliver the uncanny visitor from its spectral existence, but reveal and right the injustice that caused it. This is the kind of happy ending that turns a supernatural encounter into a simple detective story, a quest for the why, carried out with the firm conviction that there must be a reason: from Ringu to Poltergeist, from FEAR to Amnesia - The Dark Descent, from Scooby Doo to Silent Hill. Rational spirits provide these puzzles - once we solve them, the nightmare is over. The solution is our salvation.
A Machine for Pigs breaks with this tacit agreement, which you only realize during its conclusion, or not at all. There is no solution. There is no salvation. As a result, A Machine for Pigs is primarily an aesthetic experience, thriving on its own intensity. This marks a fundamental difference to Gone Home, which, as Christof laments, presents a traditional puzzle and concludes with its answer. By contrast, A Machine for Pigs never offers answers, and the questions it seems to ask are equally misleading.
nstead, it presents primarily an aesthetic experience, atmospheric horror, living on the moment of fear and, beyond that, dreadful suspicions. Its rationality is faked time and again - just like the fragments of Dear Esther don’t amount to a full story, A Machine for Pigs offers no conclusive whole. Why and how should it, when its themes are taken from a century of mass murder and ideologies of genocide?
If Dear Esther is a meditative exercise become game, A Machine for Pigs is a masterfully built nightmare
These themes - as well as setting, decoration and props - include the inhuman aesthetic of industrialization, deserted and dehumanized factory machines, the date of events - New Year’s Eve 1899 - as the bleak beginning of the age of extremes, the pigs - omnivores just like humans - as victims and monsters in one, the absurd logic of the inhumanly bestial, the banality of evil, the “dry paper soul of the world”, hints at the complicity of science, economy and insanity, myth and megalomania, war and capitalism, industrialized murder and murderous industrialization. If Dear Esther is a meditative exercise become game, which is only put together in the player’s mind, A Machine for Pigs is a masterfully built nightmare, constructed from a collage of contemporary history.
But it’s more than a museum display: To illustrate how the horrors of the century of rationality, of reason, of science, have caused the most irrational, bloodthirsty extremes of genocide, A Machine For Pigs lets you take part in a copy, a caricature of the madness (and explicitly references real history along the way). The rationality - ours, as the player- is a lie, born from blood and ending in blood, like the rituals of the Mexican death gods, who can no longer be soothed with bare hands. To prevent the intuited or imagined massacres of the coming century, we aim to offer blood, but through modern means, through machines, efficiency and methodological murder. That the plan - naturally - remains insane, is something we as players will only come to understand during its denouement, when nothing comes together.
n its own nightmare logic the enigma remains wrapped, the question of “Why?” unanswered, the puzzle uncannily unfinished. A Machine for Pigs implies that it might show deluded visions instead of reality: Is the voice in our head no more real than the phantoms of our children? Do the monsters exist outside of our own head? Is London really overrun by beastly pigmen, or are we merely hearing the fireworks of New Year’s Eve?
A Machine for Pigs offers no “solution” or “correct” interpretation, only allusions, hints and false trails leading to horrors that impress through this impenetrability. Like the true madness of a century of industrial mass murder, its machine - a machine for pigs, operated by pigs and built for the butchery of pigs, intended to save the coming century - is born from cold, calculating reason, but puts its own rationality in service of utter lunacy, a fantasy of destruction that requires its victims both for construction and maintenance. Born, as so many ideological killing machines, from the desire the improve the world. And the pigs? They are not only its operators, but its product, and thus the victims of the machine as well as culprits.
A machine for pigs - rarely do you face such a bitter metaphor for the ideologies of terror in the 20th century, as well as the capitalism that fosters them, its fatally naive early forms towards the end of the 19th century serving as our symbolic stage.
Machine for Pigs is a true horror game, and possibly one of the purest of its form. Like the stubbornly inexplicable core of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or the insanity of its protagonist disrupting the perspective of viewers of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, or the tangible but unaccountable horrors of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, A Machine for Pigs remains intentionally dark, ambiguous, irrational. Its dread, like any true terror, is the dread of not understanding, the horror of irrationality, which is masterfully woven into the narrative design.
Its dread, like any true terror, is the dread of not understanding, the horror of irrationality
It’s one of the core points of the game, which did not accidentally choose the 20th century as its setting. The cold, mechanical background of carefully designed industrial architecture has become home to irrational murder and we, its creator, traverse it looking for answers. Why did we do all this? All we ever find are fragments, evidence of our guilt and madness. The solution is missing. This nightmare won’t go away.
Nightmare logic is the only logic you will find here, the same kind that fuelled the senseless mass murder of the past century, no less irrational, but sadly very real. That A Machine for Pigs can play off such themes, without becoming banal, that it invites these interpretations without appearing heavy-handed, is a feat that I hope to see many other games repeat in the future.
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