Because there’s nothing like kicking off the morning of three weeks of teaching an intensive intro-to-sociology course like writing about one of the most delightfully disturbing games I’ve ever played.
I should note that as usual, I’m behind on this. A Machine for Pigs actually came out this past fall, but – as I think I’ve said before – for a variety of reasons both temporal and financial I tend to refrain from purchasing games until they get severely discounted in Steam sales. So I finally have it, and I played it, and it’s probably among my top ten games that I’ve ever played.
I loved the first Amnesia, though it was an abusive kind of love, because I have rarely played a game that made me want to stop playing it as much as Amnesia:The Dark Descent. I don’t scare all that easily, though I used to; much of what I write these days is arguably horror – or at least could be categorized as dark-fantastic – and I watch horror flicks to relax. That said, the first Amnesia was full of more NOPE moments than I thought possible in a game (until Outlast came along and left my every nerve raw and frayed at the ends) and I thought then that in terms of sheer dreadful atmosphere, it was pretty much unsurpassed by anything else I had experienced.
Then, as I said, Outlast came along, and I was stuck with a new standard of NOPE. Outlast is not a long game, but it took me a long time to finish it on account of how many nights I simply refused to play it at all because I literally could not deal.
So. A Machine for Pigs.
I’m a huge, huge fan of The Chinese Room’s previous game Dear Esther (The Dark Descent studio Frictional Games essentially handed the sequel off to them). Dear Esther contains what I think is some of the best prose I’ve encountered in any game, and in fact inspired a story of mine, so I was fantastically excited when I heard they were the ones developing A Machine for Pigs, and on the writing side, I wasn’t in the least disappointed. How the writing is integrated into the game is massively important, and a massive part of why it worked so well for me; The Chinese Room went the – fairly conventional – route of leaving notes and memos around for you to find as you explore the world, that incrementally reveal who exactly you are and what exactly you’ve done. But more unconventionally – and very much like Dear Esther – the notes are frequently puzzles in themselves, and hint at horrors rather than making them explicit (except for a few wonderfully macabre instances toward the end). They’re not in order, temporally, and it’s only once you’re a good bit of the way through the game that they actually start to present a coherent picture. Dear Esther did the same thing, though in the service of a very different mood, and the result was an experience full of gentle, meditative, revelatory punches to the gut.
A Machine for Pigs is the same, except instead of gentle and meditative it’s all creeping dread and slowly intensifying horror. Also disgust, because while The Dark Descent made it a point to scare the everloving shit outta you, A Machine for Pigs is more about visceral vileness and dehumanization. The theme is really in the name – think about our cultural connotations of “pig”, regardless of how accurate it really is, about their social context, how we use the word and the idea, and what images are called up when we think about them as animals that exist to be slaughtered and consumed. I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch, and I love animals, and I’m very aware of the cognitive dissonance and even the hypocrisy involved in that.
The language that writer Dan Pinchbeck employs in the service of this theme is careful, and to me resonant of both things like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – an obvious reference point – and the work people like Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt have done on the nature of dehumanization and the mechanized, industrialized erasure of the value of life. The game is in part a vaguely Marxist indictment of capitalism run amok, though one doesn’t have to be aware of that aspect in order to feel the horror Pinchbeck wants you to feel.
Again, like Dear Esther – and like many other games that employ the same basic mechanic – these things are fragmentary, and the story you piece together is drawn from what isn’t there as much as what is. This weekend at Readercon I had a wonderful hallway conversation with fellow writer and buddy Kenneth Schneyer (he has a short fiction collection out and you should get it) about his story “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” and about fiction in that same basic format: found documents, descriptions of the contents of containers, emails, images, journal entries, etc. Things that reveal a story in fragments and increments, and hit you in the gut more on the basis of what’s implied than what’s straightforwardly shown. I happen to love those kinds of stories, though I have yet to do one myself in a way that I think works even a little, and I’m finding more and more that one of the media that’s doing that kind of storytelling especially well is video games. I’ve written before about how one of the major strengths of storytelling in video games is the fact that you’re not just an audience but a participant, and I think written fiction of that fragmentary kind approaches the same kind of active participation on the part of the reader and is effective for many of the same reasons. You have to work out the puzzle. You have to make sense of what you’re seeing.
And of course, it’s old wisdom that some of the greatest horror is what you never actually see but know is lurking there in the dark, red in tooth and claw.
So yeah. Basically I loved A Machine for Pigs. It’s not as scary as its predecessor, but it’s way more horrifying, and it’s a kind of horror that resonates more with me. As a work of fiction, I think it’s fantastically compelling, and the prose is a delight. I’d recommend it whole-heartedly to people who don’t normally play games, and in fact I might recommend it especially to those people. Just make sure you have a strong stomach. Or at least don’t mind when it gets turned.