A Machine For Pigs will prove divisive among fans of Frictional Games’ much-lauded original. The Chinese Room’s temporary stewardship of the series has resulted in an undoubtedly slicker experience, but one that comes at the cost of some of The Dark Descent’s memorable urgency. But there are as many gains here as there are losses.
The late-Victorian London setting provides a grisly, viscera-stained backdrop that is more relatable, and horrifying, than the vague medieval leanings of the original. Industrialism has enabled the construction of a cruelly efficient machine for processing livestock, but as you descend into its bowels in search of your missing twin sons, the terms ‘pig’, ‘product’ and ‘the poor’ become interchangeable. Dan Pinchbeck’s story is dark, affecting and well written, and the voice acting is a world apart from the shaky efforts of The Dark Descent.
Other intended improvements are less surefooted. The Chinese Room has discarded the first game’s inventory in favour of physics-based puzzles and added the ever-fashionable audio diary, and while the logic behind these decisions is sound, it’s uncomfortable to see such a familiar device sneak into a series celebrated for its originality, and the benefits are largely outweighed by the continued presence of journal entries and documents that pause the game when read, rupturing the pace and sense of tension.
Despite being more self-contained, puzzles don’t suffer from the absence of an inventory; concoctions are mixed and transported, and long-dormant machines brought back to life. But there’s no longer any need to refill your lantern, nor collect tinderboxes to light torches – 60 years after A Dark Descent, lights are now electric – and this removes much of the stress of finding your way through the world. With no way to defend yourself against enemies, darkness is one of your greatest allies, but while the levels are more expansive, you rarely feel lost, or harried by the need to traverse a space you haven’t yet mentally mapped. There is also no longer any need to maintain your sanity.
That’s not to say A Machine For Pigs isn’t scary: at points it will test your nerves to breaking point, and its enemies are both more unnerving and better realised than the zombified torture victims of the first game. The Chinese Room’s masterful appropriation of FPS mechanics for its own brand of sparse storytelling in Dear Esther shared much of Frictional Games’ approach, and the former’s take on the latter’s fiction is an undoubtedly worthwhile affair, even though many will feel restricted in what can feel less like a game and more like an interactive horror novella.