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Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs Review

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The first Amnesia title, The Dark Descent, was acclaimed by many as the scariest game ever made, an assessment with which I concur. Its success was down to getting simple things right: atmosphere, cunning set-pieces and depriving the player of the ability to fight back, making every monster encounter a wellspring of terror.

That immediately creates two problems for this sequel. First, the bar is already set incredibly high: to outdo the most horrifying game ever created. Second, to make it interesting and new without adding too much and spoiling the stripped down formula responsible for the original’s success.

Astonishingly, the answer that A Machine For Pigs has for the latter question is to become even more straightforward, putting less mechanics between the player and the sinking pit of their stomach. It’s a bold move and, largely, a successful one. In the original game, for instance, light sources were limited and standing in the dark made the protagonist hallucinate. A clever mechanic but one which, in practice, was often more annoying than atmospheric.

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It’s gone. Now you have a lamp you can use whenever you want. Player agency is restored, there’s one less mechanic to learn and, most importantly, the developers now have full control over all your light sources. You’ll learn what a difference that makes the first time you descend into a pitch dark, monster-filled cellar to the sound of freakish chanting and find your trusty lamp suddenly begins to flicker uncontrollably.

However the removal of the inventory backfires. The game retains its unusual physics engine which allows you to grasp doors and items and push, pull or otherwise manipulate them with mouse movements. It’s a great adventure mechanic, but without an inventory you have to put down whatever you’re carrying every time you want to open a door. You won’t end up carrying items around often, but it’s still irritating.

While the play style will be familiar to veterans of the original, A Machine for Pigs was actually developed by The Chinese Room, the studio behind Dear Esther. It’s better looking than its predecessor but seems extremely resource hungry. My laptop with an i7 and a decent mid-range graphics card found some frame-rate stuttering even on the lowest settings.

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The much-vaunted new outdoor levels aren’t so much different from the indoor ones, but they to add to the considerable range of environments you’ll encounter as you descend into the bowels of the machine. Most of the levels have their own distinct look and feel, offering a lure of curiosity to pull you forward.

Everything you’ll come across has been ruthlessly engineered to cause unease. Apparently normal paintings that are actually twisted parodies, caged beds with bloodstained sheets, drawers that turn out to be full of human teeth. Psychological buttons are pushed relentlessly: vulnerable children, attic stairs, rattling doors.

However, a new engine isn’t the only thing The Chinese Room have bought to the Amnesia franchise. Their influence is heard in the soundtrack, too. While there’s plenty of droning bass, mechanical creaking and distorted screams, masterfully blended to unsettle the player, there’s also bursts of melancholy strings, very reminiscent of Dear Esther. There’s also lots of silence, used effectively as a launchpad for sudden scare effects.

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But the new developer’s biggest contribution is to the plot. Although largely told through a series of found notes, just like the original, the narrative here is more interesting and, arguably, darker. It’s a tangled tale which begins with love and the desire for a better world but ends in tragedy and takes in a lot of grotesque body horror along the way. It’s a clever piece of work, redolent of allegory and inviting deeper analysis.

While more concrete than the jumbled story snippets that made Dear Esther so interesting, it’s told in a similarly fragmentary manner and leaves plenty of ambiguity. Just like the best macabre writing, the mind fills in the blanks with horribly suggestive detail. The story might not be hugely imaginative, but it’s compelling and shocking nevertheless, helped considerably by a sympathetic protagonist.

Oddly, one of the biggest problems with the previous game was that it was almost too effective. Being disturbed to the point of recoiling at small noises and refusing to play in the dark is almost the antithesis of fun. And while the threat of tripping over a creature in the gloaming and having it immediately eviscerate you added to the fear factor, it was also frustrating. Especially so if you were trying to work your way through a puzzle at the time.

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A Machine For Pigs is still scary. Once, after playing, I walked into a dark kitchen and jumped in whey-faced terror at what turned out to be a white tea-towel. Even early on, where you’re under no threat whatsoever, you’ll still be tormented by a constant itch of mortal peril. But I don’t think it’s scarier than the original game. Perhaps I’m jaded after playing that, no longer shocked by what’s essentially the same mechanics, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

You won’t encounter that many monsters in A Machine For Pigs. Some seem to mysteriously vanish should you fail to get past them a couple of times. The puzzles are varied, but not especially hard, and you’re generally allowed to solve them without creatures trying to bite your face off. Later, there are extended sections where, Dear Esther-like, there’s little to do but explore and wallow in the bleak atmosphere.

Basically, it’s not too frustrating to play. But without the thorn of annoyance to vex the player, it’s also less immediately terrifying. Plenty of titles can make you jump out of your skin, but A Machine For Pigs aims deeper, worming inside and making you uncomfortable with your very humanity. It might not be scarier than the most frightening horror game ever made but does manage, by porcine whisker, to be a more interesting, memorable and likely more divisive game overall.

Gone Home Review

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You arrive at the doorstep of a mansion. Your parents recently moved there with your kid sister but you are seeing it for the first time because you have just arrived from your backpack trip across Europe. It’s dark, stormy, and the place looks like it’s been ripped out of a King novel (one of the good ones). No one is home. The lights flicker. The TV is on but it’s just white noise. You enter the house looking for signs of your family.

It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without venturing into spoiler territory. The game, if you insist on calling it that, is all about the story. There are no controls to speak of, no inventory to rifle through, no health meters, no reflexes are required, your amazing hand eye coordination is meaningless, and there is nary a weapon in sight.

Ah, so it’s an adventure game!

No, it isn’t.

There is no “adventure” here, either; at least not in the typical way we tend to view adventure games. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no riddles to think your way through and no dialogue options from which to choose. If you thought a game like The Waking Dead was devoid of actual game mechanics then Gone Home will feel like a school project.

But that’s part of what makes the “game” work. In Gone Home you are merely along for the ride; a passenger on a ghost train that only reveals itself as you muddle your way through a seemingly abandoned mansion one room at a time.

Is that enough? Is sitting down in front of your PC for two hours (literally) and piecing together an interesting story worth your $20? We like to debate the merits of “value” of a game when discussing its critique and while I still strongly believe that price has no place in the evaluation process of a game, (then again neither do stars, ratings, or any other ridiculous measuring stick) but in this specific case you need to at least know what you are getting into.

Gone Home is short – two hours short, but that’s somewhat irrelevant. More than that, the writers know you are playing a videogame where you are wandering alone inside in a spooky abandoned mansion that looks like it should be a terrifying place to wander around alone – it plays on that emotion at every possible turn. And this is where it’s difficult to really talk about Gone Home without giving anything away, and I do think you should play the game, which is really all a “used to be game critic” can offer, right? I’m glad I played it, but I’m not nearly as happy that I spent $20 to do so.

That said, the writers and designers of this game deserve great praise for their ability to tell an engaging story via spoken dialogue (journal entries), sound effects and music, Post-It notes, and by strategically placing mundane objects around the house that help you slowly piece together what happened to the family that lives there. It’s an amazing achievement that the writers can tell such an emotional story via post cards, letters, and travel brochures. As far as pure storytelling is concerned Gone Home is equal to and in most cases is far superior to anything you see in today’s so-called blockbuster videogames. Of course since the game is all about the narrative – it better be damn good or it simply won’t work.

But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by Gone Home. Not because of its length or its lack of any real gameplay, but because it knows…the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.

Tuesday Pontificat’n – The Ownership is Overrated Edition

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So, a few more cards are now on the table. I’m not going to write much (this time) about the console themselves. Matt already did a fantastic job assessing each company’s sales pitch. Do go read it, if you haven’t yet. (What I find interesting is that in a generation where both platforms are based on x86 architecture, they’ve certainly found ways to wholly differentiate themselves. Bravo!) What I’ve found fascinating to watch since the initial One unveiling and in the wake of Monday’s E3 press conferences is this love affair we all seem to be having with game “ownership,” now that console gamers everywhere are terrified of losing it.

Right now, the One’s current feature list has precisely one deal-breaker for me. The once every 24-hour check-in required for me to keep access to my games library is a non-starter. It’s a poison pill that will kill the console and I’d be shocked –SHOCKED!– if this policy doesn’t change by release (or within the first year). Take that away, however, and much of the vitriol directed towards the Xbox One has to do with the fact that it’s a blatant attempt to end the era in which we “own” our games, thus killing off the used game market as we know it. This is troubling to people who feel they’ve done quite well by its existence — Gamestop, people saving $5 on a used game, people spending $60 on a game knowing they can get a chunk back for their next purchase by turning it around right quick. It’s been a decent ride for you folks and Sony is shrewd to make continued embrace of this model a marketing point for the PS4. It’s still all going to end, though. It’s a matter of time.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the PS4 flops and when it goes, the used game market evaporates with it. (I do not think the PS4 will flop.) Do I feel for you that it’s going away? Not really. I’m a PC gamer, man. My hobby has all but already transitioned to this whole license purchasing thing. Yes there are solid alternatives, like GoG, but Steam owns the PC gaming roost and, with it, we stopped “owning” most of our games quite a while ago. And you know what? We’re all getting on just fine that way. In fact, our platform of choice is thriving, thank you very much.

Take away the check-ins and the only thing particularly new about what the One is purported to do is that it still wants the disc to be a part of the equation. I realize that’s important to your Gamestops and Best Buys, but why on earth would I buy the disc just to install it on my console and never touch it again? Why wouldn’t I just download the game as I do on Steam? (Yes, yes, exceptions for gamers not living in a broadband world. The One’s already bending you over anyway.)

Whether the One’s model works or not will depend entirely on the same thing Steam’s model relies on — offering value. Steam isn’t the harbinger of doom. It’s not an enabler for a draconian future of oppressed gaming. It’s a service that successfully offered PC gamers a trade-off. I agree to ditch the cardboard box and plastic disc and tie my games to a personal account that Valve owns and in return I get convenience (purchasing games from home), easy access on any PC device I own, and dirt cheap bargains on existing catalog. This is all good enough for me (and a hoard of others), even if I do still miss good manuals… but those went bye-bye a long time ago.

(Please note that this post has nothing to do with game quality and the impossibilities of AAA game development. That’s another story, one I’ve been railing about for quite some time. Games shown off for the One at the E3 presser that I care about? Zero.)

EDIT: Check that. One. Witcher 3. Which I’ll play on the PC.

What it comes down to is that I can’t muster up much Internet-rage about finding ways to preserve the Culture of Ownership. More and more I feel like it’s mainly out of habit that we care so much about having ownership of such highly disposable products. For most of my life (and yours too, I’d imagine), media-based entertainment has required the acquisition of things. Music on cassette or CD (or vinyl or 8-track). Games on floppy or optical disc. Movies on cassette or optical disc. You bought it, you owned it forever or until you sold it or gave it away.

Forever.

There was something comforting in that fallacy. And make no mistake, it is a fallacy. Media gets damaged or degrades. Tech gets abandoned. It all goes eventually. And that’s okay.

I’m about to be 39 years old. When I was a wee lad playing Starflight, Wasteland, and earlier Ultimas all the way until my relatively recent adulthood I have believed that my life would be incomplete if I couldn’t go back and access these games whenever I wanted. What if 65 year old me wants to become the Avatar One. More. Time? What if nobody ever makes another good fantasy D&D game like Baldur’s Gate II? I want my kids to have these experiences! I need these games to be a part of my future! AHHHH!

Hogwash.

Sure, it’s nice to have a few choice titles on the shelf to be nostalgic about, but we don’t need to carry this stuff with us. None of it. Ownership of our media is overrated. And console fans should know that better than anybody. When was the last time you fired up a game for the original Xbox or Sega Genesis? Console games have always come with expiration dates. Not owning discs is not going to destroy gaming any more than the rise of legally downloadable MP3s destroyed music. What’s really happening right now is that the ecosystem surrounding how you purchase and play games is changing.

I remember a period in my young adult life when I would go to music shops with my buddies and pour through the used CD sections. Most of those stores are gone now and of those that remain, I really couldn’t be less interested in browsing all those scratched and cracked jewel cases. It wasn’t the apocalypse. Apple came along with the iTunes store and I thought it sucked so I ignored it and then Amazon came along with a better offering (MP3s and legitimate deals on whole albums) and I thought, “This works for me.” And it worked for a lot of people, so much so that iTunes adjusted their model too. I ended up buying and downloading a whole lot more $5 albums, at far better value than the new or used CD market offered, than I ever had in my life. And then Spotify came along and my album buying habit has all but ceased because I can pretty much call up whatever I want, whenever I want, and it doesn’t cost me a dime. True, I could lose access to all that stuff on Spotify tomorrow, but if I did, what have I really lost? The music isn’t going to go away. It’ll come out in some other form or factor and if the value proposition is good enough then I’ll adopt it. If it doesn’t, I’ll move on to something else.

And, you know what? Most people know and understand that. This isn’t really about the sanctity of the used games market. It’s about value. What really bothers people is that used games have been the place for console gamers to get value in a market that pathologically overestimates the value of games. I get it. Just don’t confuse the two. Getting value isn’t tied to the existence of used games. The Xbox One? Maybe it’ll provide a good value proposition for gamers and maybe it won’t. It probably won’t right away. But if it doesn’t, something else will and people will flock to that. Nature abhors a vacuum.

We talk all the time about how publishers need to “get with the times,” but there are times, and this is one of them, when we, as gamers, need to do the same. Yes, absolutely lobby for your rights to get good value for your gaming dollar! I’m not advocating that you throw money at bad value. (Read: the host of “shitty” dudebro games MS expected us to salivate over at the E3 presser.) Just don’t make the used game corner of your local outlet the rallying cry for your rights as a consumer. That’s a red herring. The days of you going into said shop, saying “hey” to the friendly bloke behind the register, and grabbing something off the new release shelf or browsing the used games collection? Those days are ending, just as they are for music and film purchases. And, yes, there are good things we’re going to lose when it goes, but no one ever said change was a wholly positive thing. There are costs and benefits to all change, but ideally the benefits outweigh the costs. Most often, they do. It’s precisely what motivates this sort of change.

The world is moving on. And if the world of gaming evolves into something that doesn’t interest you? Big whoop. You’ll find something else to be interested in. One thing we’re not short of in modern society is diversions. These aren’t things that require outcry, merely an even-minded assessment of the value of your entertainment and an understanding that times change. In the meantime, I’m casting off the shackles of ownership. There comes a point where having possessions means that they start owning you instead. Tossing all my game boxes and plastic discs, all this “stuff,” to the side in favor of on-demand versions of the same products that I can access where and when I want, even if I don’t truly “own” them, doesn’t make me feel repressed. It makes me feel free.

Hotline Miami Review

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The first time you fire up Hotline Miami, you’ll swear your PC has gone wrong. It’ll likely hang for what seems like an age, and then take you to a title screen burnished with blocky text in Russian against an eye-straining dayglow backdrop. It’s the 80’s. It’s Acid House all over again.

What happens next most assuredly isn’t. An ugly, bearded man will swear at you repeatedly as he teaches you the basic concepts of the game. Sneak up on people by using the building topology to keep out of sight, then eviscerate them or shoot them, or just punch them to the floor and then brain them by smashing their heads repeatedly against a door frame.

And that, essentially is Hotline Miami. Twenty-one levels of appalling top-down violence rendered in cheerful fluorescent tones and backed by a thumping techno soundtrack. Except that it’s very hard to describe quite how something so brutally primal can be one of the most intelligent and knowing games I’ve played in years.

The whole thing is a beguilingly circular, self-referential piece of design. The extreme gore passes silent judgement on the acceptance of violence in games. The unreliability of the narrator is a window into into the virtual worlds that games construct. Even the plot bends back in on itself, but to delve too far therein would being giving too much away.

It’s a hard game, but it never feels unfair, and any gamer could beat it with patience and practice. A single hit will end your murderous rampages, so you need to be careful, using stealth and silence where appropriate and making calls on the right time to go in, all guns blazing.

As a game, just like as a piece of social commentary, what’s really impressive about Hotline Miami is how such a small thing manages to fill so many different shoes. A beat ‘em up. A stealth game. A tactical shooter. A puzzler. It’s all these things and more.

But ultimately the game gets hijacked by its compact and bijou nature. For most of your first playthroughs new guns, new powers, different enemies and novel scenery to interact with will keep you going. Toward the end you’ll notice that all the guns are pretty much the same. So are all the enemies. Many of the powers aren’t really useful, or even fun.

Completists will enjoy finding the considerable quantity of hidden things, and theorists will enjoy replaying the plot for the intriguing ambiguity it provides. Otherwise you’ve got perhaps one or two play-throughs of a two to four hour game.

But who cares. It’s cheap. Play it for its glorious inventiveness. Play it for the violence. Play it for an abject lesson in how much one clever designer can cram, Chinese-doll like, into one small package and then consider how little huge corporations manage to fit into vast, spacious AAA games, echoing like howling ruins in the desert. Just play it.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent Review

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a bizarre and contradictory experience. It compels you to explore further, play more while dreading every minute. It leaves you thankful for wrapping up in eight hours, but wanting more. It makes you want to divert your hands from quaking over keys and mouse to pressing the off button. But you won’t.

The plot stumbles over the usual threadbare horror clichés an unreliable narrator, trapped in a crumbling ruin who must descend to murder his former tutor, piecing his chequered past together from diary fragments. A weak Lovecraftian pastiche. What sets the game apart is the uncanny skill with which the backdrop for the story is delivered.

Graphically, it’s satisfyingly bleak. The engine uses a simple but unusual conceit of mouse gestures mimicking physical ones which is intuitive and places you directly into the setting. But the crowning glory is the sound. An unsettling bass drone over which is washed a muted cacophony of scratchings, fevered breaths and minor chords. When this is rent by sudden growls and screams the effect is truly shocking, inducing sudden panic from nowhere.

This ability to conjure terror from thin air ensures the game remains compelling even when there’s nothing happening. The early stages consist of little but wandering the inky gloaming of the game’s environment but are still unsettling. Your avatar goes slowly mad if left in the dark resulting in hallucinations and paralysis. He has a lantern to ward against this eventuality, yet light leaves you exposed as prey to one of the many fiends that stalk the hallways. It creates a contradiction the player can never wholly resolve, resulting in constant tension.

So powerful is this effect that encountering one of the castle’s monstrous denizens actually feels like a release. But it’s short lived. There is no combat in Amnesia: anything you meet can kill you with ease. You can only hide or run, both piling the pressure straight back on. Fleeing the horrors, slamming doors behind you and hearing them being torn asunder by the pursuing nightmare is an experience that can leave you sick with stress.

There are puzzles too, oases of relative calm where you can solve conundrums without fear of molestation. They make good use of the tactile physics of the interface, encouraging you to open hatches and pull levers as you experiment with solutions. Some are fairly challenging, though experienced gamers should prove equal to the task.

There is a passage common to tiresome horror novels where moments seem to last forever as the protagonist waits, frozen in fear. Amnesia is the digital realisation of that feeling, a game where a thirty second dash through a lightless, flooded corridor with an invisible monster at your heels can stretch into a lifetime. It is many fine things: terrifying, unusual, compelling. But it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, pleasant.