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Bolt Thrower : StarCraft, Civilization, X-Wing, Hard West, Journey

It’s been a while since I steered anyone toward my series on tabletop versions of video games over at Gamerati. But since I did one on the StarCraft board game to coincide with the final digital game in that series, Legacy of the Void, I figured it was time for a reminder.

However great the StarCraft board game was, I think it would have been better with looser ties to the source material. It would almost certainly have resulted in a similar game but one which was a lot less complex to digest. In that respect it’s almost the opposite of the Civilization board game which, as I argued in another column, is a quite brilliant reduction of the digital essentials to tabletop format.

The other thing I wanted to talk about this week is lasers. I was playing X-Wing a couple of weeks ago when my opponent pulled out a laser line for checking up on some the firing arcs. It’s a brilliant idea: X-Wing models are so top-heavy, it’s hard to get a ruler in to measure the angles properly without knocking them all over. The laser is more accurate, less clumsy and, best of all, looks awesome in the middle of what’s supposed to be a laser dogfight.

I was so impressed that I wrote a piece about using the device in X-Wing and Armada for the manufacturer. It’s called a Target Lock and, while they’re made in Denmark, you can get them from specialist shops all over the place. So stick one on your Christmas list. I can see it being useful in pretty much any and every miniatures gaming system.

Speaking of Christmas, what I’d like most in the whole world is some more Patreon supporters. But it’s not something I can really put on my Christmas list so I’m putting it here instead.

My video game time recently has been all about Hard West. This has been trailered around as being a “cowboy XCOM”, which it kind of is. But the essential mechanics of XCOM remain easily good enough to power a game. And on top of that, what makes Hard West special is the excellent and imaginative atmosphere and storytelling.

It’s more weird west than wild west, but the supernatural elements are done with subtlety and flair. You do get to flat-out demons in the end, but the narrative along the way is excellent. There are eight campaigns, each of which, in a neat twist, ties in with events or characters from one of the previous stories to make a satisfying whole.

It hasn’t got massive critical acclaim, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve played this year. Worth the entry price for the experience alone.

I’m also contributing to Pocket Tactics now, which is great as I can’t think of a much better place to explore my crossover of interests. My first piece there was a review of Steam: Rails to Riches, a title I wholly recommend to deep strategy masochists who don’t want to deal with other human beings, even over the internet.

The other big event in gaming is that I finally got to play Journey. It was worth the wait. I feel like I could write essay upon essay about this game. About all the tiny clever design choices that go in conveying emotion to the player. About how you naturally find ways of communicating with your fellow players using only musical notes. About how freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is central to the game’s message and appeal.

But I won’t. I’ll just settle for saying if you haven’t played it, play it. It’s one of the best games of the last decade.

Bolt Thrower: XCOM TBG, Steam Sale, Witcher 3

XCOM The Final Team

My Gamerati series is actually running a bit ahead of my columns here, so this week you get another one! This time it’s deconstructing XCOM: The Board Game.

In the sense of looking, sounding and playing like the original video game XCOM is an abysmal failure. And this is a good thing. There’s no way a tabletop game could try and replicate the bizarre blend of strategy, tactics, economics and role-playing that made the original such fun.

Instead it wisely goes for the strategic layer alone. And it does a very clever thing. By using a simple but tense and effective push your luck mechanic for resolving pretty much everything it captures the feel of the video game. That sense of always being one risk away from victory of failure is part of what made XCOM so compelling. The tabletop version has that same texture about it.

So it’s a great game which evokes the sense of XCOM while being nothing like it. That’s smart design. Smart enough that you’ll want to read the original in full for all the detail.

Anyway, on to the actual video games. I’ve spent most of the last fortnight gleefully generating and selling trading cards from the awful Steam sale mini-game. Not sure why the bothered with the effort of coding that, especially since you could get cards without playing.

I’ve spent more than I ought to on games I’ll probably never play because they sound fun and were less than the price of a sandwich. Looking at my vast collection of untouched Steam games compared with my tiny collection of expensive console games made me wonder. What does this glut of cheap games do to our perception of value?

My Steam collection contains a large number of excellent, deep and long-running games that I’ve only played for an hour or two. STALKER, Left 4 Dead 2 and TorchLight 2 are just a few examples. Because I bought them all on the cheap I had no sense of compulsion to plough on and make the most of them. These great games have become throwaway rubbish in my head, just because of the price I paid.

Contrast this with console games that I’ve paid a pretty penny to obtain. I’ve played almost all of those for multiple hours just to be sure I got full value for money out of them. They were all fun, although many were just averagely so. A few, however, like Gears of War, I kept on with in spite of an average start and eventually found to be amazing games. Had they been Steam sale titles, they’d have languished, forgotten.

It’s the same with the low, low prices on the app store. Because freemium exists, excellent games are often priced at a pittance. A hundred or so of them sit barely played on my iTunes account.

I’ve always been dismissive of the argument the music industry makes that making things cheap or free reduces their value in the eyes of the consumer. It seemed like a feeble excuse to try and keep profits up in the face of piracy instead of innovating. Now I’m not so sure. While music and games are quite different things, there do seem to be parallels here. I enjoy games more when I’ve paid good money for them. And I worry about what the value perception here means for game prices in the long term.

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One of those expensive titles, The Witcher 3, continues to occupy all my gaming time right now. It’s very good, a fantastic blend of action, role-playing and fantasy narrative that just makes you want to keep on playing and playing. While not truly open world, the areas you play in are vast, and reward exploration and creativity.

Yet there are aspects of the design that I find bizarre and baffling. The most ludicrous is the teleporting horse. In such big areas you need fast transport, and in this fantasy setting it’s provided in equine form. Because you might need it any time, you can whistle for it and it magically comes trotting in from the edge of the map, no matter how far away you left it.

The silliest example is when you’ve been on the water. The horse can’t swim, so to cross water you have to get off and swim or use a boat. Yet when you get to your destination, you whistle and the horse somehow finds its way across, even if you’re on an island. This is so patently idiotic it ruins my sense of immersion every time.

It’s an example of the way AAA games have arrived at a strange place where they’re forced to be realistic while making endless concessions to design. The horse can’t swim, yet it can cross the water when you need it to. So why not just have a damn magical swimming horse in the first place and save all this silly busy work, this clicking and waiting to no benefit?

Witcher 3 is full of this stuff. Equipment needs repairing so you’re forced to find a smith to do the job and wait until sunrise for him to open. Why? It adds nothing to the game. One smith in Velen highlights the issue starkly. He goes to bed when the sun goes down, yet his kids stay up all day and all night, playing in his yard. Where’s the sense of realism there?

Games are not real. That’s kind of the whole point of games. Even if they wish to strive for realism, the technology is so far away from it as to be laughable. We can’t even work out how to make pretend people who’ll react sensibly when you put a bucket on their head and steal their stuff. Trying to defend the inane “realism” in these games causes fanboys to tie themselves in knots, trying to defend the lack of black people in a land filled with ghouls and griffins. It’s about time we just dropped this stupid pretense, and played.

Brakketology Waxes Nostalgic

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I was innocently strolling through my Feedly feeds a couple days ago, window shopping for things that looked interesting –things that would justify my desire to not have to, you know, be productive– when I ran across a reference to Vale having taken the wraps off their internally-developed Steam box. And then another. And then another. These are, of course, signs that an embargo just lifted.

I can name the number of times I’ve been invited to go behind the scenes to get an early look at something and then write free PR about it. It was always a fun experience just because you got to actually see stuff that only a small group is privileged to see and you got to meet people in the business (almost universally great people) that you would never ever get to meet in any other situation. Getting to sit down and have a casual conversation with someone like Fred Wester (Paradox Sofware) or a Mike Laidlaw (Bioware)? That’s awesome. Getting home and realizing you now have to try and write something unique about an experience that was exactly the same for a dozen other people who saw the same thing and are also about to write about it? Blech. Waking up and seeing them all online at the same time and then coming across the one or two utterly brilliant iterations that aren’t yours and make you feel bad about yourself as a writer? Vomit.

This is all to say that while I miss getting to have some of those experiences, I absolutely do not miss the sheer pointlessness of the work involved. It’s much better to look from afar and call attention to the stuff worthy of your attention. Which I’ll do right now…

All hands on Steam’s box. (Yes, I’m ashamed of myself for typing that.) Of the 90 kajillion pieces on the SteamBox, Sean Hollister’s write-up at The Verge deserves your lov’n eyeballs. In particular, it’s got some fascinating details on the evolution of the controller:

Originally, Valve wanted to revolutionize PC input, but it soon realized it needed to focus on a much more fundamental goal: simply getting the library of existing Steam games to work with a new controller. To do that, the company needed a way to make many PC gaming functions possible on a controller without the 104 keys a keyboard affords. Early on, the team decided to go with a touchscreen that could virtualize those keys instead of adding more buttons. “For all of Valve’s existence, we’ve been a software company, and we wanted as much as possible to have control over the input experience through software,” Coomer explains.

Then, the team decided they wanted the same kind of control over the trackball… but that proved impossible. “You can’t ship a software update to change the diameter of the ball or the mass or anything.”

From there, design evolved organically. The trackball made way for a trackpad, which could be programmed not just to emulate a mouse, but also support gesture control. One trackpad became two (and two became a giant touch surface before Valve came to its senses). Valve added tiny solenoid actuators to provide haptic feedback. The entire shape of the controller went concave so the fleshy base of a user’s thumbs wouldn’t interfere with the touchpads.

That’s a huge chunk of text, more than I’m usually comfortable quoting, but there’s a ton more at the link.

Chris Kohler’s piece at Wired is also particularly good.

And while we’re on a Steam info-orgy, there’s evidence online to suggest that they may be working on allowing Steam to function indefinitely offline, instead of just for a couple weeks. That’d be nice… if it ever actually happens.

Those other consoles. Before Valve released everyone and their brother to write everything they wanted them to about SteamBox, the issue of the day had been all about the PS4 and Xbox One’s ability to work as media servers. Sony took the first lump when they put out their FAQ, which mostly listed things the console can’t do; things they’d somehow managed to not talk about yet. This was entirely predictable. Still, the lack of DNLA support (for streaming audio/video from a networked PC) was shocking, given that the PS3 has it and its one of the console’s more redeeming features. Ben Kuchera has been killing them over it at Penny Arcade Report, culminating in this post about why having easy access to your music should matter to gamers:

Both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 used compatibility with your existing media as a selling point, and offered a variety of ways to use that content or to bring it into your gaming experience.

This is a hell of a thing to lose, and if a multiplatform release comes out that supports custom playlists on one console but not the other, that’s a serious selling point for many gamers. You can also forget about games like Audiosurf 2 that can use your own music; you’ll need to either pay for Sony’s proprietary solution or not use that feature if such games ever come to the PlayStation 4. That’s a massive bummer.

Right on cue, Microsoft comes out and says, “Hey, we love that DNLA stuff.” That sound you’re not hearing is absolutely everybody feeling irked at Sony, but not changing their PS4 pre-order.

SteamBox is looking better and better.

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Drifting with the tides. The Torment team has posted their latest project update, in which they discuss the game’s alignment system: Tides. If you’re a backer or prospective buyer, this is worth digging into. It’s not so much a morality system, bur rather a representation of how your view of the world affects your actions:

Rather than focus on moral axes, the Tides look at a person’s legacy, at what they’re remembered for. They are not something people consciously strive for; very few individuals even know they exist. They are more like an invisible force (think magnetism or gravity) driven by people’s actions.

There are five Tides, and I want to walk you through each of them and then talk a little about how they’re used in the game. As you read, remember that the Tides do not care about motives or morality. Each Tide is embodied by heroes, villains, and folks just trying to do their best. The motivations of these people rarely matter; the Tides describe the legacies they leave behind. The Tides are pushed and pulled by action, not motivation.

There’s plenty more, where they detail each of the tides and how they’ll represent in the game. Very cool stuff.

It’s a dungeon, but on your desktop. A couple years ago at the E3 iteration of IndyCade, I got a look at a little dungeon-crawling RPG roguelike by the name of Desktop Dungeons. It had a playable “alpha” that I proceeded to skip in favor of holding out for the final game. I never heard about it again. Until this week. It’s freshly overhauled and it’s out tomorrow. The promo video (below) is all goofy fun and show very little, but if my memory is any indication, it’s worth taking a flyer on.

Adventures. In spaaaaaaaaaace! If you miss the old the Sierra Quest style adventures and want a little more isometric scifi horror in your life, check out the Kickstarter for Stasis. It looks groovy and it has a proof-of-concept demo you can check out. (I haven’t yet.)

Speaking of all things Kickstarter, Joystiq is doing a neat little feature, called Crowdfund Bookie, where they’re tracking the progress of various crowdfounded games. It’s way, way cooler than the shortlived piece I used to write here. It even has charts and graphs! (RimWorld absolutely killed their goal.)

Fear the mowhawk. Soren Johnson, he of Civilization IV fame, has built himself a new home (with a little help from Stardock). Good luck, Soren! I know you’re all about the RTS with your new project, and it sounds awesome, but maybe you’ll make me another turn-based game someday? Also, I could use a decent reliever in the OOTP league. I’ll trade you a starter for one if you also throw in the best prospect you have. Call me!

Brakketology is Keeping it in the Family

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This week Brakketology is celebrating the mere possibility that Steam is making its Libraries sharable with family members (and a bit beyond). As Kyle and Ana begin to clamor for more and more PC time, my need to have my Steam library accessible to more than just myself will become crucial. I’m just not quite sold on the fine print yet. Also making the rounds this week, Bioware is getting interesting again, EA is very proud of all the new IP they’re working on, even if they’re not too sure what the words “new IP” are supposed to mean, there’s a Kickstarter project that you should be looking at, and Blizzard just keeps on being Blizzard. But first…

We’re Hunting Cards.  Last week Matt wrote about Card Hunter. I’ve been studiously ignoring this game because, well, that’s that I do with free-to-play games. But he got me interested, so I’ve been checking it out and it’ll be a big part of the discussion on next week’s podcast. Suffice it to say that, for a free-to-play game, it’s interesting and addictive. The tutorial sets the stage well. The sort of shameless spoofing they do of the old days of pen-and-paper role playing is well executed. It’s not insulting, nor is it particularly funny. It’s just goofy fun and I’m fine with that. Because of its F2P nature, however, I doubt it’s the kind of thing I stick with for very long. The formula, with the pizza and the resetting dungeon timers, etc. doesn’t feel punitive (yet) in terms of gouging you to pay, but it’s also very obviously designed to keep you playing just for the sake of continuing to play and pumping proverbial quarters into the slot. Had this been designed as a regular game, where I fork over $10-$15 and just get to play the best possible version of this design, beginning to end, I think it would’ve been much better than it actually is. This is what the free-to-play model does to interesting ideas — it doesn’t quite murder them in the crib, but it stunts their growth and potential beyond repair.

Defining Family in the World of Steam. With the announcement of the upcoming Family Sharing plan, Valve has apparently taken to heart the warning shot Microsoft fired across their bow with the initial plan for digital sharing on XBox One. On the surface it all sounds wonderful and simple. You can share your Steam account with up to 10 other “devices” who are family or “close friends.” And, you know, I’d love to be able to do this with my family. Kyle on my desktop playing a Steam game from my account. Me on Michelle’s laptop playing something else. Sounds awesome. But will it work this way? My Magic 8-ball, having devoured the very short FAQ says, “Outlook fuzzy, screw off and come back later.” It was grumpy, I think.

Here’s an example of what concerns me: Kyle is a wee lad who doesn’t have his own Steam account and he’s not getting one anytime soon (probably). So unless I can be logged in, as me, on more than one device (which, like, right now I can’t), then this doesn’t actually let me share access with my family now does it? Now, it’s Valve. They’ll figure this out because they’re very good at what they do. Maybe we’ll be able to create sub-accounts for our kids. Maybe it will just become about devices and what libraries they’re given access to such that they won’t care anymore if I’m logged in as the same user on each. This could all be perfect. I’m just not holding my breath quite yet.

On the unambiguously bright side, they’re adding the latter-gen Wizardry games (6-8) to the lineup, which would be a big deal if they weren’t already on GOG.

Dragon Age: Inquisition Getting More Interesting. If you care a lick about Bioware or Dragon Age you know Bioware has been engaging in an age-old game industry tradition — going on a massive promotion blitz as the game reaches one year out from being complete. It’s a dull, drab tradition, but every now and then it manages to take a title that I was only loosely interested in and turn it into something I’m genuinely looking forward to. Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw’s twopart interview with RPS does exactly that. In the first part he talks about the decision to not have health automatically restored after combat.

Laidlaw: I wouldn’t say survival is the key, but it’s certainly a factor as part of that. More than anything, what I want out of it is the sense that, as a player, I need to take the game seriously and consider my actions. If enemies are largely inconsequential in the course of a fight – I recover almost instantly! – then you could consider them to be bags of experience points that you want to tackle. But as soon as you introduce the idea that health is sustaining damage, you move closer to a pen and paper experience. You move closer to the more old-school, hardcore approach to role-playing.

I’ve seen much complaining about this, and I get where it’s coming from, but I hope Bioware doesn’t cave on this one. These days every game of this type has auto-heal after combat. On some level having that feature makes sense because it can be frustrating trying to horde health potions or  illogically rest for two straight days just to survive an adventure, but the auto-heal is much too far in the wrong direction. Laidlaw labels it perfectly when he says it turns monsters and encounters into experience bags. That’s all the combat in DA 2 was. Just walking five steps and collecting your experience for yet another boring level up. Just removing auto-heal doesn’t mean this’ll change, but Laidlaw’s answer is a nod in the direction they’ve recognized the problem and that’s crucial.

Then there’s your suddenly-obligatory tithe to the greatness of Torment:

From Torment specifically? Huh. Well, I think the big thing Torment brought to the table was offering a lot of different solutions and really cool solutions to the problems you faced. Not everything was fighting. Often just being persuasive or certain stats and stuff would come across like, “Whoa! I have a wisdom of 25, so let’s just shortcut the entire ending.” I really like that kind of stuff.

We’re going to look at some more non-combat solutions, but at this point… My general rule for Inquisition is that if I don’t have it locked down, I don’t really want to talk about it. I’d rather underpromise and overdeliver. It’s a direction we’re heading in, but I don’t want to go into details on it.

I’ve been whining about the lack of non-combat skills and abilities for a long time. I complained about it in Origins (which I loved), where it was barely there, and I complained about it a whole lot more in Dragon Age 2 (not so much) in which the notion of a non-combat skill was entirely absent. Again, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. Who knows what the end result will be, but Laidlaw actually sounds bored with the track DA and ME have collectively been taking. For the first time in a long while I’m hopeful that Bioware is once again interested in crafting the sorts of gaming experiences I want to play rather than getting stuck trying to be everything to everybody.

Kickstart The Fall. It’s been awhile since I looked at backing any Kickstarter projects, but The Fall is worth mentioning. It’s about a Dude in a suit. Except you’re not the Dude. The Dude is unconscious. You’re the suit’s AI and it’s your job to get the Dude to safety, at which point you go kaplooey. It looks simple, yet atmospheric and with a fair range of gameplay mechanics for a side-scroller. Not a bad first impression, though I’m lukewarm to the notion of it being episodic (of which three episodes are planned). On the other hand you can back the first episode for a mere $10 or all three for $20, so we’re not talking a huge investment and the goal ($17k) is wholly reasonable.

Blizzard Being Blizzard. Which is to say, totally dickish. Players of the console version don’t have to be online to play Diablo III. PC players do. Is that going to change? Of course not. Why? Because on the PC Blizzard really, really wants you to have that awesome social experience! Courtesy of Eurogamer game director Josh Mosqueira:

“Something Kevin says all the time is: Diablo plays best when you’re playing with other people. Because not a lot of people connect their consoles to the internet, that’s where the whole idea of having to get four people on the same couch playing together. That’s how we get that social aspect.

“But on PC, we really want players to feel they’re part of the bigger Blizzard and Diablo community.

I can only say that if I still cared about Diablo III (I don’t), I would be tempted to throw something heavy at Josh. Josh, can I tell you something? Just between you and me? ‘Cause I feel like we’re close. Are you listening? SOME OF US DON’T GIVE TWO F***s ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY OR HOW YOU THINK WE SHOULD PLAY YOUR GAME!  Also, you’re full of crap. We all know why the company cutting your checks wants the PC game online only. Hint: It rhymes with… okay, it turns out nothing actually rhymes with DRM.

Ahhhh. I feel better. I’m also tempted to go buy Torchlight 2 just for spite.

I’m Not Sure New IP Means What You Think it Means. In a September 6th interview, EA’s Games Chief, Patrick Soderlund, told The Market for Computer & Video Games (MCV) something that anyone tired of boring sequel after boring sequel something that should sound like music to their ears:

“We have six to eight completely new IPs in the works. The day we stop making new IP is when we go onto life support. We need to incubate new ideas and push creative boundaries.”

That’s fantastic news, right? A company that size should be trying some new things and I’m all aflutter just hearing the examples he gave of these new efforts, like having new Mirror’s Edge and Star Wars: Battlefront games… wait. Wut?

The thing is, I believe him when he says there are genuinely new IPs at some stage of development within EA. I mean, of course there are. But if you’re not prepared to name names that genuinely qualify as new IP, then don’t just start throwing out names like you’ve got franchise Tourette’s. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained from stuffing the ballot box. Just say, “Getting the most from our existing franchises is obviously very important to us, but so is generating new IP that can sustain us and entertain gamers long into the future. I can’t announce anything today, but at any given time we typically have upwards three to six new IP projects in the works.” Boring? You betcha. But at least you don’t come out sounding utterly ridiculous.

Inspired to Create Kerbals. If you haven’t read the story of how Kerbal Space Program came to be. Get thee hence to Joystiq and read this. I very much want this game to be done so I can play the intended experience and not just mess around in a context-free sandbox.


Things That Are Awesome. See above.

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.