The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
I was beyond excited to play Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. I didn’t have a PC to play Amnesia: The Dark Descent when it first came out, but even so, I bought a physical copy of it anyway just in case I could ever play it. I love me some horror, and will support it even when I can’t actually use it. I never managed to find the time to play the original game after I got a gaming rig, as my duties reviewing for the site and all the other writing I do don’t lend themselves to having much time to play. So, I went into Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs with a spring in my hesitant, fearful step. After all, the sequel to a game touted as one of the most frightening ever made had to be terrifying, right?
What went wrong?
I’ve often said that having a helpless protagonist works wonders for making a game more frightening. It’s nice to have a little action in a horror game every once in a while, but being able to fight back against the monsters that hunt you takes a little bit of the fear away. If you can kill something, it’s naturally going to be less frightening than something you can’t do anything about, like I said in my article on Dead Space 3. It’s not as easy as just having monsters you can’t fight, as otherwise, this game should have been pretty scary. I definitely shouldn’t have been bored while listening to the grunting and sniffing coming from the halls around me.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (AMFP) suffers from the same issue that Clock Tower: The First Fear suffers from: too few encounters. I really liked the character model of Scissorman — finding something disquieting about being chased by a disfigured man with a giant set of shears. The pigmen in this game have that same unsettling effect to them as well, looking misshapen in the shadows that cover their features. I never really got that clear of a look at them, something that kept me guessing about them. There’s just something about only seeing a creature in silhouette, of only getting hints to what they actually look like, that makes things even more frightening. None of that mattered due to the low encounter rate, though. You could have the most terrifying creature ever designed, could only hint at it through the game’s dark hallways, but if I am never in any danger from it, what’s to be afraid of?
For that we have to look back at Decay, a fun little indie title I played last year. That game maintained a creepy atmosphere the entire time I played it, but not once did I run into anything that could kill me. Not a single time. I still felt an incredible sense of dread as I played through the game, one that never let up long after I figured out that the game probably wasn’t going to attack me. I reached a similar point in Amnesia: AMFP when I noticed that there just weren’t that many enemies kicking around. The game got me pretty good with my first scare when I stumbled across one, but afterwards, it seemed like the game wasn’t all that concerned with putting more enemies in my path. Eventually, I just figured that the game wasn’t going to attack me all that often, and my fears subsided considerably. They didn’t fade away in Decay when I came to a similar conclusion, though, which is pretty strange.
In Decay, I felt that I knew that there were never going to be any attacks. I didn’t actually know for sure, and with the improving technology that went behind the further chapters in the game, they could have very well stuck in a monster encounter later in the game. I was pretty sure that nothing was going to jump out and attack me, but I wasn’t completely sure. Then again, how could I be perfectly sure that there wasn’t going to be an increase in encounters in Amnesia: AMFP? I didn’t have any more information than I’d had in Decay, but I still came to an assessment that made it impossible to be frightened for most of the game.
The other kicker there was that I’d endured an encounter with the enemies in Amnesia: AMFP. I’d run into one of the pigmen (practically tripped over him), but I had lived. It wasn’t even that hard to ditch him before he returned to his patrol, as I’d only had to turn a few corners and hide in the dark before he gave up his search. It was kind of pathetic. I never got such a moment in Decay, never saw anything in it. I didn’t know what an encounter would be like if the game decided to finally throw one in at the last minute. I was still hanging onto that initial fear that comes when you start up a horror game – that paralyzing fear you feel when you have no idea what the game intends to do to you. Without having that initial scare, I still didn’t know what to expect from the game, so I never got over the power of fearing the unknown. I’d met Amnesia: AMFP‘s creatures head-on and already found them disappointing.
They could have been much more interesting if they’d been more energetic in their searches for me, though. I have played a couple of solid horror games that will let you go fifteen or twenty minutes without anything chasing you. Even Clock Tower: The First Fear still managed to maintain enough unease in me that I never felt my fear was completely defused, and that game pushed it pretty close with how infrequent the encounters were. Having the encounters being that far apart can be managed if the encounters themselves are something completely terrifying – events that you never want to see repeated ever again.
My favorite infrequent encounter/helpless game is Clock Tower 3. The enemies in it can start looking ridiculous within a short amount of time (The Scissor Twins are downright embarrassing), but they never much lost the power to scare me. Most of them definitely look far worse than the pigmen did, and were shown in full clarity under bright light. The vague details of the pigmen, along with their messed-up bodies, should have made me more afraid of running into them than a couple of pre-teens wearing absurd makeup and dressing like theatre dandies. So why, why, why did they scare me so much more than anything Amnesia: AMFP ever did?
There were several reasons for that, the first of which was that each encounter with them was terribly dangerous. In Clock Tower 3, you die in one hit (During chase sequences. The Boss fights are stupid and work under different rules). This only happens if your panic meter fills up, which happens when scary things occur or if you’re in a single hiding spot for too long. This puts a lot of pressure on the player, as even a hint of sound from one of the monsters means you’d better start running; hopefully finding a decent hidings spot in time. You’d also better hope that the monster doesn’t hover around your hiding spot for too long, because if that panic meters fills up while you’re hidden under a chair or in a closet you’ll dart out and start running — typically right in front of the creature that’s chasing you.
Amnesia: AMFP lets you take five or six hits from the monsters. It’s typically just enough so that you can survive an encounter with the pigmen if you stumble across them or if you just want to charge on through them. Still, charging past a known enemy in a horror game is not something I should think is a good idea. It was when I saw a pigman guarding an entrance I needed to get through that I first noticed this phenomenon, as I was perfectly willing to trade a few hits in order to just sneak on by. I didn’t sit there, frozen, as I waited for an opportunity to present itself. I didn’t think that getting caught would be suicide; didn’t dread the idea of that thing turning around as I ran by. I considered the monster to be an inconvenience, and the game lost a lot of its power to scare me in that moment.
Second is the sheer determination that the creatures dogged me with. If something sees you in Clock Tower 3, you are going to be in for a long run. There are hiding spots available, but if the creature can conceivably see you enter it, he’ll go right to your location and flush you out, increasing your panic meter to dangerous levels (if not killing you outright) and send you running again. Did I mention that the possibility of you tripping and falling increases as your panic meter rises? Until you find a good hiding spot, preferably when you are low on panic, and get into it well ahead of the creature, you are not going to ditch him. Even if you do lose the creature easily, it’s probably only because it’s scripted to show up somewhere else very soon, likely a place where you will have a very hard time getting through.
Amnesia: AMFP‘s enemies don’t seem all that broken up about you getting away. If you manage to run around a corner or two, they just give up and go back to their patrol routes. As far as I could tell, all you had to do was move somewhere beyond the area they watched and they would give up — something that made them feel more like creatures in a video game than something I should have felt any fear about. These weren’t snarling beasts that wanted to see me dead, but just programs in a game that wore creepy skins to scare me with. I expected creatures that would chase me all over the place, forcing me to slam doors in their paths and do anything I could to hide. Instead, they just kind of got in the way and annoyed me whenever they saw me.
Finally, we have the frequency of attack; the thing that bugged me most about Amnesia: AMFP. You get attacked ALL THE TIME in Clock Tower 3. If the creatures aren’t currently chasing you, then they’ll be back in five minutes, tops. In that time, you’ll be scrambling to get your objectives accomplished, all the while dreading the moment when you hear the creature scream your name from down a hallway. It will be coming soon, too, right around the time you finally finish calming down from your last harrowing escape from the creature. The monsters never really give up, always following right after you and keeping pressure on you, and the entire time you know that one or two screw-ups means death.
The pigmen aren’t that prevalent in Amnesia: AMFP. Considering that part of the plot revolves around the creation of these things, there just doesn’t seem to be that many of them around. The game tries to trick you into thinking there are many of them wandering the halls with its audio, something that kept the tension going a little longer than it should have. Even so, when I went through an area filled with the noises of pigmen and didn’t run into a single one. I learned that the game was trying hard to convince me that I should think it was scary without actually being scary. I soon learned that there just weren’t that many of the monsters in the game, and the game turned into a long slog filled with levers and buttons that needed to be hit. This wasn’t some creepy horror experience, but rather an exploration game with a few ugly monsters thrown in to make you feel inconvenienced at times.
Amnesia: AMFP appears to hit a lot of good points for its horror when you look at the bullet points. It features vague monsters, lets the encounter rate be low to encourage atmosphere and terror to build up, and has a helpless protagonist. Just hitting those points isn’t enough to make a game scary, though, as there are lots of factors involved in other, better horror games that make this one seem woefully under-equipped. It’s a shame because it worked so hard to build up its atmosphere and sickening story, and managed to create a world that was completely worth being afraid of. The story alone should have set me on edge in every moment, and was the perfect setting for a really great horror game, but it made too many mistakes to be truly scary. It’s a sad sequel to a series that could have incredible horror pedigree, and I hope they learn from what they did wrong in this one.
If not, it looks like Outlast already fixed all the mistakes that Amnesia: AMFP made. Maybe we’ll talk on that later when I manage to get through it without having a panic attack.
Images courtesy of clocktower.wikia.com