Mandus Processing Company, London, 31 December 1899: Industrialist, philanthropist, and widower Oswald Mandus stands face to face with the ghost in the machine that he constructed but cannot control. Deep down in the bowels of Mandus’ meat processing company, this mechanical deity shares a vision of the 20th century with him:
I have stood knee deep in mud and bone, and filled my lungs with mustard gas. I have seen two brothers fall. I have lain with holy wars and copulated with the autumnal fallout. I have dug trenches for the refugees; I have murdered dissidents where the ground never thaws, and starved the masses into faith. A child’s shadow burnt into the brickwork. A house of skulls in the jungle. The innocent, the innocent, Mandus, trod and bled and gassed and starved and beaten and murdered and enslaved. This is your coming century! They will eat them, Mandus. They will make pigs of you all, and they will bury their snouts into your ribs, and they will eat your hearts!
Beginning with World War I – the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century – the machine sees nothing but genocide, terror, global conflicts, weapons of mass destruction, violence, and suffering. That’s why it wants “to save the world by blood now, before millions fall beneath history, pushed under by blade, bullet and gas.”
This idea may seem insane to a modern audience, but it fits perfectly into the cynical and pessimistic mindset of the 1880s and 1890s. The end of the century – fin de siècle – was also considered the end of an era, the end of civilization, even. At least the intellectual middle classes saw corruption, degeneration, and decadence everywhere. This hints at a deeper meaning behind the setting of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. A factory in 19th century London is not just a nice, Gothic-ish backdrop for a horror game. It reflects the game’s central themes and motives. A Machine for Pigs references literature and art from the mid to late 19th century, but it’s also heavily influenced by cultural, social, and philosophical ideas from the time of the fin de siècle.
The fin de siècle society is closely associated with the concept of décadence: The attitude towards life was affected by a seeming process of societal and individual degradation. Mental and physical lability, neuroses, sickness, weariness, ennui, thoughts of self-destruction, even the longing for death were prominent themes and motives in art and literature.
A Machine for Pigs’ protagonist Oswald Mandus is the archetypal man of the fin de siècle. He suffers physically from an exotic fever he caught on a trip to Mexico, financially from his company’s failure, and emotionally from his wife’s death and his inability to make the world a better place, even though he builds orphanages and gives work to beggars. At the same time, he develops a deep hatred for humankind, because it is, in his eyes, too sickly and weak to save itself.
Mandus’ soul is cracked, torn apart between opposing needs, motives, and opinions. The titular machine’s consciousness is actually just part of his own consciousness, the bitter, pessimistic, nihilistic part. Some notes and diary entries hint towards a supernatural cause: An ancient orb Mandus found in Mexico seems to have split his soul by granting him a vision of the future where his two sons get gassed in World War I. He kills his own children in a crazed attempt to spare them the horrible experiences of the 20th century, just like the machine wants “to save humanity, ridding them of their painful, stupid, pointless lives.” Other diary entries hint towards a psychological cause for Mandus’ split personality: a trauma caused by his wife’s death in childbirth, leading to him hating and loving his children at the same time: “I looked at them, covered in the blood of their dead mother, little piglets […] and my heart at once was filled with a great love and a consuming hate I could never have imagined. At that point, did my soul split, creating him?” The ambivalent relationship to his children mirrors his relationship to humanity as a whole.
A Machine for Pigs references cultural and literary traditions from the mid to late 19th century, especially, of course, the Gothic novel. Inner turmoil and conflicts, split souls, uncanny doppelgangers: these are important themes and motives in the literature of that era. The most prominent example has to be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A Machine for Pigs, too, deals with these issues: Mandus is looking for his sons (identical twins!) and keeps talking about feeling split in two. The manpigs living inside the machine act as humanity’s doppelganger, just like the machine itself is Mandus’. Sigmund Freud, in his treatise on Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny), writes that the theme of the doppelganger has connections “with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and the fear of death”. The double, an image of safety and immortality for children and ancient cultures, has become “the ghastly harbinger of death” in modern times.
By following conventions of the Gothic novel, A Machine for Pigs constructs an environment where players expect to be creeped out, even when nothing creepy happens on screen. The game has everything a fin de siècle horror story needs: a dark and empty mansion, a church desecrated by unholy rituals, an abandoned factory with disorienting architecture, huge pipes, generators and conveyor belts of unknown purpose. Movement in the corner of your eye could be part of the machinery, but it could also mean that there’s a monster right behind you. The superb sound design also uses traditional horror tropes to great effect: Creaking floors, humming machines, and distant footsteps create a feeling you’re not alone. In other game genres, the sound of an approaching or lurking monster may be used to prepare players for coming danger, but in a good horror game (like, let’s say, the Amnesia games), these sounds are used to contrary effect: In his Study of Sound in Horror Computer Games Guillaume Roux-Girard writes that they “create terror by anticipation based on a fear of the unseen.” Living in a time of uncertainty and tentativeness, fear of the unseen and the unknown, the unseeable and the unknowable, is the most important form of fear for late 19th and early 20th century horror writers like H. P. Lovecraft or Robert W. Chambers.
But the game also references fin de siècle art and music. The walls in Mandus’ mansion are adorned with a lot of large paintings from that time. Of particular significance are the macabre paintings by Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz. One of them appears again and again, even in places where you wouldn’t expect to find a piece of art just lying about. It’s called Faim, folie et crime (Hunger, madness and crime) and shows a starving, delirious woman. Only a second glance reveals that she apparently cut up the body of a child (her own?) and put it into a pot, giving the picture a deeply disturbing quality. Mandus, too, killed his children out of desperation and madness, and just like the viewer of Faim, folie et crime, the player doesn’t notice this monstrous act at first, even though it’s right in front of him or her.
The score is composed by Jessica Curry, like the music in all the games by The Chinese Room. “I really started off with the idea that everybody had a piano in Victorian England and in the Victorian era in general,” she says in an interview with Classical MPR. “It was a common thing in most households, especially in wealthy households, and that women would be able to play the piano. So Lily’s theme is something that a good amateur-taught musician would be able to play. I really wanted it to feel like it came from her hands and was this kind of ghost echo.” The song Dieses Herz (This heart) is in the style of the German Kunstlied, which was popular around 1900. The soothing lullaby is juxtaposed against an ominous environment, and itself becomes unsettling. Furthermore, it’s in German, which sounds terrifying to anyone outside of Germany anyway.
In the realm of technology, the pessimism and cynicism that wore down the fin de siècle society was virtually nonexistent. The belief in technological progress and industrialization that began in the early 19th century was maintained, at least among the upper classes. Motors and electricity were believed to bring mankind a new era of light and speed. Steam engines were adorned with Gothic-style columns, train stations looked like modern cathedrals, electricity was depicted as a goddess of light and liberty in allegorical works of art.
Oswald Mandus, too, thinks his machine contributes to a better world. In the beginning, it’s supposed to produce food and jobs. But after Mandus’ vision of the future and the murder of his sons, he comes up with the plan to use his machine to reach mankind’s salvation through its extinction.
Mandus doesn’t just glorify technology, like his contemporaries, he worships it: “We need a new deity, one of steam and the wheel, of magnetism and progress,” he says. A colleague of his suggests that, one day, a machine “might think like a man”. Mandus is disgusted with that thought: “No, this is not the machine we seek. Such an entity should be nothing less than a deity, and we would fall upon our knees and worship it. We shall not carve gods to bicker and fornicate, they will exist to clean the world and set us free.”
Mandus’ new god, born from technological progress, needs new servants, also born from progress. That’s why he creates the pigmen. They are “loyal, clever, strong, and easily sated” (unlike humans, in his opinion). Of course, pigs working in a meat processing factory are a less-than-subtle metaphor for a working class that is exploited by the capitalist, industrialized economy that it’s keeping alive. To further drive this point home, the game ends on a quote by Leon Trotsky:
The party that leans upon the workers but serves the bourgeoisie, in the period of the greatest sharpening of the class struggle, cannot but sense the smells wafted from the waiting grave.
The pigmen are supposed to replace mankind, just like the proletariat gained importance and was supposed to replace the decadent, out-of-touch bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 20th century.
There are other important philosophers of the fin de siècle apart from Trotsky who aren’t quoted directly, but whose ideas are referenced in A Machine for Pigs nonetheless.
Arthur Schopenhauer, in a nutshell, says that the world we live in is the result of an irrational Wille zum Leben (Will to Live). These basic desires are insatiable, and thus futile. That’s why the world is full of pain and suffering, and death is preferable to life, which only perpetuates these desires. The will to live is a malignant metaphysical existence that prevents mankind from true happiness and can only be terminated via asceticism and chastity. Mandus, too, thinks humanity’s desires and ambitions, as well as his own philanthropic work, are futile. He wants to put an end to mankind’s suffering and its will to live. Although his methods are far from anything Schopenhauer would ever have suggested!
Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, on the other hand, is extremely life-affirming. He detests the weariness and lethargy of the fin de siècle society. Nietzsche’s messianic sage Zarathustra says: “Willing emancipateth: that is the true doctrine of will and emancipation—so teacheth you Zarathustra. No longer willing, and no longer valuing, and no longer creating! Ah, that that great debility may ever be far from me!” Mankind mustn’t accept its lack of power and freedom; it’s supposed to struggle and strive and aspire. Mandus has this Wille zur Macht (Will to Power): He rejects his feelings of ennui, and instead takes not only his own, but humanity’s fate into his own hands. His diary says: “We will build a new world from the ruins of the old. We will plant flowers in the rotten ribcage and let them grow to hold the sky from falling.” He wants to bring about civilization’s death and rebirth. He even references Nietzsche directly and calls himself the “Ubermensch”.
Mandus is torn between opposing ideologies, between personalities, and between eras.
Oswald Mandus, with his inner conflicts, is an extreme example of the fin de siècle man. Society experienced the depletion of traditional values and order, leading to uncertainty, alienation and disorientation. A Machine for Pigs allows players to experience a little bit of that unsettling state of mind.
Oscar Strik argues in an article on this site that (good) survival horror games take away players’ control over situations to make them feel powerless and helpless. A Machine for Pigs, like its predecessors, doesn’t give players any weapons to fight the dangers lurking in the dark. A monster is much more threatening if your only chance of survival is hiding or running away. “Tools are just one thing that give you power over threats,” Strik points out. “Equally important, if not more so, is clarity of perception and awareness of your surroundings.” In A Machine for Pigs, players can use a lantern which illuminates part of the scene at the expense of decreased visibility anywhere else.
A Machine for Pigs refrains from the sanity effects Amnesia: The Dark Descent (and many other horror games in the same vein) used to convey the protagonist’s mental decline through blurry vision, hallucinations or loss of agency. The post mortem on Gamasutra reveals that breaking with this tradition was a conscious decision to make the game scarier and to take away the little bit of power players gain through measuring and evaluating their avatar’s sanity:
As for the game’s mechanical core, the removal of the sanity meter was a primary aim from the outset. TCR [The Chinese Room] recognized the likely controversy of this, but felt that the system was fundamentally flawed as a means of telling the player they should now be scared, and approximately ‘how much‘ they should be scared. The aim was to create a game that was inherently horrifying, and thus did not require a meter or gauge to tell the player to be scared.
In both Amnesia games, the protagonist suffers from (surprise!) amnesia. Mandus doesn’t remember the past few months at the beginning of A Machine for Pigs. But the repressed memories of the horrible acts Mandus wanted to forget slowly resurface. Fear of the return of something repressed is a basic human fear, Freud says. “This uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old—established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.” In the beginning, Mandus’ amnesia allows for greater identification with the character, because he has to piece together the back story by reading through letters, diaries and notes, just like the player does. But the reveal of his horrible past leads to a slow estrangement from Mandus, who, after all, is the players’ avatar, their “body” in the game world. This character, through whom they experience and navigate the game space, has committed unspeakable atrocities. This leads to a sense of alienation and disorientation. As if that wasn’t enough, the spaces players have to navigate become increasingly labyrinthine and confusing; doors, paintings and pig masks disappear and reappear in various locations. “By using such cues, such a game shows that not only are your expectations about a space untrustworthy,” Strik writes ‚“but your immediate experience is as well.”
In its last chapter, the game directly confronts players with their disorientation in a truly brilliant moment of self-referentiality: Up to that moment, Mandus writes down his objectives and a few helpful tips in his notebook. But now, in an entry entitled “Mandus is Alone”, the notebook just says: “I search for instruction, for advice, for help in my goals, but in return the system mocks me. Simpleton, it says, you must find your own answers now.” The system, the game, refuses to reveal any clear meaning, doesn’t answer the questions it raises.
The story of Oswald Mandus is itself a complex machine. Piecing together the protagonist’s back story is an arduous task; some parts just don’t seem to fit in a satisfying chronological order. In the end, it’s entirely impossible to determine which of the game’s events are real, which are distorted by Mandus’ delusions and flashbacks, and which are purely symbolic. Interpreting and arranging the events would grant players a little bit of control, but A Machine for Pigs stays frustratingly cryptic, giving the game a nightmare-like quality. In his essay on the game, Rainer Sigl writes:
Its dread, like any true terror, is the dread of not understanding, the horror of irrationality […] It’s one of the core points of the game, which did not accidentally choose the 20th century as its setting [and subject!]. The cold, mechanical background of carefully designed industrial architecture has become home to irrational murder and we, its creator, traverse it looking for answers. […] All we ever find are fragments, evidence of our guilt and madness. The solution is missing. This nightmare won’t go away.
Lack of understanding is one of the driving forces behind A Machine for Pigs’ horror. The same lack of understanding people experienced at the fin de siècle.