This dawning Epoch, this age of reason — Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and the fin de siècle

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.

Faim, folie et crime by Antoine Wiertz (1853).

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.

The load­ing screens are illus­tra­tions show­ing the inner work­ings of Mandus’ fac­to­ry in the style of 19th cen­tu­ry wood engrav­ings.

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.

Adrian Froschauer

About Adrian Froschauer

Adrian Froschauer is a journalist from Germany, but likes to think of himself as a fun guy despite his Teutonic upbringing. He doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up, so he just writes stuff about literature, movies, and videogames for now. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianFrosch.