“The Egg, the Atom, my Soul” – On Atavistic Modernity (case study: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs).

by Arno Görgen

(Translation by Catherine Marshall. The original German version ca n be found here.)

I play Oswald Mandus, a London industrialist whose wealth is built on the family  slaughterhouse business he now owns (second generation), and who after a trip to an Aztec temple in Mexico turns his sights on more than the slaughter of pigs with the help of a gigantic machine. “This isn’t really about a monstrous clockwork AI. This isn’t about mutant pigs. This is about what people do to people all the time.” This is how the game’s developer, Dan Pinchbeck, succinctly sums up the story of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (2013), as told in an interview. Or to reiterate using Christoph Schlingensief’s tagline for his 1990 film The Blackest Heart (Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker): They came as friends and became sausages.

Game name: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Frictional Games
Lead designer/writer: Dan Pinchbeck
Release Year: 2013
Platforms: Microsoft Windows; PlayStation 4; Xbox One; Nintendo Switch
Setting: horror; science fiction
Genre (ludic): Adventure
Gameplay: Survival

I. Product analysis

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (‘Pigs’ appears to be the title abbreviation favoured by developers and the media, author’s note) is the official sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games; hereafter: Descent), which was released in 2010. Whereas its predecessor was both developed and published by Frictional Games alone, the game development of Pigs was taken over by The Chinese Room (previously: Thechineseroom). Founded in 2007 by game designer Dan Pinchbeck and composer Jessica Curry, the first work saw the Brighton-based studio designing mods for Half Life 2, including the 2008 walking simulator Dear Esther, which was successfully released as a standalone game in 2012. In February 2012 came the announcement that the studio would be also working on Pigs in collaboration with Frictional Games (Chalk 2012). Frictional Games had been thinking about developing an Amnesia sequel some two years earlier, but had concluded that it lacked the time resources to do so, also because it was already working on Soma (2015). In 2011, the studio then decided to approach head designer Dan Pinchbeck of Thechineseroom, and in December that year, development on Pigs began (Matos 2012). Many of the team members had already experience of working with one another on earlier projects such as the Half Life 2 mod Off Limits. The international team was made up of members from the United Kingdom (Portsmouth, Brighton, London, and Winchester), Belgium as well as Sweden where the Frictional Games members were based. Communication was primarily via Skype.

Fig. 1: ‘Fattening’ Concept art from the developers’ website

Interviewing Curry and Pinchbeck, Dan Pearson of gamesindustry.biz touches on the subject of the studio possibly taking too much on by developing two games simultaneously (they were also working on Everyone’s gone to the Rapture (2015)). Pinchbeck points out that the team were not confident that Dear Esther would sell, and at the time of the decision to take on another game, the studio’s future in the games market was still uncertain. Also, given that games were often left unfinished, it made sense at the time to start developing two games, with the prospect that one at least could reach completion (Pearson 2013).

The original game concept, called We are the Pig, envisaged a two to three-hour gaming experience. However, the narrative and gameplay became more and more elaborate, and rather than the 12 months scheduled, it actually took 24 months in the end to develop. While the game underwent continual expansion, whole levels ended up being cut (Howell 2014). Pinchbeck has asserted that the focus of the development was always on telling the story and that the players would reach its conclusion. In order to ensure that as many players as possible would finish Pigs, the level of complexity and difficulty of the game was successively reduced (Matulef 2013). Other changes saw the removal of the inventory area as well as discarding a planned sanity meter, a game mechanic that measured the protagonist’s mental health and influenced player actions in Descent. At first, a system was integrated into Pigs based on the theme of infection, which was meant to work in a similar way to the Sanity Meter. However, this device was also abandoned so that the players could focus their gameplay with a view to the storyline rather than on strategy – i.e. game mechanics and maximising efficiency.

But also the game environment itself should not take the place of the player’s imagination, or as designer Peter Howell summed up in the game’s post-mortem,

“The point is not to simply show scary things, but to provide players with fragmentary information through a variety of means that force them to contemplate the horrific events of the game itself. Ultimately, what happens in the player’s mind will almost always form into something even more disturbing and terrifying than anything the game could explicitly depict.” (Howell 2014).

This also applied to voice overs, which were subsequently used only sparingly and/or integrated instead into the game in the form of documents that could be discovered in the game environment.

Another challenge for the developers was to distinguish Pigs sufficiently from Amnesia: The Dark Descent and other Frictional titles, but at the same time to also ensure it remained fully integrated into the Amnesia narrative universe. To this end, the team consciously weaved fan theories into the narrative, which had sprung up in forums following early media releases.

Despite the ‘streamlining’–the reduction of the game to its essential narrative core – the team felt on reflection that they had not fully exploited the potential for gameplay that the industrial setting had offered. This was put down to “poor project scheduling and a mishandled prototyping phase of the project,” and the overly ambitious milestones set by the publisher Frictional Games as well as chaotic management in the organisation of the individual phases of development. Howell sums it up:

“The lack of a full grey-boxing process [a troubleshooting process where testers have only limited access to the program structures], and thus no rapid prototyping of the game’s core systems meant that even 6 to 7 months into development, the mechanics of the game (such as the infection system) had not been signed off, nor were they in a state to be signed off. While the game’s narrative and environments were predominantly confirmed at this stage, the mechanical core of the game suffered severely from mistakes in the early stages of development. This noticeably followed through to the final released game, which is much weaker mechanically than it is in terms of aesthetics and narrative.” (Howell 2014)

In addition, tensions also arose because Frictional Games as the publisher were eager to allow The Chinese Room a high degree of creative freedom as developer, yet they gave feedback that was often contradictory, leading to several extensive revisions. This issue also led to the game ending up being “far too easy” (Howell 2014). These tensions are exemplified by the fact that Frictional Games sent a review copy to the Youtuber Pewdiepie at one point without the developer’s knowledge.

It is interesting to note that the development of Pigs was overseen academically and was closely linked to the University of Portsmouth through Peter Howell:

“The design and development of the game was closely linked to the Cognition and Disruption in Gameplay (CoDiG) project at the University of Portsmouth, with a number of publications and conference sessions occurring in parallel with the development of the game and after its release.” (Howell et al. n.d.)

The production of Pigs, then, had to manoeuvre between the poles of artistic freedom and experimentation on the one hand, and the structural constraints imposed by technical and organisational decisions on the other. On top of this, communication between Frictional Games as the (inexperienced) publisher of the game and The Chinese Room as a relatively inexperienced developer was fraught with diverging expectations.

Fig.2: Press articles on game release

II – Product analysis

1. The story

“To me it was quite important that there is a kind of black humour running through it. We always said there’s this very serious kind of political thing that we’re trying to say with this, but this is also sort of Victorian penny-dreadful novel. This is pulp. This is a game about a monstrous clockwork AI beneath the streets of London with monstrous pigs to do its bidding. You can’t take that 100 percent seriously.” (Dan Pinchbeck in: Matulef 2013)

“I cannot help but feel I am trapped in some great game, forced to undertake endless herculean labors for the promised reward of my darling children.” (Oswald Mandus, Pigs)

The story centres on the London industrialist Oswald Mandus (from Amandus, Latin for ‘the lover’ or ‘lovable’), widower and father of two sons.

In the heart of London, beneath his mansion and what would appear to be a normal slaughterhouse complex adjoining it, he has built a huge underground facility for the industrial processing of pork.

At the beginning of the game, Mandus awakes with no memory after several months of fever from an illness he contracted on a previous trip to Mexico, on a bed converted to a cage. Apart from him, his estate appears to be deserted. As the player explores the mansion, Mandus believes he can hear the voices of his sons Edwin and Enoch guiding him through the areas to a final destination. Soon Mandus discovers a telephone in a corridor (the first of many, each of which serves to provide information about the level and story), through which he is called by a mysterious ‘engineer’. This engineer explains that his children are trapped in the ‘Machine’ which Mandus built beneath his house. As the machine has been sabotaged, the only way to save his sons is to set it in motion again.

Mandus sets off alone, deep and deeper into the dark abyss of his facility and is repeatedly given tasks by the Engineer through telephones located throughout the complex, with the promise that these will lead him to his children. Monstrous ‘Manpigs’ repeatedly block his path, hybrids of humans and pigs that were the result of Mandus’ experiments with the so-called “Compound X” (a substance that allows the hybridisations of two different organisms and whose origins lie partly in the Brennenburg, the setting of Descent). To overcome these enemies, he must hide or evade them using stealth. In the narrative, these Manpigs function principally as willing slaves of the machine.

Fig. 3: Manpigs – screenshot of the author

When the player finally gets the Machine working again, it is revealed that Mandus has been manipulated by the Engineer into reactivating it. In fact, we learn that it was Mandus himself who, in a lucid moment, had sabotaged the machine after building it in the midst of a delirium (fever). After losing consciousness momentarily, Mandus once again finds himself on the ground floor of his mansion. Meanwhile, the machine has unleashed a horde of murderous Manpigs on to the street of London – which only became possible through its reactivation.  Mandus descends once more into the depths of his Machine, this time vowing to stop it for good. As he descends, he slowly begins to recall the events that led up to the machine being built. After returning from Mexico, he has a vision in which he sees his two sons dying in the battle of the Somme in the future of 1916. Driven mad by this prediction, he builds the Machine, a composite of a fragmented part of his soul, artificial intelligence and an exotic God-like being – the “Engineer”. This god-like machine, as Mandus had seen in the vision of the Aztec temples he had visited, would only come to life and start operating with the help of human sacrifices. In order to save his sons from their terrible fate in the battle of the Somme, he sacrifices them. To forestall the predicted collapse of society at the dawn of the 20th century, he also sacrifices child labourers, the poor as well as the rich, and/ or feeds them to the Manpigs. When he finally realises that he has gone mad, he attempts to sabotage the Machine. In the end, he manages to force the Engineer back into his own soul in a huge pyramid structure that serves as a temple, then sacrifices himself. This moment coincides with the beginning of the 20th century (nominally one year later in fact).

2. Setting (time, space)

Spatially, the players follow the game’s linear narrative in chronological order as they move from area to area.  The game’s action takes place on 31 December 1899 in and underneath the estate of industrialist Oswald Mandus in London. It is a world that gets darker and darker the deeper you descend into it. It is dominated by grey and brown earth tones, and, apart from Mandus’ Victorian mansion, it is set in a sprawling industrial complex. On its lowest floor there is an an Aztec-like stepped pyramid (with a Steampunk aesthetic). In particular, its industrial slaughterhouse complex has intentional Steampunk references.

Fig. 4: Screenshot from the manufacturer’s press kit

Pinchbeck has talked about the motivations and influence behind the game’s ambience:

“I’m a big Steampunk fan, and that was probably the biggest influence. So novels like G W Dahlquist’s Glass Books trilogy, Stephen Hunt, Mark Hodder, Lavie Tidhar alongside the usual Lovecraft fix. And Victorian London is just the most amazing, rich period to work in anyway, it supplies plenty of inspiration. Particularly, it dovetails nicely with the central preoccupation of Dark Descent, this exploration of morality and fear. We really wanted to continue to play with those themes in Machine for Pigs.” (Sinha 2013)

Diary entries left open throughout the game take the players on a narrative journey back to March 1899. Besides the audio recordings and the telephone calls and dialogue between Mandus and the Engineer, these are the only first-hand documents that help the player to reconstruct the background story. The use of extensive voice over in the game was deliberately omitted, as, according to Pinchbeck, the written word could more convincingly  convey the idea of a blurred line between reality and delusion:

“[…] the way in which the tone of voice delivers those lines goes a long way towards pinning down what is meant to be quite ambiguous and open. There was some stuff where it was really important to me that it could be interpreted in a number of ways and if you have that spoken out loud it would be delivered in a particular way… think if he were speaking that stuff out loud it would be harder to create that sense of how that total psychological meltdown.” (Matulef 2013)

3. Audio visual design

The score for Pigs was composed by Jessica Curry who co-founded The Chinese Room, with Sam Justice responsible for the sound design. Curry’s musical concept creates an eerie tension by recreating an atmosphere of historic authenticity combined with dissonant ambient effects/ industrial layers of sound to elicit different emotions.

Fig. 5: “Spraylock” Concept art from the website of the developers

“I really wanted to make the sound of the machine, and that kind of feeling – that grating sound … Uneasy, and just kind of gets under your skin. I love the Klute soundtrack [an American thriller by Alan J. Pakula from 1971], which I haven’t watched in ages and really made an impression on me. It has these weird sounds that you can’t quite place, this weird grinding.” (Ellison 2013)

Her first approach was to create music that could actually have been played in a Victorian household:

“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.” (Reese 2013)

To complement this, she integrated one of Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder into the soundtrack. The resources available for this were limited: “There’s the cello and the singer, […]and everything else I sampled, which wasn’t ideal, but again, these constraints lead you to be creative. It’s a different score than it would’ve been if I’d have had access to a full orchestra” (Reese 2013).

4. Game mechanics / Game play

Pigs can be described as a first-person adventure game that leads the player in a linear way through various semi-open areas. Enemies can be avoided by evading them through stealth or hiding from them completely. The Manpigs can be attracted by the light of the lantern or by sounds, but at no point do they pose an actual challenge. In the game, the player’s interaction with their surrounding is limited, for example, there is no inventory in which items are collected and used to solve puzzles. Also Pigs distinguishes itself from other games in that most actions do not happen through the simple push of a button. Rather, the desired action is imitated whilst holding down a button on the controller, for example, when opening doors or opening drawers.

Fig. 6: “Tesla Field” concept art from the developer’s site.

As previously mentioned, The Chinese Room placed the emphasis of the gameplay on the narrative, which is precisely why it is so important that the game is played in its entirety. As Pinchbeck points out,   

“The whole point of the second half of the game is that it takes everything you’ve learned in the first half and dissects it one piece at a time […] and said everything you know is wrong. I think that’s what makes it uncomfortable for people. Hopefully, the way it was designed, you end the game feeling really, really ambivalent. Any thread that you pull out leads to a really unpleasant place.”(Ellison 2013)

In contrast to the established conventions in gaming,  this game was supposed to allow for a greater immersion in the world of the game, especially by emphasizing slowness.

Fig. 7: “Dark hallways” Screenshot from the press kit

At the same time, it also introduced disruptive elements designed to subtly fuel uncertainty and alter perceptions of the world of the game:

“The second half of the game contains two levels (‘Tunnels’ and ‘Engine’) in which the structural rules of the game environment are notably disrupted, with whole corridors appearing and disappearing dependent on player actions. By placing these disruptive scenarios late in the game, players have time to develop a seemingly reliable understanding of stable intraludic rules of the game world (i.e. that the world itself is static). The disruption of these established ‘stable’ rules requires the player to reconstruct new intraludic knowledge about how the game’s environments work.” (Howell 2016, 6)

The seemingly randomly placed pig masks also served to motivate players to engage both with the narrative and the game environment:

“The pig mask prop is a recurring motif in the game, also present in the game’s digital box art. It is frequently found in the game’s early levels to increase the likelihood of the player noticing it and constructing initial intraludic knowledge of it. However, this intraludic knowledge is unlikely to have much meaningful context associated with it as the diegetic (i.e. in-game) purpose or meaning of the object is not explained. During the game’s development, the development team considered a number of likely interpretations for the pig mask’s meaning but there is no ‘correct’ interpretation that can be confirmed through diegetic information. It is impossible to construct definitive, accurate intraludic knowledge about the pig mask. This leads to a range of interpretations being formulated by players which provide insight into how other types of ludic knowledge are used to fill gaps in intraludic knowledge construction, as well as how disruption of passive ludic knowledge can lead to ongoing postplay cognitive engagement with game content.” (Howell 2016, 9)

The pared-down storytelling through diary entries and sporadically placed clues and artefacts, the unreliable spatial periphery of the gameworld, the ambivalent musical setting of Victorian and industrial soundscapes ultimately serve to offset the minimal interactions that the player has with the game environment. Atmosphere replaces action.

III. Reception analysis

Finding actual, up-to-date current sales figures for Pigs is difficult. The game had already sold 120,000 units after one week, and the Amnesia Collection, which apart from Pigs also included The Dark Descent and Justine, had already recouped its costs after two days. The reviews of Pigs on Metacritic are mostly positive. Aggregated, the game currently (May 2021) scores 78/100 with 27 reviews for the Playstation 4, 72/100 points with 59 reviews for the PC version while the average for the Nintendo Switch port is rated 76/100 with seven reviews while for the Xbox One the game scores 79/100 with six reviews.

Fig. 8: “Nuclear” Concept art from the website of the developers

From the outset, expectations were high for Pigs, due not only to the success of its predecessor, the indie horror game The Dark Descent, but also The Chinese Room’s reputation as an experimental studio and ‘thinking gamer’s’ favourite.

“But expectation really changed the way that people viewed and played A Machine for Pigs. Of course people were eager to embrace the brand ‘Amnesia’ that is imprinted on the Chinese Room’s game, which marketers often think is an asset, but the comparison can often be damaging for people who are interested in making original work. They wrestled with the genre constraints, the interpretation that people had of the last game, and defining their own idea of horror.” (Ellison 2013)

The Chinese Room also reflected upon these perceptions. Jessica Curry commented:

“So many people said, if you had taken one word out – Amnesia – you’d have been getting nines and 10s from reviews. And basically every review starts off: ‘it’s not as scary as the original’. It wasn’t trying to beat the scariest story ever told. It wasn’t what Frictional were interested in us doing.” (Ellison 2013)

Pinchbeck goes into more detail, obviously less than pleased with the reception:

“I think it’s really interesting who the camps are that it’s polarised […]. People that might think that Amnesia’s about Let’s Plays and jump scares absolutely hate it; people who think that it’s about the kind of art that Frictional started with Penumbra and followed through to Amnesia love it. If there’s a choice between those two camps, I’m happy to sit with the game fans as opposed to the Let’s Play fans. Because if we had wanted to make something that’s incredibly Let’s Play friendly, then we wouldn’t have made the game that we made, because we would have made fairly bland corridors, and a shit ton of jump scares.” (Ellison 2013)

Thus, by pitting two perceived social groups against each other (a conflict that most likely never existed in this form), and designating one of these groups as having the ‘right’ taste, Pinchbeck delegitimises any criticism, even if it might be justified.

In fact, the review that appeared in GamesRadar, for example, praises the feeling of horror the game implies, but says that the game ultimately disappoints because the experience of real horror it initially promised doesn’t materialise in the end. The simple gameplay, absence of resource scarcity, and enemies that pose no real challenge gave the player no sense of true horror: “What you’re left with is a slow-moving game that lasts a few hours and leaves you feeling cheated and your expectations unfulfilled.” (Saldana 2013)

Marty Sliva also reaches this conclusion – despite a very positive review – for IGN:

“Where something like Outlast plays on real, tangible fears, that of those people and otherworldly things who mean to do us harm, Amnesia seems to psychoanalyze us and prey on the fears and regrets that cause restless nights of sleep. During the course of its six-hour campaign, I was immersed in an ever-growing sense of sheer dread the likes of which few games have ever been able to accomplish. But in creating this atmosphere, it loses many of the jump-scares that make the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent such a memorable haunted house, and Machine for Pigs never really capitalizes on the feeling of vulnerability it creates. For that, I blame an across-the-board simplification of many of its systems and mechanics.” (Sliva 2013)

Writing for Escapist, Andy Chalk’s review pinpoints vagueness as a particular issue:

“It leaves far too many questions unanswered – and not big, philosophical questions about the nature of evil or redemption, either, but basic stuff, like, what’s the point of all these pigs? What’s the deal with the church? Who’s that guy? Why was any of this necessary to accomplish Mandus’ goal – and how did he end up with amnesia, anyway? There are hints of big ideas here and there and some pretty grim stuff, but much of it feels like it’s there strictly for shock value rather than as an integral part of the plot.” (Chalk 2013)

In contrast, reviews like Matt Porter’s make very similar observations, but come to very different conclusions:

“I‘m not sure whether it was because I -had- to play it for a review, but I did get the feeling that this new game isn’t quite as scary as the original. Maybe it‘s because the environments themselves aren’t as creepy as before, or maybe it was because I was so intent on seeing the next part of the story. That said, the actual monsters you come across are more horrific than those found in the first game, and I had more than my fair share of shivers while playing.” (Porter 2013)

That the expectations for the game were on the whole not met, is apparent in the reviews and in The Chinese Rooms’ reflections on them, and this is because, as mentioned at the beginning, the game was evaluated again and again in relation its predecessor, Descent.

IV. Conclusions/ Mythemes

Mytheme 1: Abject Misery and Glory of the Victorian Age

By 1899, the time in which the game is set, the British Empire was already beginning to overextend itself, even though its peak would be in 1922, when it claimed a quarter of the world’s entire surface. We encounter here a sense of approaching societal collapse. A decisive factor for this was the Industrial Revolution that began in 1870 and led to radical social change. On the one hand, it created unprecedented wealth, in particular in London, and on the other, it created a large and, above all, impoverished working class. The game incorporates all of these themes in an aesthetic that conveys industrial progress and poverty, as well as the pathos and prosperity of the time. Mandus’ mansion is the shiny façade that stands for the winners of industrialisation. Here, on the surface, the world appears to be in order. Mandus is still a morally upright member of society, his children play innocently here, and people meet here for social occasions. Below the surface, however, languishes the moral abyss.

Fig. 9: “Skybox” Concept art from the developer’s website

With its ideological grounding in expansive politics, underlying capitalist structures, and social discord, the Victorian Age seems at once familiar and alien to us today.

Similarly, scientific and technological developments of this age are notable (from today’s perspective) for their great advances, but also for their incalculable uncertainties and risks. This era of innovation is reflected today in the fantastical subgenre of Steampunk. This retro-futuristic aesthetic places modern or even futuristic technology within the context of the Victorian era and culture. Accordingly, the “Machine” in Pigs is akin to a monstrous creature born out of rampant and untamed industrialisation (and its promise of salvation), to which – rather unsubtly – London society increasingly falls victim. At the same time, this constellation – as well as its inherent vision of doom  – is never really questioned. It is a political myth that must be accepted, despite inconsistencies, in order for the story to function. After Victorianism, another important part of worldbuilding in Pigs is its historical placement in a fin de siècle culture, which directly followed it. In the affluent European middle classes around the turn of the century to the emerging 20th century, this was characterised by a spirit of optimism, a belief in progress and utopia, but at the same time a widespread perception that society was in moral decline.   This sentiment has left deep traces in the cultural relics of this period (on the relationship of Pigs and Fin de Siècle in detail: Froschauer 2017). This perception has also survived in popular cultural memory and provides an atmospheric context for the game world of Pigs that does not need to be questioned because it is familiar as a stereotype (and myth).

Mythem 2: Colonialism: Aztec Culture as the Other/as liminal Space

The game contrasts Victorian English modernity, with its stereotype of the coolheaded rational Englishman with a feverish Oswald Mandus, who picked up an illness in the depths of the Mexican jungle. In this case, delirium and fever are the direct result of a corruption of Mandus by the entity that later also represents the spirit of the Machine, the god-like being with artificial intelligence. The otherworldly nature ascribed here to the extinct Aztec culture, especially its cult of sacrifice, are here amalgamated with the destructive nature of capitalist modernity. The necessity of blood sacrifice, which in the context of Aztec cosmology was to ensure the continuation of the world, becomes the central theme of Pigs. So we read in Mandus’ diary entry of 17 February 1899:

Fig. 10: “Temple” Concept art from the developer’s website

“And I said, look, my darlings, can you see it? And they said Yes, Daddy, Yes, we can see it. A tall, weathered cap of a steep sided pyramid, so like those of Egypt. Stone falling away from the summit, vines crawling about intertwining the stucco serpents that thrive about the steps. A palpable sense of stillness, a weight of forgotten. And this, here, this is where the king sat. And this is where the priests lived. This house, this is the house of the dead. And here, where the sun strikes, this is where they threw the hearts that were not consumed.

No, my darlings, they most certainly were not savages. You see, they believed that the sky could fall on their heads and they truly, truly believed that offering blood was the only way of stopping this from happening.

Perhaps, my darling. perhaps they were mistaken altogether. Or perhaps their tragedy was they could simply not spill blood enough to prevent the sky from falling upon them.” (Diary Entry, Oswald Mandus)

This othering can be understood as a by-product of a romanticism of Aztec mysticism that goes back to the early Spanish texts of the 17th century (Alunni 2004, 128).  Early on, the boundaries between what was historically authentic and what was fiction became blurred in the collective knowledge surrounding South and Latin American indigenous high cultures. In popular culture, this myth-making is perpetuated by fictions such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and the Tomb Raider series, among others. The indigenous culture of the Aztecs remains shrouded in mystery in spite of historical research, while pop culture imbues it with supernatural characteristics. The genre of horror also adopts these characteristics and perpetuates them in this context, for example in the film From Dusk till Dawn (1996) with iconography of the sacrificial pyramids, whereby beyond the countries of origin, any ascription to a particular region or culture, for example Aztec or Mayan, is lost and lumped together, despite having very different historical contexts.

Fig. 11: “Aztect Pyramid in From Dusk till Dawn”
Fig. 12: “The sacrificial pyramids in Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs in black and white” Concept art

By appropriating Aztec mythology as a framework for the ‘Other’, Pigs takes an opposite path to, say, Mexican horror films, which on the one hand acknowledges this culture as an important part of Mexican identity, but rejects its instrumentalism in the form of indigenismo. (Gunckel 2007, 121). In such films, indigenismo is, on the contrary, associated with a crisis of national identity (Ibid., 127), in which Aztec culture can even be understood as the dark, inescapable side of national identity (Ibid. 129). In Pigs, Aztec culture paradoxically takes on this role as well in its amalgamation with the idea of inhuman modernity, although it is not part of British national identity. Victorianism and the Aztec cult of sacrifice are combined here. On a similar note, Sam Zucchi explains:

“[…] the game relies upon the eternal recurrence of this sacrifice and the assumption that correlation—the world turns as humanity bleeds—implies causation—the world turns because humanity bleeds—for its horror. The narrative of the game is then based on the decision of a businessman who decides that the benefit is no longer worth the cost and tries to liquidate the whole endeavor. The logic of industrial capitalism then becomes indistinguishable from driving sacrifices up the steps towards the stone altar.” (Zucchi 2016)

Part of the irony of Pigs’ narrative construct is that both the British Empire, which Mandus sees as a symbol of decadence and civilizational decay, and the Aztec Empire at the height of its power, despite all sacrifices, are either falling apart or have already been destroyed in this parallel depiction.

Mythem 3: Murderous industrialisation

Fig. 13: “Boiler” concept art from the website of the developer

“Pleased to meet you // Pleased to have you on my plate // Your meat is sweet to me // Your destiny // Your fate // You’re my life support, //Your life is my sport //I’m a man-eating machine // I’m a man // A man-eating machine” (Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal, 2008)

The central story of Pigs takes place on New Year’s Eve 1899 in London, the birthplace of industrialisation. It anticipates the culmination of processes that were already at work in the 19th century, but which were to reach their preliminary zenith in the 20th century. One of the processes the game brings to mind is the industrialisation and mechanisation of war, which had already begun in the American War of Secession 1861-1865, for example. The rationalisation of industrial work, as found in Taylorism (which in its essence breaks down work processes into small repetitive steps) and even more so in Fordism (the system of standardised mass production using single-purpose machinery in an assembly line that draws on the principles of Taylorism), is brought to a head in the game. Henry Ford (1863-1957) got the idea for the concept of his assembly line when he visited a Chicago slaughterhouse in 1910, where he saw pigs being shunted from one worker and production step to the next in an assembly-line process. The game Pigs also uses mechanised and highly-standardised work processes which is manifested in the industrial transformation of people into Manpigs and obedient slaves (which, according to Adrian Froschauer, is a ‘metaphor for the self-exploiting proletariat”, Froschauer 2017), as well as the plan to bring about mass blood sacrifice by means of the machine. 

Fig. 14: “Pig Line” Concept art from the developer’s website

“The product moves now into the bleeding. A system of spring-loaded blades are arranged here. Tension is built via a series of springs that run along the bleeding line, using the momentum of the product itself to build up the energy for the action ahead. The blades are released at a point of optimum tension as the product passes them. The combination of the speed of release and the sudden stop against the rubber buffers at the side of the line sets the blades spinning rapidly enough to cut the throat of the product. It is a clean, sympathetic and efficient process. The product then continues along the line, and the natural bleeding process is allowed time to occur, the blood collecting in the angled basin at the foot of the line. Secondary springblades are positioned at two further points along the line. Should the mid-level rubber buffers continue to be manipulated, in the form of a semi-bled product thrashing or twitching, these movements automatically form the basis of the spring energy required to send the next bleeding blade into activity.” (Diary entry, Oswald Mandus, 21 October 1899).

In his analysis of Pigs, Pascal Wagner delves into the fact that for an Industrialist like Mandus, mechanisation and mass production go hand in hand with the dehumanisation of workers and wider society, which ultimately prepares the ground for the Machine to function:

“ A machine that has perfected the industrial slaughter of cattle, is just a few moves away from the job of slaughtering people. But Mandus doesn’t sacrifice human beings. For “human beings” are those animated, intelligible creatures who, only later, will be raised up to heaven, through the fire of purification. Mandus sacrifices pigs. Animals with a herd instinct and lots of flesh, fat and blood that yield delicious sausages. For Mandus, this description is not limited to a particular species of common domestic pig. But it encapsulates an attitude to life that he believes also can be found especially among the poor. For this reason, he lures beggars, casual labourers, orphans and prostitutes into the bowels of his factory with promises of free sausage dinners and a place to sleep. Once there, they are drugged to make them dull and compliant and then transformed into humanoid pigs with the technological sorcery of his God-like machine. Finally, when they are fat enough, they proves together with ‘real’ pork.” (Wagner 2021)

Mandus is thus not only the driver of industrialisation and hyper-rational and technocratic modernity but also its servant, which increasingly hinders him from being able to be both humane and cost-efficient in his work. First, he is force by industrialisation to forge ahead with the mechanisation his slaughterhouse, then it is the epiphany of the coming century that drives him to build a “Machine for Pigs” with which he hopes to change society. He reduces human beings to pigs, animals seen as inferior from man’s point of view which here can only serve as food or slaves. To do this, however, they have to be made to conform to the Machine’s normative settings.

Fig. 15: Screenshot from the publisher’s press kit

Technology replaces religion here in the sense that it takes on quasi-religious traits and develops its own self-aware identity, the Engineer, albeit presumably as a fragment that has split off from Mandus’ being. This machine god is the culmination of industrialisation and human hubris, a golden calf made of iron, copper and steam: “Your faith shackles your vision Professor, it is an iron coffin that keeps you from grasping the future. We require a new deity, one of steam and the wheel, of magnetism and progress. The old God is nothing more than a lamed hog, spitting back offal at mankind.”(Phonautograph in St. Dunstan’s Church)

Mythem 4:Power and madness / the insane entrepreneur

The high priests of this new machine god are the engineers and the industrialists. Mandus also sees himself as a missionary of the new deity with recourse to Aztec iconography as follows:

“I am here again, at the foot of those stairs. Towards the red light of the nursery, sunset in the window like a bleeding sky, the horizon a slit throat, the seeping dark to drain a guilt from us. I am the jaguar-faced man, I am the feathered serpent. This priesthood is mine.” (Flashback, Oswald Mandus)

He is the one whose responsibility it is to carry out the sacrifices, and from his perspective, thus keeps the world alive. With his feverish delirium, he can be characterised as a mad entrepreneur, in keeping with the myths of the evil corporation and the mad scientist. In the character of Mandus, insanity and the (lone) mad scientist’s desire for change are crossed with the power-hungry ambitions of the secret (yet system-wide) evil corporation. This can be taken even more literally in Pigs, where the eponymous Machine has indeed taken root deep underground, in the heart of London, a global city of huge importance.

Mandus’ madness feeds on two essentially irreconcilable polarities. The first is an unbridled hatred of the state of the world, of the decadent excesses of rich and poor, young and old. At the same time though, this is countered by a philanthropic attitude, (his name derives from Amandus, Latin for the lover/the lovable). He wishes to save the world from its own future, the developments of the coming 20th century that he has seen in a vision. Like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, he too sacrifices his sons, but his god and his creation, the Machine, does intervene to stop him. In fact, it is his son’s hearts that first bring the Machine to life. Boundless creativity and an absolute will to accomplish impossible feats of engineering are also a result of this insanity. Only when Mandus comes to his senses and the player assumes his agency, does the fevered dream that became real cease, and the player must explore the consequences of Mandus’ actions. As in the trope of the Evil Corporation and Mad Scientist, in the computer game a lone actor also determines the system: The whole facility can be traced back to Mandus. Similarly, the creation of the Manpigs and the sacrificial Machine, together with the procurement of people, are a bureaucratic-industrial system that has been transposed from an amoral state of madness into the real world of the game. Any social system is thus susceptible to abuse and therefore requires a corrective.

Mythems 5: Toxic family ideals

The family is an important theme in Pigs: a father, whose wife died giving birth to the twins, sacrifices his two sons in the name of a pagan power in order to ostensibly protect them from what he sees as an even crueller fate in a foretold war. From this basic constellation, Pigs is also broadly reminiscent of Ari Aster’s 2018 horror film Hereditary, where grief also leads to an obsession in which family members are sacrificed to a supernatural, pagan force. Ari Aster himself describes his film as “a film about a possession ritual from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs” (Koresky 2018). The constellation in Pigs shifts, however, in that Oswald Mandus sees himself not as a sacrificial lamb but as the high priest who leads the victims to the altar (see above). It is also striking that here it is the father who murders his children. In the horror genre, infanticides are usually committed by the mother.

In his analysis of Hereditary, Adam Braun emphasises that the modern family of the Ford era is, firstly, the place where society is made. Secondly, the family home, including its debt-based financing by the banks, becomes the central symbol of the family. Finally, the ‘good’ family follows ‘white’ ideals (cf. Braun 2020, 43). These regulatory ideas of family come under attack from the intrusion of a primal, pagan and uncivilised power. Not only does Mandus deprive society of an opportunity for its renewal by murdering his children, he aims to cleanse society in a purgatorial fashion, to start anew. At the same time, however, the building complex in Pigs is not so much a single-family home, but an economic-technical topography whose original purpose is to increase efficiency and maximise profits. The family mansion, including its subterranean tentacles, is a gravitational centre of capitalist power, which will serve its own destruction, over the course of the game, by Mandus’ volition. The absence of women in the Mandus household, the grief surrounding the wife, the persistence in a patriarchal filter bubble that is simultaneously nourished by hypermasculine, elitist and popular cultural notions of power in both Aztec and English society, lead to a toxic and solipsistic understanding of social critique. The protection of the remaining family is so grotesquely distorted that protection can only result in destruction. In the end, one must recognise, the family serves to preserve the capitalist-cannibalistic machine.

Fig. 16: Mandus’ children serve as a source of energy for the machine. (Screenshot by the author)

Mythem 6: Beastly Human!

Not surprisingly, given its name, Pigs is strongly anchored in biological/ body horror. Filipino biologist Ronald Allan Lopez Cruz describes these horror genres as ‘characterized by the manipulation and warping of the normal state of bodily form and function’ (Lopez Cruz 2021, 161, also Aldana Reyes 2020). This genre generates its horror primarily from the visual disruptions of functional and aesthetic attributions to biological organisms, especially humans and other mammals. Thus, the abject of horror not only arises here from a juxtaposition between what we expect the human state should be and an actual dehumanised state of humanity, but also arises from collective knowledge, that proposes a relative closeness between humans and pig, but at the same time, deliberately suppresses any potential implications regarding that, for example that pigs are intelligent and have emotions. See Dan Pinchbeck on this:

“’Pigs are really, really, really human’ Pinchbeck says. ‘In terms of they’re really smart, they’re really affectionate, they’re really social. Their eyes really look like human eyes. We really wanted to tell a story about dehumanisation and the way that mass slaughter was re-appropriated for a bunch of different causes throughout history, all of which thought they were saving the world. An avatar seemed like a really brilliant metaphor for that. You can’t really do it with cows or sheep because it just doesn’t really work in terms of an analogy for humans, but pigs just felt right – and sounded right as well! Sometimes it just comes down to a word and you just kind of go [‘that’s right.]’.” (Matulef 2013)

Fig. 17: “Pig Line 2” Concept Art from the website of the developer

In addition, it is marginalized groups of people, disabled people, who are the initial material for Mandus’ plan. As he writes in his diary:

“Took delivery of another batch of imbeciles today. They are the sorriest specimens of humanity I have ever seen. No-one asks where they go to. The authorities of Bedlam are simply happy to reduce the over-crowding in their teeming, stinking halls. We measure their skulls, check their teeth. We give them Laudanum to pacify them.

They wait in line, livestock, dull brown eyes and filthy skin. Many soil themselves as they wait.” (Diary entry of Oswald Mandus)

Fig. 18: “Control room” Concept art of the website of the developers

Even before Mandus enters the picture, then, the dehumanisation of humans has begun; he is merely the final executor of this process. At the same time, Mandus is not in the least a Dr. Moreau character (Wells 2017 (1896)): He is not concerned, for instance, with creating a better human being or with fathoming the biological nature of what is human; with him, sinful human beings are already pigs, he merely helps them to their form. Nevertheless, as in Moreau’s work, the creatures cannot be solely pigs after their transformation; humanity is in their nature. The pain of this violation of the body can no longer be communicated by the victim, but is noticeable even to Mandus:

“Into the manipulator they file in silence. I hear the hissing of gas. I hear the dull groaning as teeth are removed, as bones reset. I hear the pigs screaming. We have removed all the mirrors. After the process, it is their reflections that trouble them the most. Afterwards, when they sleep, I walk amongst them. My children, I whisper to their dreams, you are my children now.” (Diary entry, 20 August 1899, Oswald Mandus)

Man remains man, even when transformed into a pig, and Mandus therefore fails. In the words of media scholar Marcus Stiglegger, we can conclude: “The monstrous as abject thus ultimately remains a part of the human, even arises from it as its progeny, which on the one hand threatens its identity, but at the same time makes this identity possible, confirming it through demarcation”. (Stiglegger 2008, 31) No matter how much Mandus despises humankind, his very act of rebellion against it emphasizes the human – the good and the negative sides.   


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  • Chalk, Andy (2013): Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs Review – Squeals and Fury. Hg. v. The Escapist. Online verfügbar unter https://www.escapistmagazine.com/v2/amnesia-a-machine-for-pigs-review-squeals-and-fury/, zuletzt aktualisiert am 09.09.2013.
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  • Froschauer, Adrian (2017): »This is your coming century!«. Computerspiele als Gegenstand einer kulturgeschichtlichen Literaturwissenschaft am Beispiel von ›Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs‹ im Kontext von ›fin de siècle‹ und ›décadence‹. In: Textpraxis (13), S. 1–12. DOI: 10.17879/61269523556.
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  • Howell, Peter (2014): Postmortem: The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Hg. v. Gamasutra. Online verfügbar unter https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/218372/postmortem_the_chinese_rooms_.php, zuletzt aktualisiert am 23.05.2014.
  • Howell, Peter (2016): A Theoretical Framework of Ludic Knowledge: Malta. In: The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Malta 2016, S. 1–16.
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  • Wagner, Pascal (2021):  ‚Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – (Ver)fütterung der Armen“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1354> 10.05.2021
  • Wells, H. G.; Alder, Emily (2017): The Island of Doctor Moreau. A possibilty : and other stories. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited (Wordsworth classics).
  • Zucchi, Sam (2016): THE AZTEC PESSIMISM OF A MACHINE FOR PIGS. Hg. v. Killscreen. Online verfügbar unter https://killscreen.com/previously/articles/the-aztec-pessimism-of-a-machine-for-pigs/, zuletzt aktualisiert am 16.05.2016.


  • Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (The Chinese Room 2012).
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games 2010).
  • Dear Esther (The Chinese Room 2012 [Mod: 2008]).
  • Everybody’s gone to the Rapture (The Chinese Room 2015).
  • Soma (Frictional Games 2015)


  • Das deutsche Kettensägenmassaker (Christoph Schlingensief 1990).
  • From Dusk till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez 1996).
  • Hereditary (Ari Aster 2018).
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg 1984).

Recommended Quotation : Arno Görgen,  The Egg, the Atom, my Soul.” –On Attavistic Modernity. (Case Study: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs)“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1594> 19.10.2021

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Eugen Pfister (2021, 19. Oktober). “The Egg, the Atom, my Soul” – On Atavistic Modernity (case study: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs). Horror - Game - Politics. Abgerufen am 12. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/piq4

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