In honor of Halloween I took a break from writing about chatbots and bought a copy of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. It tells the story of a man with severe memory problems (hey, that’s half the title) who, pre-memory loss, invented an automatic pig slaughtering machine (hey, that’s the other half of the title). This poor man then has to explore his own creepy, blood-stained factory while being haunted by his own memories and the piercing squeals of some horrible monster.
And let me tell you, it is a wonderful and terrifying… whatever it is. If you’re a fan of slow paced psychological horror with a touch of cosmic dread thrown in I highly recommend it. It starts out as a simple tale about a butcher looking for his memories but the scope and the horror of the story just keeps growing and becoming more epic until… well, I’m not going to spoil anything here.
But as much as I enjoyed A Machine For Pigs I’m not sure exactly what to label it. “Video game” seems like the obvious choice since it’s full of video game stuff like fully explorable 3D environments, first person camera angels and a physics engine that lets you throw things about with wild abandon. I mean, how can something with an interactive pool table not be considered a game?
On the other hand “game” suggests rules and challenges and most of A Machine For Pigs was just linear exploration of a big curving path. Explore a creepy room (so creepy!), read a few journal fragments (so cryptic!), jiggle all the locks and then leave through the only door that opens. Walk down a hallway and do it all again in the next room. Maybe once an hour you’ll be asked to spend a few seconds avoiding a monster or sliding an item into a nearby slot but for the most part you’re having an experience more than you’re playing a game. A wonderful, epic, terrifying and yet morbidly beautiful experience that uses game technology to create a story that couldn’t be told in film or writing, but still not exactly a terribly gamey experience. It would probably be more accurate to call the thing “Interactive Art”.
Now I’m not saying that A Machine For Pigs doesn’t deserve to be called a video game. Like I said earlier, it has an interactive physics engine: They can call it a game if they want. But from a marketing perspective I think they might have had more success if they had invented a new term.
See, based on what I’ve heard from the online gaming community almost everybody that “played” A Machine For Pigs really really liked the horror story and atmosphere. But a huge number of players were also really disappointed at the way it dropped almost all of the game elements found in the original Amnesia.
So the problem wasn’t that the product was bad. The problem was that it wasn’t what people expected from something labeled a “horror game” and an “Amnesia sequel”. For them A Machine For Pigs was like buying a carton of chocolate ice cream and finding out it’s actually filled with mint. Nothing wrong with mint, but it might have been better to admit that’s what it was right on the lid.
Now to be honest I’m not sure how this problem could have been avoided. Looking back at their marketing materials they actually claimed to be “exploring the outer reaches of what games can be” which is a pretty honest way to admit that A Machine For Pigs probably wasn’t going to be a traditional survival horror experience. They even specifically advertised that the product was driven by story and exploration more than anything else.
But they also used the word “game” and that is a powerful word with inescapable connotations. It easily overpowered all the disclaimers and promises of a story and drove people to expect certain types and amounts of game play. It’s the unspoken contract between gamer and developer. And while I don’t mind too much when developers break the contract to develop new types of stories I can understand why it leaves some people feelingly subtly annoyed, even betrayed.
But what can you do? Interactive art has always been sort of a niche product: Too gamey for people in the mood for a film or book while not being gamey enough for someone in a genuine gaming mood. You’ve got to find those weird people who are in an in-between mood. So no matter what the developers labeled their game/experience/interactive story they probably would have attracted some of the wrong customers and scared away some of the right customers. That’s just the sad reality of marketing for any semi-unique product that falls into the gap between the words we’re used to using.
But if you are a gamer who doesn’t always have to be gaming or a movie fan who occasionally thirst for a little more immersion… why not pick up A Machine For Pigs?