In-depth spoilers for Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs
The Story of The Dark Descent
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a surival horror adventure game developed by Frictional Games for the HPL Engine. As you weave your way through the mysterious, crumbling walls of Brennenburg Castle, you are slowly made aware of your player character's dark past. Your practices, consisting of torture and strange alchemy, kidnapping villagers, and murdering innocents, loop backwards into a story of unknowable forces hunting you down and shadows crawling up the walls, after you come into possession of a strange stone orb in an ancient temple.
Picking apart the meaning
That stone orb represents the first major thread of Amnesia's meaning: accidental or perhaps well intentioned mistakes, or sins, coming back to haunt you. Stealing the orb is viewed as an offense against the universe itself, the 'shadow' following you described as nothing more than 'the universe attempting to correct itself.' Notes found in the game universally dictate that the orb is more a natural symbol of the universe, a star in the night sky which was pushed out of alignment by your meddling.
Similarly, your attempts to flee the shadow are themselves well intentioned sins. You begin down your path of dark science after teaming up with Alexander of Brennenburg, a character who's motivations are seperate from yours but the core of his actions are precisely the same. Both of you are men committing terrible acts for understandable reasons.
The second major thread of Amnesia's meaning is contained within the name: Memory. During your spiraling descent your character is made to ignore the morality of his choices and forget not only his own standards as a human, but with enough time it's implied that Daniel forgets his initial motivation for his journey in the first place. Motivated at first by fear and self preservation, your intentions slip into pride and a need to justify your own actions, but the story comes to a climax when you capture and kill a perfectly innocent girl within the castle, and realize your terrible mistakes.
This leads us to the third major thread of Amnesia's meaning: Humanity. These three threads tie together to create a symbolic story, wherein your player character makes well intentioned mistakes to preserve his humanity, only to forget his purpose and himself, losing his humanity. Drinking the so-called amnesia potion afterward is seen as an attempt to wipe the slate clean and restore your humanity. But at that point, whether Daniel is redeemed is left for the player to decide. Either way, neither the shadow nor Alexander of Brennenburg, both in universe personifications of your past sins (tampering with the natural order, and torturing innocents), have stopped hunting you down in the interum, and the player is made to survive against and grapple with mistakes they can't remember making, until its too late.
It's necessary, as I have and will continue to do in a moment, to consider the role of the player along side the presentation of the games environment and story, when extrapolating the meaning from an interactive work such as this. Taking in the work, holistically, allows for a deeper reading about sins and humanity, and the dual role memory plays in both, because the player experiencing the game is predisposed toward siding with their player character as good and just, and is also left out of the loop for much of the game as to the nature of your involvement in the plot.
What this becomes then, experientially, is a vague, confusing nightmare, wherein the player is made slowly aware that every strange curse they are being afflicted with was, in the past past, a terrible force you yourself were either implicated in or affilated with. This forces the player to question the nature of their protagonist but is also allowed, via the justification of the amnesia potion, to keep that questioning at a surface level. It necessarily becomes a story in which people can, if not redeem themselves, at the very least hold onto their humanity. Daniels humanity here is represented by the players own humanity, which is implanted in the amnesia-stricken Daniel by the act of interaction, and like I said, justified in universe by the amnesia-potion.
So here we have a tidy little thesis on the first game. A story about memory, as well as of humanity being lost via your past sins and regained via the player's engagement with the game. I really didn't read that deeply into the work, and my reading is fairly surface level, so what have we gained?
Seemingly, more than most people.
Video games are uniquely positioned in todays analytical culture, because their meaning and effects are typically relegated to their effectiveness as "products." Questions like:
"How well does it run on standard modern gaming computers?"
"How do the mechanics synergize? Does it feel right to actually play?"
And most 'importantly' "Is it or is it not fun/scary/badass etc?"
are placed over questions of "What is the emotional experience of interacting with the game?" and "What could it trying to say? How does it say that?" While its true that whether a game is approachable or runs well is important to the experience, that latter question is often habitually lumped in as a simple question of the work's...merit, as a product: "Is it, or is it not 'scary?'"
While you might think this is of little value to this conversation (few would deny The Dark Descent is "scary") I'd argue just the opposite. In fact, the "expected" emotional response from the game has overshadowed the game itself, to the point where asking somebody what they thought the "meaning" of Amnesia is, would likely never result in the barest bones, surface level reading of "Its a story about losing your humanity." More likely, I think you'll find they simply don't care. To most, the meaning of Amnesia has little value, because theres a much darker, more glaring factor mucking up the equation: Amnesia's purpose.
Let's now look at a game which has been similarly overlooked and overshadowed by that looming, terrible "purpose." A game which has been largely passed over and forgotten, ignored for the equally damning sin of not living up to its purpose -- not being scary, to most at least. What meaning can be found in the runt of the two? The underwhelming "failure," such as it is, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs.
The Story of A Machine For Pigs
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is a surival horror adventure game developed by The Chinese Room under the supervision of Frictional Games for the HPL Engine. Taking place near the turn of the century, it tells the story of Oswald Mandus. As you venture into the belly of a sprawling factory to rescue your two children, you slowly uncover your backstory. Once being a butcher looking to industralize his line of work who, after agreeing to take part in an expedition to Mexico to raise funds, discovers the Orb discussed in The Dark Descent, and is promptly plagued by prophetic images of the 1900s: death, genocide, and even your own two sons dying on the battlefield. You get to work constructing a great machine to destroy humanity before it is allowed to commit such atrocities.
Picking apart the meaning
Already we can see how the game is furthering its exploration of the first games themes of unforgivable sins, the effect memory has on your humanity, and on how to regain/mantain that humanity when considering the previous themes.
Baked into those themes, however, is an original story which points those ideas into a new direction, focused on a critique of industrialism and capitalism, layered into the personal, deeply symbolic story of losing yourself in a system and, like Daniel from before, forgetting why you started on your dark path to begin with.
One new thread to add to the tapestry is the theme of sacrifice. You journey to an ancient temple, signified throughout the game with images of mayan temples, deeply rooted to ideas of sacrifice and ritual. This correlates to your quest to destroy humanity and prevent it from committing its inevitable atrocities, essentially murdering in order to cleanse the individuals of their sins. There is of course the Christian story of the crucifixion, wherein a single man is killed to save the world from its future sins, contrasted here by your mission to destroy the entire world for the sins of one portion of it. In both stories, some kind of sacrifice is needed to restore balance.
Another prominent motif within the game is, of course, pigs. The most direct statement about this element is the sake of the title, the line "The world is a machine, a machine for pigs, fit only for the slaughtering of pigs." While obviously synergizing with the themes of sacrifice, theres a deeper critique of society at large -- the "world" in general is itself a machine for pigs. This can be compared to your great machine, a metaphorical microcosm, reliant on its "pigman" workers, while also being a retrofitted butchers plant, designed to slaughter pigs. Indeed, your great machine is still used to slaughter and then recreate the many pigmen tending to its functions within.
Within countless journal entries and logs you find in the game, the text itself invokes the "pig" metaphor, seemingly undecided as to whether pigs are symbolic of the lower classes, tottering livestock awaiting to be eaten, or for the higher classes, fat, greedy and snuffling animals. I believe the pigs are simply humans who have somehow lost their humanity, calling back on that immortal theme from the first game. Similar in many ways to a human, but dehumanized, whether it be from giving it up willingly, as the higher class industrialists and capitalists have, committing atrocities and inhumane acts willingly, (much like Daniel had previously exploited and tortured the commoners and villagers near Alexander's castle) or because it was stolen from you, as it was from the lower classes, forced to work as robots in factories.
Indeed, the unforgivable sin of the first game can be seen as industralism and capitalism itself, and much like the first game, A Machine For Pigs takes that unforgivable sin and explores its relation to memory and humanity in fascinating ways.
Centering in on the personal story of Mandus is useful as a metaphorical parallel to the societal critique we have already discussed. In the story of the game, encountering the Orb (refered to here as a stone egg) breaks your soul into two pieces, and that second piece is left tossed around your body until it is able to leave, channeled into the great Machine you build. The part of you dedicated to despairing the terrible oncoming future is characterized then, literally, as the Machine, who gains sentience as your soul's other half. When this happens, you lose your memory and awake in your bed at the start of the game.
In the poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley, a traveller remarks on finding a crumbled statue alone in the vast desert, accompanied with a plaque, ironically stating: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" It's a statement on the futility of human power by contrasting it against the unwavering, unfathomable power of time. Even as mighty as the kind Ozymandias was, his kingdom is now obliterated, lost to the vast ages.
Unlike Ozymandias' kingdom, your great work exists still, although equally forgotten and overshadowed, this time not by time, as in the original poem, but by those capitalistic and industrial tendencies enforced by society. Within your forgotten kingdom, however, miserable pigs roam alone, stripped of humanity and overlooked by that cruel interlocking system they are trapped inside: that machine for pigs.
The game creates a parallel between Oswald Mandus, whos name bares a stricking similarity to Ozymandias, and that same great king. Memory, as it always does in these games, is called as a major player, as you awaken having forgotten your own empire, the Machine, existed, but similarly you had already forgotten something of supreme significance before, as you had gotten caught up by the game of capitalism and industrialism when constructing your machine, until it became a glorious, but entirely pointless mess of corridors and systems, self sustaining and miserable, which exists now, not to actually fulfill its original purpose (destroy humanity) but as a hazy, steam filled loop perpetuating its own existence, like an organism. And like an organism, it speaks to you.
The characterization of the Machine, then, serves as a dark reflection of society, (which the game outright states is, itself, a machine for pigs) as well as a dark reflection of Mandus, whos soul it is created out of. This seems to implicate Mandus as being, himself, a factor of society, representing the same ills as the world at large, and indeed Mandus' personal unforgivable sin, killing his two sons, can be exactly compared to the unforgivable sin he built the Machine to prevent, his two sons dying on the battlefield.
Here we see how a character with human intentions can be corrupted and discared by the industrialist capitalist wills of the world at large, turned into a pig as he willfully throws away his own humanity.
As we take our longwinded analysis to its final destination, we're left to reflect on its blind spots. I haven't commented on the relative quality of either game at all. How scary is Amnesia? How original is it? How well does it run? Is it worth my money? In simpler words, does Amnesia, or its sequel, live up to its "purpose?"
No, I haven't addressed these concerns, and I'm glad I didnt. Because if I had started with whether Amnesia was scary, I'd have had to end there too, and we'd never be able to come to any further conclusions about the game. If I'd addressed Amnesia as a "product" I'd never be able to learn what it was as a "game" or, as a work or text if you prefer.
Next time you find yourself dismissing a game out of hand for being a "walking simulator" or for not being as "fun" or "scary" or what have you, as you had expected, try to step back and consider what value can be found in it as an experience, and not just as a product. Ask what it "is," not whether it fulfills its "purpose."