There’s an argument to be made that Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is so heavy handed in its critique of industrialism that it requires no examination or analysis. Such a claim goes hand in hand with the conventional cynicism whereby man’s inhumanity to man is an anthropological axiom. Greed, and its derivative violence and exploitation are considered a fundamental aspect of human nature, and natural existence is perceived as a vicious vortex spinning between Hobbes and Darwin.
It seems to me, however, that if society truly finds itself accepting the brutal slaughter of its own in aid of cold, automated Progress, the analysis of even the bluntest of allegory becomes an ethical obligation. Thus, I’ve embarked into the clockwork catacombs of the Mandus Meat Processing Plant to trace the meanings behind A Machine for Pigs.
AMFP is nothing if not meticulous in its thematic construction. It centers around the tale of Mandus, an entrepreneurial butcher who, as he pursues his endeavors in the meat packing industry, comes to believe in the possibility of a technological utopia. To power his ascension as an industrial savior, however, he must sacrifice the lives of his twin sons, the very beings he most wanted to save. In this sense, the game is a perfect tragedy.
On its surface, you could argue, it smacks of a cautionary tale against egalitarianism. The same postmodern equivocations that lead to the cynical acceptance of structural violence suggest that any attempt at utopian transcendence is limited by the inevitability of corruption. Indeed, over the course of AMFP, parallels are drawn between the sacrifices of the ancient Aztecs, performed in vain to stave off the apocalypse, and the sacrifice of exploited laborers to the machine of modern humanity’s self-preservationist instincts. Certainly, that is the tale told by the background lore of the game.
The god that manifests itself within Mandus’ great machine contextualizes its own brutality according to Mandus’ justification, that a measure of sacrifice is necessary to stave off the future catastrophes facing humanity. The Mandus children, the people of London, all must be destroyed to avoid the likes of the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. This is not an uncommon theme in science fiction. It reminds of Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” in which AM’s efficient solution to the Cold War is the utter annihilation of the human race. Similarly, Mandus’ Machine imagines a total convergence of humanity, all consumed into the Machine’s iron belly.
Surely it would be naive to read these themes as admonitions to resign oneself to the fact that Good is impossible. These are stories, in which characters fight toward self sacrifice despite the inevitability of tragedy. Indeed, the player’s only direct interface with AMFP is to guide Mandus toward redemption. The very tragedy that Mandus sought to avoid, the death of his sons, inevitably came to pass anyway, and, with nothing left to lose, Mandus opted against solipsistic resignation and for the preservation of humanity. This Mandus, the Good Mandus, is the Mandus you play as.
The beauty of Amnesia as a franchise is its depiction of the struggle towards a problematic good, the complication of which the protagonist was complicit in. Mandus’ story is that of a man who must confront his own sins, sins which were undertaken in the sincerest of good faith. Thus, thematically, it transcends cynical criticism and demands self-criticism. If Mandus, upon learning the full extent of his crimes and facilitating the Machine’s plan to set the Manpig creatures upon the people of London, had simply thrown up his hands and declared, “Well, that’s just human nature,” then humankind would have fallen to hordes of carnivorous allegorical devices. Such surrender would not be a fitting end for even the most tragic of heroes. No martyr’s ecstasy, just a cold suicide in a lonely gutter.
In his book In Defense of Lost Causes, popular theorist Slavoj Zizek argues against the belief that humanity’s noble political actions are doomed, as a rule, to self-defeating totalitarianism. In this, he sets himself against Heidegger, who, like the feverish Mandus, came to believe that modernity had made machines of men. While this belief led Heidegger to align himself with the Nazis, similarly to Mandus’ embrace of murderous, child-devouring industrialism, Zizek argues that this was not a result of his radical resistance to modernity, but rather that he was not radical enough. Indeed, prior to the beginning of AMFP, Mandus’ approach to his utopian vision is marked by a profound conservatism. Although he has accurately predicted the tragedies and horrors of modernity’s future, his response is not a radical rejection of the conditions of industrialism, but a fanatical belief that technology holds the answer. Thinking that he can solve humanity’s problems from his comfortable position as a meat packing baron, he builds the machine as a deity of industrialized humanitarianism.
Because he fails to break with the very system which gives rise to the future he resists, he can only replicate the tragedy in a more immediate form. Only once that tragedy has wrested his world from him, destroyed his children, can he truly attack the system from the outside, represented through his frenzied destruction of the machine as he powers towards its dark heart. Through stubborn insistence upon action even in the wake of his own abject moral failures, Mandus embodies authentic revolutionary action, sacrificing his petty goals of undermining future misdeeds in favor of saving the world from his handcrafted, clockwork apocalypse.
The thesis of AMFP, then, is not simply “You can’t fight the system without becoming the system.” Rather, it’s something more radical.
You can’t fight the system from within, and the fight cannot be won without sacrifice.