We have an interesting analysis to talk about today: Two narrative focused titles each with their own design style. Master Reboot by Wales Interactive and Amnesia a Machine for Pigs by the Chinese Room.
While both attempted to tell a story in a minimalist style, I found that I was more engaged by Master Reboot and what it does right is a good example of the elements that a Machine for Pigs messes up on.
Master Reboot’s story takes place in a world where the dead can have their memories uploaded to the “Soul Cloud” where they can essentially live forever and be visited by family. When something goes wrong with your file, you must explore your memories to figure out who you were and what happened.
Each “memory” takes the form of an area representing a part of the main character’s past. The art aesthetic goes for a distorted view as environmental objects will be bigger than normal or the area will have different lightning to show that the memory was distorted.
There are no on screen indicators other then when the player can interact with an object. The bulk of the gameplay was around solving the puzzle for the specific area. Interestingly there are failure states as there are parts where the player can fail, but death simply reboots the area with no long term consequence.
What Master Reboot does well is tell a minimalist story with the bulk of the plot hidden throughout the memories. The distorted art aesthetic works as the game was not meant to be realistic but distorted. And the different puzzles tied to the memories kept things from getting repetitive.
I do have some nitpicks to go with Master Reboot. The developers seem to switch which interact command to use (either the E key or the left mouse button) throughout play and it does become annoying. Some puzzles fall into the category of finding the random environmental object to solve and are less about critical thinking. And the developers did make use of my weakness in the form of music based puzzles but I can’t fault them for that.
Lastly while the in game art aesthetic worked for me, I wasn’t a fan of the hand drawn style cut scenes. The difference in style was so great that it became jarring to look at it.
Master Reboot when for a minimalist approach to its storytelling and game design, but there was still content to explore and engage with, unlike Amnesia a Machine for Pigs.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m one of those people who did not like the original Amnesia. I felt that there was too little going on to be actually scared by it and found the whole thing became boring after awhile. So you could probably guess that a Machine for Pigs didn’t do much for me. As I mentioned at the start, a Machine for Pigs was not developed by the original team and was given to The Chinese Room for development and it really shows.
Somehow they were able to make an already basic game even simpler: No sanity mechanics, infinite lighting and less interaction with the world made things very dull. Where Master Reboot took a minimalist approach to the art design but still had some aesthetic to it, a Machine for Pigs just looked drab. Everything was very plain and generic with no real sense of having a unique aesthetic or sense of place.
The developers wanted to let the environment speak for itself and hide both visual and literal clues for the player to piece together the story. However it just makes the game seem pretentious and doesn’t work.
The only time where this kind of storytelling works is if the environment is unique enough to warrant exploration, see Portal, Dark Souls and of course Master Reboot for example.
“Puzzles” are really just about finding X object in the environment which looks as drab as everything else. One puzzle requires you to find specific pieces of coal among piles of other coal.
There is just no gameplay to a Machine for Pigs. The most engagement you’ll find in the game is dealing with the “monsters” but even then you’re just running around them to get to the next event trigger. With no puzzles, no real storytelling, no gameplay, there’s just nothing that a Machine for Pigs does to warrant someone playing it. This is not a horror game but more akin to wandering around a haunted house at an amusement park.
I’m confused about people saying that they couldn’t play it for long as the game was just too tense. The only reason why I didn’t play through it one sitting was that the low detailed environments and poor lightning was giving me a headache.
If a Machine for Pigs was too scary for some people, I could design a horror game that would probably cause them to faint from being scared.
Minimalist design is a popular tool among Indie developers as it allows them to create more with less. But looking at Master Reboot and a Machine for Pigs, there has to be something under the surface to explore or all you have is a shallow experience which Master Reboot understood and a Machine for Pigs didn’t.