A Machine for Pigs and Cosmic Horror

A few weeks ago, the team at Extra Credits released a video on Lovecraftian horror and the proper usage of Cthulu. It caught all of the major points that anyone might hope for: Cthulu represents “the fear of the possibility of our own human smallness.” How he represents the sheer inadequacy of our greatest knowledge and understanding, and the knowledge that we are incapable of grasping the barest understanding of the real nature of our universe. But we can go further: the horror at the heart of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is not the violation done upon our dollhouse of physical laws and the human spirit is suddenly by the appearance of the Elder Thing, but that there was never any reality to that dollhouse to begin with – that all we have built is a candle in the darkness, and that the darkness is ready to reassert its natural dominion. Lovecraft’s protagonists are always men of learning, the brightest sparks of all that we have built; their understanding makes their fall so much the greater.

The terms used to illustrate this dark realization are many. The scholar Timothy Evans (in his essay “A Last Defense Against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft”) describes the structure with reference to the tropes of a detective story, in that the Lovecraftian narrative “leads not to a solution (like a detective story), but to a realization of the illusory nature of truth and the unknowability of the cosmos.” It’s possible to use the terminology of Greek Tragedy: when the protagonist has his moment of anagnorisis, the critical discovery is centred on the real nature of the universe, and the accompanying fall (peripeteiai) leads only to madness. My personal favourite is that of gnostic thought: the adepts attains gnosis, and that epiphany is filled with horror.

There are two delicious ironies in this structure: the first being that Lovecraft, writing during one of the greatest periods of optimism with regards to what science could do (this was the era where, to name but one example, the basic building blocks of reality were being understood through the development of atomic theory), painted in the darkest of terms the utter failure of such an enterprise. The second is the way in which his popularity in popular culture occurs, at present, during a period where faith in science and its grand promises is at its peak. There is, I suspect, and almost adulterous love of Lovecraftian horror in that crowd.

One of Lovecraft’s critical works, his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” offers another way into his brand of horror. Before he begins a brief history of horror throughout literary fiction, he takes care to define just what he means by supernatural horror. He distinguishes it from mundane spookiness, “a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.” Supernatural horror is not “a secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.” Rather:

A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

In this vein, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an almost textbook Lovecraftian horror. The creeping darkness that hounds the cultured protagonist – remember, he is an archeologist – is a profoundly alien and horrifying presence. The setting is a Prussian castle, the very embodiment of an old and dignified cultural tradition. And there is a disregard for the sanctity of human life so casual that to give it any other adjective (like ‘contemptuous’) would be to ascribe far more emotion than is actually present.

But Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is a very different beast. There are surface similarities: the player crawls through the darkness and an atmosphere of utter wrongness, plagued by horrors. But these only hold true for the first half of the game, where the ultimate aim is to rescue Mandus’ children. The second half of the game is different. To argue that the game is merely about the dehumanization of industrialization is to miss the ending’s point: the Machine’s voice does not look to the past but to the future, to the genocides, pogroms, and industrialized murders of the twentieth century:

I have stood knee deep in mud and bone and filled my lungs with mustard gas. I have seen two brothers fall. I have lain with holy wars and copulated with the autumnal fallout. I have dug trenches for the refugees; I have murdered dissidents where the ground never thaws and starved the masses into faith. A child’s shadow burnt into the brickwork. A house of skulls in the jungle. The innocent, the innocent, Mandus, trod and bled and gassed and starved and beaten and murdered and enslaved. This is your coming century! They will eat them Mandus, they will make pigs of you all and they will bury their snouts into your ribs and they will eat your hearts!

The game’s scope is widened by this element of precognition. A Machine for Pigs is not a re-telling of, say, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; it is a game about the way our world is predicated on, or firmly rooted in, human suffering.

The Machine’s series of references is, of course, neatly encapsulated by the game’s assertion that “This world is a machine! A machine for pigs! Fit only for the slaughtering of pigs!” But this moment of recognition is tied to the great Aztec theme that runs through the second half of the game. Granted, hints are given from the very beginning: the very first phone call – “Precious eagle cactus fruit. Help us.” – invokes the name given to the heart taken from those sacrificed on the Aztec altar; the busts of a man wearing a jaguar headpiece can be found in the mansion; deeper into the Machine we find models of mesoamerican pyramids. But it is when the machine is restored and Mandus is given a vision of his twin sons offering their hearts that this particular theme starts gaining significance and momentum, building towards the game’s climax.

And, as this excellent outline of the way the game appropriates and plays with the Aztec creation myth implies, it is an integral part of Machine‘s climax. But, without doing injustice to the complexity of Aztec mythology, it is important to recognize the parallels between the Machine’s assertion that the world runs on blood and the Aztec belief in the necessity of human sacrifice. As Ahhuatl notes:

The Aztecs believed that the human heart contained a person’s teyolia, an animating force which was like the sun itself. To remove the heart and offer it as a sacrifice to the sun was a means of transferring energy from one entity to another, extending the life of its recipient… Only through the act of sacrificing themselves or their loved ones could they provide the energy necessary to prolong our current sun and by extension save the world.

Without demonstrating any kind of western chauvinism towards that belief, it is possible to see the necessity of such a sacrifice as a simultaneously horrifying yet unassailable foundational truth.

There are, of course, necessary caveats regarding the Aztec theme and Ahhuatl’s reading thereof. First, the recognition that Machine‘s depiction of Aztec mythology is hamfisted – but appropriately so. Its point is not necessarily to introduce its audience to a cultural position profoundly different from our own, but to use the elements of Aztec myth most salient to its point as a lens through which it might depict its particular brand of horror. Regardless of its original context, the initial presentation of ritualized human slaughter appals us; when Ahhuatl asks “We can accept that self-sacrifice for the sake of others is noble, we can accept that those that fight and die for others are brave and admirable – but what are the limitations of those beliefs?” we begin to realize that the game is intentionally re-evaluating the value we place on sacrifice. After all, what is the use of quibbling over the value of one form of sacrifice over another, when our world demands our deaths regardless of any moral mathematics?

Amusingly, Ahhuatl’s legitimate criticism of the game’s presentation of Aztec myth finds an answer in this logic. The presentation is akin to “me making a game about a guy who travels to the Middle East, has a vision of the horrors of the twentieth century and decides to do something to stop it. He travels back to London, kidnaps people and begins mass crucifying them in the hopes of finding the son of a ‘god of sacrifice’… Real original story, right? Learned a lot about Jesus and his teachings, didn’t you? The moral values of Catholicism are nice and apparent to you, right?” But the game does depict Christianity in an equally lackluster light: the game’s church has a slaughtered pig lying on the alter, before the crucifix. This is framed by twin statues of the Madonna and child, depicted as a smug sow with her little piglet. What value are these figures when Christ dying on the cross is merely the death of one more pig? Ultimately, the appropriation of Aztec myth is not necessarily to be dismissed as a misappropriation: were this a game about, say, the value of cultural difference then the Aztec theme’s presentation would be self-defeating; but because we are dealing with the horrors of our world, it becomes necessarily subservient to the overarching point.

Mandus’ story is one of dashed optimism: the wealthy scion of an industrialist family, he spends his fortune on improving his meat processing factory and is brought near to bankruptcy for his good will. He saves everything by using the secrets held in a few family papers, founds a few charitable initiatives to help the poor, the downtrodden, and the orphaned, and travels to Central America as part of his experiments. But it is on the steps of a temple that he discovers that his efforts to improve the lot of mankind are wasted: though the details may change, the fact of mass slaughter still remains. Spared deaths in the factory, men will go on to die in World War One, and so on. This demolished optimism neatly mirrors that of Lovecraft’s work: at the moment when we appear to be reaching some sort of climax, whether scientific or moral, the tide comes in and reveals our castles were made only of sand.

What A Machine for Pigs presents us with is moral cosmic horror – that the universe, despite the walls and roof of laws and morals and the illusion of progress, is a ravenous and bloody place; that the world’s turning is predicated on suffering; that time and time again, despite whatever moral window-dressing we put up to improve the decor, we cannot bleach away fresh bloodstains. It is important to note that the point of the game’s Machine is to make things right, to fix the world. One loading screen phrases it thus: “Returning from Mexico, I was struck again by London´s filth. The squalor, the miasma, the rot. We should cut free the dead flesh, allow this wound to heal anew.” The machine is one last, desperate attempt to stop this momentum: “Let us not be coy. I will not let us drag this corpse of civilisation into a new century. Come new year´s eve, I will fling the last switches and unshackle the full power of the machine.” Indeed, one line, intended to add texture to yet another loading screen, offers this dark tidbit: “The Aztecs believed they could avert the apocalypse through sacrifice. History tells us they failed. Their tragedy was simply that they could not spill enough blood in time.” In short, the apocalypse that Mandus built the Machine to forestall is the twentieth century; the final moment in the game – Mandus’ sacrifice – is yet another death that keeps the world turning.