“But the most compelling and most direct embodiment of this process that we are calling fertility is not the ancient Tlaloc but the god known to the Aztecs as Xipe Totec, ‘Our Lord, the Flayed One'… And the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, celebrated immediately before the time of sowing, must have had an atmosphere so dramatic and intense as to exceed our power to imagine, for in the annual enactment of this rite, prisoners were not only sacrificed, their beating hearts torn from their bodies and offered to the gods as the people simultaneously offered ears of corn, but their very skin was flayed from their bodies and donned by priests so that those priests might in this way impersonate the god Xipe Totec, the skins becoming his ‘golden cloak.’”
—The Flayed God, Roberta & Peter Markman.
In the northwestern part of Toronto there is an industrial bakery owned by Fiera Foods that has killed five people in just over twenty years. In 1999, Ivan Golyashov, a seventeen-year-old temporary employee, was cleaning the inside of a dough-making machine when it was turned on; the company was fined $150,000. In 2011, a sixty-nine-year-old temporary employee named Aydin Kazimov was crushed by a transport truck; the company was fined $150,000. On September 2, 2016, Amina Diaby—a refugee and twenty-three-years-old—was strangled when her headscarf became caught in a machine that was improperly maintained; the company was fined $300,000. On October 25, 2018, a fifty-two-year-old man was killed when he was pinned between a tractor trailer and the loading dock; we do not know his name, because his family withheld it. On September 25, 2019, Enrico Miranda, died seventeen minutes before his shift ended when he was pinned between a loading dock and a tractor trailer. As of writing, no fines have been levied in these last two instances—presumably because the investigations have not concluded.
All of this so that local chain grocery stores throughout the Greater Toronto Area can be stocked with mid-tier baked goods, like croissants and donuts.
Viewed in retrospect, the story behind Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs serves as a knot for various threads running through the history of the videogame industry. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010, Frictional Games) is a well-executed piece of conventional videogame horror which had the fortune to sync with the nascent streaming industry—arguably, Pewdipie’s career began with his shrill playthrough of the game. At the time of its release, Frictional was an old-hand at horror games, having already completed Penumbra, a trilogy following a character's investigation into a research station in remote Greenland.
But for the sequel to Dark Descent, Frictional collaborated with The Chinese Room which had just released Dear Esther (2012): a ‘walking simulator’ with an experimental, fragmentary narrative. The acme of a—to put it one way—controversial style of game, Dear Esther would go on to influence future works like Gone Home, Firewatch, and What Remains of Edith Finch.
The blending of these two styles of design led to a more involved walking simulator, or a horror game less punctuated by game-y elements like a sanity meter or an inventory. A Machine for Pigs is all mood and atmosphere, with an emphasis on creating the illusion of danger rather than actually running the player through a monster gauntlet. And, because The Chinese Room was involved, the game had a more literary feel: just as Dear Esther was a self-consciously artistic project—luminescent diagrams of brake-pad circuitry and alcohol molecules in a cave wall just screams modern art—so too did Machine carry a gothic sensibility about itself: the game’s very name was nothing as cliché as “the Dark Descent.”
A Machine for Pigs was a success for both companies, with Eurogamer reporting in 2015 that it sold 120,000 copies in the first week alone. Following the release of Machine, both studios would go on to produce their own respective critical successes in 2015: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and SOMA.
A Machine for Pigs initially presents as a straightforward narrative of industrial horror: the player character wakes up unaware of his past and is told by his engineer he must restart the Machine—though situated in a slaughterhouse, the exact nature of the Machine is left ominously unspecific—to rescue his children. The first half of the game has the player descend from Oswald Mandus’ mansion into the dark heart of a Victorian industrial slaughterhouse. The motif of the pig is a recurring design element in this descent: Mandus repeats to himself “this little piggy went to market” as he navigates his mansion; in Saint Dunstan’s church, a pig is nailed to the cross while a statue of Mary with the Christ child is that of sow and piglet. The title is the conceit, and the game’s villain says it out loud: “This world is a machine! A Machine for Pigs! Fit only for the slaughtering of pigs!”
Of course, once the player restarts the Machine, the twist is revealed: Mandus built the Machine to end the world. Once a philanthropic industrialist who nearly went bankrupt ensuring his workers had decent wages, Mandus lost his mind on a trip to Mexico. On the steps of an Aztec pyramid, he receives a vision of his children dying at the Somme, and he realizes the world is irredeemable— even the most humane nineteenth-century capitalist cannot stop the horrors to come. Mandus then murders his children to spare them dying with “lungs full of mud and shrapnel” and creates an industrial apparatus that would capture and process the population of London (to start with).
Indeed, the keystone monologue in A Machine for Pigs comes as the player ascends an Aztec step pyramid surreally placed in the depths of the Machine. Given sentience by Mandus, it pleads for the necessity of its work given the disaster that will be 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 horror in the coming century is the Somme, the Khmer Rouge’s massacres, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But, tellingly, it is not the slow grinding of lives in ten- or eight-hour shifts that marks industrial life.
A word about the legal particulars of the employment structure used by Fiera Foods: in the ordinary course, the factory owner would have an employment contract with the employee. However, these relationships are not purely contractual—as a matter of law, they would have to meet certain minimums (minimum wage, primarily, but also protection against at-will termination). If the employer doesn’t meet those requirements, it is— in theory, at least—answerable to the employee on the other side of the table.
Here, however, the employer of the late Ms. Diaby mentioned above was a temp agency. These companies hire workers and assume all the responsibilities—including, but not limited to wages—and liability for things like workers’ compensation board and other employment disputes. The factory then has control over these workers but owes the most minimal of obligations to them. In exchange for assuming almost all risk, the temp agency charges an unknown mark-up on each worker’s wages, which it takes as its own profit.
In short, the temp agency could offer Fiera Foods the equivalent of an equipment rental.
As journalists Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy state in their investigation into this practice, these temp agencies are insubstantial: there is no brick-and-mortar office one applies to, just a phone number one calls. As noted in the article, the temp agency in question did not even provide paystubs, keep records of employment, or remit payroll deductions—workers would just pick up their wages in cash at a payday lender. The temp agency is, in effect, a sham: a legal prop that holds open the door to Fiera Foods’ factory for new immigrants to Canada to come streaming—facelessly—in or out at the company’s convenience.
All this is part of a greater trend, of course, towards dissolving the bonds of employment more generally: the Gig Economy has made everyone a self-employed contractor, bound and supported only by the contracts that are dictated to them by Uber or YouTube or Condé Nast or whatever university is offering an adjunct faculty position. These relationships are purely contractual: exempt from employment laws, the worker only gets what Uber or Foodora dictates they should get for running up and down the city.
The image of the factory in A Machine for Pigs is, at times, uncomfortably—almost hamfistedly—visceral: torrents of waste and excreta flood the sewers, the flow of which moves turbines and provides power to the Machine; one note speaks of using child labourers to clear massive pipes of the congealed fat that fouls the system; at the end of a long pig line, there is a lake of blood and bodies.
As the player walks down that line, Mandus says to himself “I carry the knife of this factory, the bowl of this mill. I am come to collect you from your fields and your furnaces.” That the factory in A Machine for Pigs is a temple of sacrifice is clear enough—the ending, again, has the player ascend the steps of a subterranean step-pyramid. Mandus is, in turn, the offering that keeps the world turning. In one of the earliest messages, the Engineer addresses him as “Precious Eagle-Cactus Fruit,” the translated term for the sacrificial heart held above the altars of Tenochtitlan. The game ends with Mandus' heart being removed, an offering to halt the Machine’s apocalypse and keep the world turning.
But insofar as the factory is a temple, it is a metonym for the general horrors of mankind: the horror of war, the needless death of industrial accidents, the gluttony of the wealthy and their scorn towards the impoverished. One note reads “I hate them. I hate them more than any of the others. This privilege, this pretension. These so-called leaders, these pillars of society, these rich and fanciful. They wear their filth on the inside, but they are no less dirty.” But folded into that conceptual mix is contempt for the desperate lot of the poor, the desperate, the mentally ill. Contempt for those crushing the masses, and those being crushed: the victim is indistinguishable from their oppressor. “They will make pigs of you all and they will bury their snouts into your ribs and they will eat your hearts.”
The game painstakingly hammers home the Aztec theme of the necessity of sacrifice to keep the world turning—one note states of the Aztecs: "Perhaps their tragedy was they could simply not spill blood enough to prevent the sky from falling upon them.” But whose hearts are being plucked out? And by whom?
In 2017, shortly after releasing the short So Let Us Melt for Google’s VR headset, Daydream View, The Chinese Room laid off its entire staff of eight employees on the basis that the company was between projects and could not afford payroll. In 2018, the studio was purchased by Sumo Digital for £2.2M, and released Little Orpheus—a cutesy side scroller about a Soviet cosmonaut’s journey to the centre of the Earth—for Apple Arcade in 2020.
When the factory is something else, it is no longer a factory; if the image has been abstracted—stretched thin to cover a century and all its catastrophes—it loses its specificity, and the specific moral judgments it invites. But that’s all right: there aren’t really any factories left now, in the West. You have contracts between yourself and some tech company, which require you arbitrate your disputes in the Netherlands. Where there are more traditional factories, we have instruments designed to ensure that those labourers are transiently employed, unmoored from the actual fact of those factories and connected only to a paper fiction intended to shield factory owners from legal liability.
I am still unsure whether A Machine for Pigs understands this, in the end. There are really no factories anymore, here in the post-industrial West as they are traditionally understood, with production lines, eights hours or overtime, and an hour for lunch. Or that with the slow end of traditional employment models, the protective dermis has broken down, leaving labourers raw and exposed to the indifferent market.
A Machine for Pigs ends with a grim look at the horrors of the twentieth century—but what about the twenty-first? The factories have mostly gone overseas, but the grinding reality of low-paid and precarious labour lies bare. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say the Factory has expanded to shroud the entirety of the globe. The World is a Machine, and its workers have left the mill behind only to stream up and down its streets to make croissants or deliver them, left with nothing but their own flayed skins for protection.
Sam Zucchi is a lawyer from Toronto.