There exists a machine, an old-timey fortune teller you might find at a traveling carnival, that has the power to grant your deepest, darkest desires. Only those who meet its requirements – a corrupted mind uninhibited by virtues, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get what you want – are told where the machine is hidden. All it takes is a coin and wish, and The Fabulous Fear Machine kicks into action, ready to serve your cause relentlessly until the moment you get whatever it is you’re willing to sacrifice everything for. After that, well, we all know deals with the devil only ever end one way.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is a real time strategy game with an evocative title that perfectly describes its core mechanic. Unlike traditional conquest-style strategy games where you expand your dominion through battle, Fear Machine is all about using fear to coerce, manipulate, oppress, and conquer society – without said society ever becoming aware of what you’re doing to it.
It’s strikingly high concept and dizzyingly esoteric at first, but once you manage to wrap your mind around its glossary of unusual terminology and mechanics, Fear Machine is a relatively straightforward, story-driven time management game. Its visual style is captivating and its overtly cynical tone is surprisingly refreshing, but, unfortunately, it’s held back by repetitive gameplay and some questionable social commentary that verges on what I can only describe as Big Yikes. It’s ironic that a game about succeeding no matter the price can fail the way Fear Machine has, but sometimes big swings lead to big misses.
Fear Machine is split into three campaigns, each one following a new master of the machine from the moment they take control of it, until the moment they achieve their goal and get everything they think they’ve ever wanted. Campaigns are broken up into multiple chapters with narrative beats that build out each character’s backstory and set the stage for the next chapter. One of the game’s strengths is how well it holds its narrative cards close to the chest by slowly revealing what each character is seeking, and how the machine aims to help them achieve their goals.
Everything the machine does is based on spreading fear across a region, like the counties in a state or the countries in Europe, and each mission has the same path. You begin with a set of messages that need to be transmitted, and the requirements needed in order for that message to take hold. The first campaign follows a young scientist named Jen on her journey to take control of an international pharmaceutical company, and you begin with a set of straightforward messages. The competing pharmaceutical brand can’t be trusted, our brand makes the best products, using our products will keep you safe, etc. Once you’ve determined which message to assign to each region on the map, you can drop the seed of fear and watch it start to take hold.
In order to spread the fear and ensure your messages reach the masses, you’ll implant legends in cities across each region, and nurture them so that they grow and gain power. There are 74 different legends ranging from myths and urban legends like Bloody Mary and alien abductions, to contemporary anxieties about climate change, digital privacy, video game violence, and the dangers of consuming a typical Western diet. Every phobia, paranoia, horror trope, and cultural mass hysteria is expressed through one legend or another. Every apocalyptic threat, every biblical catastrophe, and every topic covered by Dr. Oz that made every stay-at-home mom tremble with fear is represented, each with their own authentically pulpy horror comic book cover that slowly reveals itself as you grow its power. Discovering the legends and figuring out how to evolve them is one of the Fear Machine’s best hooks, and even when the gameplay started to get stale I still enjoyed examining and contemplating each legend I was presented with.
Growing your legends helps fear spread, and each one requires time and resources before it can increase in power. At your disposal are a pair of masked agents you send from city to city to collect resources and conduct subterfuge when necessary, and managing these agents’ movements is the crux of Fear Machine’s gameplay. This process will become complicated once you begin to encounter timed events that require intervention, as well as rivals, who will have counter, and sometimes competing, agendas.
Rivals are your main threat to progress, and the challenge in each mission is about balancing the time you spend advancing your fear agenda while mitigating the threat that each rival poses. If you fail to respond to a rival’s movements they may spread their own message through a region before you, locking you out and, in some cases, preventing you from accomplishing your mission. Your agents can dig up dirt on your rivals and find ways to defeat them, either by ruining their reputation or convincing them to give up their causes, but each excursion takes time away from your other goals, and uses valuable resources you would otherwise use to grow your legends.
It’s a careful balancing act that sometimes comes down to the wire in exciting ways, but I often found that the first few minutes of a mission determined whether or not I would be successful throughout the entire scenario. How you set up each board initially and where you put your efforts early on seem to have a bigger impact than any of the decisions you make throughout the mission, and the chapters I struggled with the most became easy once I found the correct way to establish my game plan right at the start. Frustratingly, whole mechanics and systems throughout are under-explained, and only through trial and error and restarting entire chapters was I able to figure out what I needed to do.
New mechanics are introduced sparingly, such as the ability to clone legends and split them between different cities in the third campaign, but for the most part each chapter plays out the same way. There are two agents to manage in each campaign, and only one chapter in the entire game introduces a third – who is fairly useless compared to the other two. Despite its many novel concepts, Fear Machine never builds towards more complex or intricate missions the way you would expect a strategy game to. There’s unrealized potential here, a deeper, more involved game that Fear Machine never pursues.
The stories are meant to pull you through so many samey missions, and I was certainly intrigued to discover the rotten core that motivated each of these three devious bastards, and figure out how the machine was being directed to meet their goals. But the commentary developer Fictiorama Studios chose to convey through those stores is often muddy, and in one of the campaigns, utterly tasteless.
Double Blind’s story follows the aforementioned big pharma boss, who eventually uses the machine’s power to cook up a virus in a lab and unleash a global pandemic so that her company can produce the vaccine. Jen’s original trauma was the neglect she felt as a child, and so she creates a deadly super virus as well as the cure, not to be adored, but for the attention she has always craved. In a last second twist, it’s revealed that she has no intention of ever releasing the vaccine, because as long as she holds onto it, the whole world’s eyes will be on her, and she’ll have the one thing she never got from her parents.
That’s a solid storyline for a corrupt pill pusher, I suppose, if we weren’t living through the consequences of a global pandemic this very second. The story sidesteps the anti-vax movement while simultaneously indulging in the hysteria around covid conspiracies. It sends a bizarrely mixed message that I found difficult to pin down. It’s certainly critical of the greed and inhumanity of pharmaceutical companies, that’s clear. But once we get into ‘they made the virus so of course they know how to make the vaccine’ territory, I’m not sure who or what is being critiqued anymore.
You can’t make an entire game exploring the roots of social dread, center the story around a pandemic, and then cop out of any real, pointed commentary. Leaving this kind of thing ambiguous is bound to send the wrong message to a certain group of people, which I find irresponsible. Maybe the first one went over my head, but unfortunately, things don’t get any better in the second story.
Unlike Jen who is driven and determined, Jimmy isn’t even sure what to do with the machine once he gets his hands on it. The nervous, passive man is swept up in a political scheme in which he is made a puppet candidate for a far right group that uses violence to further the party’s agenda. Along the way Jimmy is reluctant to participate, often agreeing with his political rival that what his party is doing is wrong. In the end, Jimmy is elected, his party of extremists seize local, and eventual national power, and it’s revealed that Jimmy is just a desperate addict, hoping to get his hands on enough pills to keep his hands from shaking. As mayor, he has unfettered access to his drug of choice, which leads him to overdose and die.
Depicting addicts as weak-willed and ready to do anything for a fix is both harmful and out of touch, and the suggestion that this character is in any way comparable to Jen, or deserving of a similar fate, left a horrible taste. The last campaign follows a televangelist-turned-cult leader who takes a Caribbean island from the native population through force so he can have his own Jonestown Kool-Aid massacre. It’s so disappointing that a cliche and problematic depiction of addiction is sandwiched between stories about two of the most destructive, selfish individuals you could ever imagine.
I believe that having strong feelings about art is better than having no feelings, and while I don’t hate The Fabulous Fear Machine, I am disappointed by it. It doesn’t develop into a more compelling strategy game that extends beyond its initial conceit, and the stories it chose to tell were offensive – not irreverent and edgy, but irresponsible and mean-spirited. In a way that punches down instead of trying to illuminate. It gets so close to actually having something to say about the forces that influence, control, and coerce us, but then it just doesn’t.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is a metaphor, but not really. The propaganda machine that shapes society is very real, and it’s used to tell us what to believe, what to buy, who to hate, and how to behave, all to benefit and enrich those of us who deserve it the least. The titular Fear Machine is based in power dynamics, class consciousness, and the susceptibility of society at large, but after playing, I’m not sure if Fictiorama Studios understood how its own machine actually works.
Reviewed on PC
The Fabulous Fear Machine
- Original take on real-time strategy that?s fun to learn.
- Thematically rich and aesthetically captivating.
- Collecting new legends keeps things interesting.
- No significant evolutions in gameplay from beginning to end.
- Success is often determined right at the start of a mission.
- Story includes harmful stereotypes about addiction.
Next: Assassin’s Creed Mirage Review – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, And A Leap Of Faith In The Wrong Direction Entirely