Did you know AMC makes video games? The television network responsible for Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead has a full-blown publishing label for video games, and it’s shepherded four titles to market since 2020. Its first was a real-time flight simulator from the NYU Game Center Incubator called Airplane Mode, which trapped players in the window seat of a commercial airliner for six literal hours, complete with the small luxuries and major annoyances of actually flying coach. AMC’s IFC channel even produced the in-flight safety video for that game.
So, yeah, AMC publishes video games. Its latest project is a collaboration with Shudder, the network’s horror-focused streaming service, and it’s developed by Fictiorama Studios, the team behind 2018’s Do Not Feed the Monkeys. Their new title is called The Fabulous Fear Machine and it’s a cheeky real-time strategy game about using terror to gain ultimate power. It’s a heady topic presented in a pulp art style, with a magical fortune-telling automaton, exaggerated stakes and dramatic noir dialogue softening the narrative’s serious edge. Think Tales from the Crypt, but with propaganda and disinformation as the target subject. It’s kitsch, it’s camp, and at times it makes you pause and say, huh. Put simply, I adore it.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is a dense game that responds to your decisions moment-to-moment and then collects your story in the pages of an old-school comic book. The fortune teller, encased in glass and lights, uses this comic to fuel its own supernatural whims, but all of that is secondary to your personal quests for control, wealth and power. The game features multiple Masters of the Machine, each with a unique goal, and it kicks off with a brilliant, sociopathic scientist who wants to conquer the corporate world through a pharmaceutical company. As a Mistress of the Machine, she first sows seeds of panic and paranoia across the United Kingdom and Scotland.
Gameplay takes place on a bright world map, zoomed in to the appropriate locations. After planting a seed of terror in one spot, players help it spread by dispatching agents to major cities, collecting information, and then dropping Legends cards there, cultivating dark myths and conspiracy theories based on local beliefs. Players set a goal for each region; for the pharmaceutical baron, this could be implanting the dogma that natural medicines are harmful, or that generic drugs don’t work.
There are four psychic centers that the Masters of the Machine can target: The Power, The Form, The Passions and The Occult. There are two sub-categories for each psychic center. Terror of Conspiracy and Terror of the Future fall under The Power, Decrepitude and Pain are part of The Form, Violence and Death are in The Passions, and the Irrational and the Unknown are subsets of The Occult. Specific cards are tied to these sub-categories, and the stories on these cards evolve as they’re played on the map and upgraded.
Cards include scenarios like The Ultimate Virus, The Toaster is Listening, The Climate Machine, The Boogeyman and The Homicidal Nurse — conspiracies, myths and anxieties that can be exacerbated with the proper messaging. Spreading these terrors is a game of asset management and intuition, feeding the appropriate fears in the right regions.
Things get complicated quickly, though. With the help of agents on the ground, players have to mine resources, generate and maintain fuel for propagating their fear campaigns, and also fend off counter-attacks from activists and rival companies. Upgrading cards progresses the amount of unrest they invoke and involves selecting related terms from a word cloud. The cards tell their own little stories as they’re upgraded, and these evolve from whisper campaigns, to regional talk-radio topics, to headlines on major news programs. Rival companies and peace organizations pop up along the way, attempting to thwart your efforts, and they have to be infiltrated and dispatched by any means necessary.
Every action requires the appropriate element, which players can mine from cities they’ve discovered. Mining takes time, as does infiltration, intelligence-gathering and fuel cultivation, and deciding what to focus on at any moment drives the game’s tension. Be warned: It gets very difficult.
The Fabulous Fear Machine is available on Steam for $18, just in time for the spookiest season. Input-wise, it would make for a fantastic mobile game, but the amount of fine detail and on-screen writing might explain why it’s only on PC, at least for now.
Turns out, taking over the world with terror alone is complex, strangely funny and filled with dead ends. At least in The Fabulous Fear Machine, it’s also entirely fictional — and supremely stylish.