I’ve been looking forward to Layers Of Fear for quite some time. Billed as a psychedelic horror game revolving around a demented artist and his work, it ticked all the right curiosity-boxes and got me to a point where I was really looking forward to a good few hours of wetting myself and crying with terror.
I like my horror games, but tend not to play them very often. This is for two reasons. The first is that I’m a fairly anxious person who, counter-intuitively, has a strong masochistic streak for my horror experiences: I won’t play horror games unless I play them properly: In a dark room, at night, alone, preferably with headphones on. If I’m gonna be terrified, I want to be really satisfyingly terrified. The second and less fun reason is because, more than for any other genre, there really do seem to be a lot of bad horror games out there.
It’s not so surprising really, horror is a fundamentally tricky concept to create, in large part due to the flighty and ethereal requirement of atmosphere that is so central to good horror. Horror can’t often rely on one thing. It can’t be obvious, and it can’t be allowed to be pinned down. All of this is hard in a book or film, and significantly more difficult in an interactive medium like a computer game. That said, these fundamental concepts are something that Layers Of Fear misses to a rather worrying degree. You are an artist, who is mad. It’s very obvious, very fast, that you are mad. You are trying to finish a painting, or possibly, you’re having fever-dreams about a painting that you have already finished. It’s not entirely clear, or important. The painting is a maguffin. You are a mad artist, being mad, and walking through your own mad mind. That’s pretty much it for plot, with hints of a wife and child thrown in for emotional hook.
A depressingly huge and immediate problem with Layers Of Fear is that, frankly, its art assets are very limited. It would seem like a fairly obvious fact that if you’re going to make a game about an artist, in a house filled with art, trapped in a series of psychotic art-related visions, then you need some fairly extensive art assets. As it is, it took me less than seven minutes of play time to find a repeated picture. This was in the very initial house-exploration phase of the game, before it starts getting weird on you. Once the game does start tripping out, then barely two minutes will pass without you spotting the same picture again and again.
But here’s the thing, some of those same pictures are fine, because the game is playing on a theme. Making a point. Maybe there are seven portraits in a corridor, each of the same person, but each distorted in a different way. That’s great, because it serves a purpose. We, the player, know that our character’s perception is obviously deranged. We know that a real person would never have seven identical paintings lined up like that, so obviously what we’re seeing is not real, and something is disturbing and wrong. But most of the time this isn’t what happens. Most of the time, you spot a picture you’ve seen before, and it’s just…there. Why? Well, obviously because the level designer only had a limited number of paintings to choose from. Oh, how immersive.
So there we are, right from the off Layers Of Fear is a game that has no sustainable atmosphere, because the core of its subject matter repeatedly breaks its own illusion. Even worse, the grand aims and ideas the game tries to use as drivers are, and lets be fair here, crap. A tortured artist’s house, littered with bottles and notes from his wife who we never see, who hides a dark secret. Groundbreaking stuff. It took me less than ten minutes to write down my prediction that the protagonist had gone insane and killed his wife and child. Five minutes after that, when the game literally tells you in a voiceover that the protagonist has used human skin as a canvas, I felt like Layers Of Fear should have ended. And if this game had been fifteen minutes long, it would’ve been great, really great. A short little journey into the mind of a psychotic artist, with some trippy jump scares and a gruesome reveal at the end, lovely. As it is the game spends hours ponderously showing you what you already know: mad person madly does grisly mad things, because they are mad. You don’t really know nor care why, because for the most part neither does the game. “You’re mad!” The game says “Be scared by the madness!” Why am I mad? “Because…madness! It’s all so crazy and scary isn’t it?” well not really, I think I’ll just g- “But look at all the scary scary maaaaaaaadneeess!”
Fine, I’ll stop being facetious. Lets have some real talk and look at some more specific failures. And for my first point, I hope at least one of the creators of Layers Of Fear is reading this: jump-scares are not scary if you’re expecting them. By definition. A sudden thing happens, catching you unawares, and makes you jump. Layers Of Fear has jump-scares happening every damn minute. Barely a room goes by without something flying off the walls, or without a disembodied sound effect. Which means that, obviously, they’re not jump-scares. You don’t jump, and you’re certainly not scared. I’m trying not to be mean here but come on – this is basic stuff. This is not tapping into the nebulous unspoken fears of the everyperson to create an subtle ambiance of dread. This is horror 101, a class that Layers Of Fear apparently decided to skip.
Want some more? Well then, let’s consider why dream sequences are usually quite short: because they make no sense. Placing a dream sequence into a larger narrative is often extremely effective, they tend to be full of symbolic hints and bizarre tableaus, constantly tickling at edges of the dreamer’s unspoken fears and desires. When we see a symbol in a dream and then BAM, that symbol turns up thirty minutes later in the waking-world, it’s a satisfying payoff for us. Or when the dreamer becomes terrified of their dreams, and that terror causes some self-fulfilling tragedy, we sigh contentedly. It feels rewarding. This counts triply so for horror narratives, which are built on mystery and intrigue. This is why dream-sequences can work so well, they’re mysterious in narrative, because they’re mysterious to us in our real lives. But once again skipping over its common sense classes, Layers Of Fear tries to invert this idea, and you spend almost all of your time in a continuous dream sequence. The entire game is a nonsensical trip, bookended by normality at the very start and end. But because this trip is constant, you know that nothing will make sense. The whole game is an exploration of non-euclidean space that shifts when it’s out of view. You walk into a room, it’s a dead end, you turn around, the door is gone, you turn around again, the door is on the other side of the room. Again, in a dream sequence: great! We love mystery. But being stuck in a dream for an entire game isn’t mysterious, it’s irritating. Not only can you not rely on anything, but you know you can’t rely on anything. You know that things are going to be weird, unexpected and non-sensical, and because you know this, they aren’t interesting. They’re just…there.
Lastly – and this may well be the thing that pushed Layers Of Fear from ‘bad’ to ‘obnoxiously bad’ – is also something taken directly from the very first lesson of horror 101: Yes, dolls are creepy; uncanny imitations of human faces, fixed in garish porcelain. But no, for fucks sakes, that does not mean putting them every-fucking-where in your game. Horror does not work by multiplication! Christ, Layers Of Fear has a borderline addiction to creepy dolls. You see them in bathtubs, silhouetted in windows, mysteriously dissolving into pools of blood, in big flipping piles in the corner of rooms. There’s even a sequence in the game that I’ve mentally labelled “the dollening”. Five to ten minutes of dolls coming at you from every side, in every size. It plays like a bloody parody of horror, but the game takes it seriously. I mean, who the fuck was running these design meetings? “Guys, guys! I’ve just had an amazing idea! What if we, like, put a child’s doll in the game! I know, super creepy right? But that’s not all, what if we, like, make it’s head move so it’s watching the protagonist, wooOOoOOooo!” This is genuinely the level Layers Of Fear is working on, all the time, with the subtlety of a mallet to the kneecaps.
All of this reduces down to one thing: a horror game that isn’t scary. It took ten minutes for me to figure out the kind of game Layers Of Fear was, and for the last vestiges of fear to drain away. It was two hours before anything happened that actually gave me a jump. It was an unintentionally excellent moment; having resigned myself to playing a boring, lacklustre horror game, it was extremely rewarding to have a moment that genuinely caught me off guard. Holy fuck, I thought, maybe there’s something more to this game than a mad-person having mad visions because they’re all mad. Maybe there’s some actual tension. But still, two hours is not a reasonable time to take before you engage a player. The next twenty minutes were really enjoyable – now that there was the possibility of antagonism, or actually, y’know, mystery, I found myself paying attention. But no. It was just a one off. It’s just a creepy wife-like monster who turns up at predetermined points, because horror. Back to the boredom.
Okay, let’s try to be fair, Layers Of Fear is not entirely without good points. I do, for example, like how you interact with items – to open a door you click on the doorknob, and then drag the mouse towards you, imitating the same motions you would to open a door in real life. It’s an immersive little mechanic. But Layers Of Fear can’t take credit for it, because Penumbra did it first, about eight years ago (Penumbra incidentally being a much better horror game). But alongside this control scheme, the swaying, limping motion of movement and camera-motion does a lot to make you feel like an actual person and not just camera on wheels – but again, Layers Of Fear gets limited credit for it, because it is strongly counteracted by many of the screen effects which are straight up camera tricks, e.g. effects that no human eye could ever experience. Hey ho, they were halfway there. I did enjoy the moment when I walked into a room, turned around, and turned back to find that all the objects in the room had turned into a child’s drawings of those objects, crayoned onto the walls. It wasn’t scary, but it was fun, evidence of some creative thought at last. Equally, a later scene where you look up to discover that your office extends upwards into a twisted infinity was good – although in retrospect that might’ve simply been relief because it’s the only point in the game that’s not in a small room or corridor. But those two incidences aside, I’m hard pushed to think of a time where I was legitimately enjoying my linear journey of mad madderson the totally-for-realsies mad.
So it’s sad but undeniably true that Layers Of Fear is a bad game all across the board. From design, to storytelling, to fundamental concept, it’s a game that feels like a lot of people have poured a lot of time, love and effort into, apparently without questioning whether it was a good idea. It’s an abominably damning indictment for me to say, with perfect honesty, that my favourite part of the entire game was the opening exploration of a normal, empty house. As soon as Layers Of Fear started trying to scare me, it stopped managing to.