You’re probably here to read about Layers of Fear. But first, a riddle:
Question: When is a wall not a wall?
Answer: When it’s a part of a simulated environment comprised of a matrix of pixels which affords the impression of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane.
Yes, that was a second-rate riddle, for which I can only apologize, but the underlying truth is axiomatic: game worlds are not real. In videogames doors are not doors, guns are not guns, and the rules which govern its phenomena are an invention. Drop a coin in the real world and its descent is preordained by the law of gravity, drop one in the Unreal 4 engine and its plunge is defined by an equation which merely mimics downward acceleration.
In the digital domain the only real restrictions are circumscribed limits of mathematical expression. Strange, then, that rather than embracing the liminal, videogames are fanatically preoccupied with the fidelitous recreation our own experience. Cast your mind for a moment over the games you have encountered in the past twelve months. How many of these titles have truly revelled in in the possibilities of their abstract nature?
It’s understandable that order and videogames have developed a symbiotic relationship; games are predicated on rules, but this tendency toward the ordered, toward the known, has spread much farther than the minutiae of combat mechanics and seeped into spaces games invoke. To paraphrase a certain James Cameron epic: it’s in the goddamn walls. Whether wandering the streets of revolutionary Paris in Assassin’s Creed or descending into the fictional waters of Rapture in BioShock, up is definitely up, down is definitely down, and any minor infractions against the laws of gravity, perception, or logic are usually relegated to the land of dreams.
Which is where we finally reach Layers of Fear – a game which is the status quo inverted: all dream and no reality.
Layers of Fear is purportedly a first-person horror game about a demented artist, but in actuality is a three-hour long experiment in continuous set-pieces. Beyond roving from room to room and acquiring a handful of items with which to adorn your canvas, the game features no objectives. Never are you required to run from shrieking horrors as in the likes of SOMA or Amnesia, nor is most of the environment interactible. Instead, players are simply asked to be in the environment: to look, to walk, and at most, to prise open a door or two.
This mechanical minimalism allows Layers of Fear to clearly speak to its players through other means. The language of first-person shooters is that of bullets, triggers, and ever diminishing health bars – this is how the player and world affect one another. In Layers of Fear, the back and forth between human and program is conducted almost exclusively through the direction of glances and movement from place to place – environment and perception are the systems of engagement.
Said engagement is delivered in the form of a haunted house, though I’m loathe to use the term. ‘Haunted house’ suggests a multi-storey mansion in which each new room spews fresh horrors, and the nature of space in Layers of Fear is actually much more complex. Rather than presenting a logically consistent space for the player to roam, the game juggles the many halls, drawing rooms, attics, basements, and intimate spaces of one house into a labyrinthine maze which constantly reconfigures itself. The constituent parts all belong to a single structure, but their formation is that of an unreal nightmare where thresholds crossed once no longer lead back the way they came.
One hallway early on in the game leads to a room with a solitary painting on the wall. Stepping inside the room I see that it is small, no more than a pantry, and features no other exits. After momentarily studying the canvas I instinctively turn to face the door from which I entered. Closed. Pulling the door is fruitless – closed and locked. I about face once again to face the painting, which has now disappeared from the wall leaving an empty wooden facade. In my confusion I begin propelling myself in circles to search for an overlooked detail that may lead to escape. As I slow, I realise that the door has also disappeared, leaving me in a square room facing four blank walls. More circular motion and somehow the door has returned – I pull the handle and it opens to a darkened hallway I do not recognize.
This sort of incident is run of the mill in Layers of Fear’s irregular maze – a rubix cube which never finds an ordered configuration and secretly shifts when the player isn’t looking. As players of videogames we constantly build mental maps of our surroundings, and even when the previous locale is out of sight, it still exists in our mind as part the greater whole we inhabit. This cerebral cartography is central to the illusion that virtual realities create; in order for our minds to construct a ‘believable’ space, it must be consistent. Layers of Fear refuses to be constrained by these dogmatisms by constantly erasing the path already trodden. Here there is no trail of breadcrumbs leading the way backward, and players are instead forced to traverse the malevolent woods with no point of reference. The space is disordered, and the deceptions of the environment many. Rooms transform in a flash of lightning, objects materialize from the ether, and the ever treacherous doors betray the player with abandon, conveying them neither forward nor backward, but simply hence.
Each moment is implemented with a deft hand – the designers clearly having given great thought to where a player will be during a certain moment or in which direction their gaze will be cast. The quality of these set-pieces reminds me of an interview given by a Valve employee, whose name now escapes me, who made plain the importance of such minute player reactions when designing Portal 2. For the spacial puzzles puzzles of Portal to succeed, and each component of its mad machinery be noticed, the designers were constantly searching for ways to direct a player’s attention to a certain place without wresting control from their hands – an aspect of Valve games I have always admired. The game was iteratively tested, over and over, so that the company could, with a fair degree of accuracy, ensure that players were seeing exactly what the designers wanted had intended. In its strongest moments, it wouldn’t be outlandish to assume that Layers of Fear had been created by the same enviable talents – through a mixture of gentle coercion and sterling design, the game makes the most of its set-pieces in a similar manner.
In addition to the constant reconfiguration, which defiantly refuses to allow orientation, Layers of Fear also creates repetitive loops, which, intentionally or not, mock the notion of consistent perspective. One particular sequence stands out, in which I was forced to traverse a circular hallway, passing each time the same bannister which overlooked a corridor below. Each time I would approach, a telephone would, in reverse motion, fall upward from the corridor and land at a table set a small distance from the bannister, ringing incessantly. After completing the cycle several times, the bannister and table disappeared, replaced instead with the telephone alone, which lay upon on the floor. As I moved forward, the telephone collapsed into the sky, and looking upward, I saw the same bannister and table at which I was previously stood. I am here, I am there, which one doesn’t really matter; in the imaginary it’s all the same.
Where Layers of Fear is less successful – or, rather, more ordinary – is when it dabbles with the tropes and techniques of traditional horror. Cue legions of uncanny dolls and insidious apparitions bursting from the darkness to petrify you.
None of these phantasmic frights are implemented poorly, in fact, quite the opposite, they are as unexpected as any high-budget horror scares you’re likely to find. More than once I found myself suddenly detached from my chair or flinching at the sight of some screaming repugnance collapsing toward me. The real disappointment is that these incidents are so unsophisticated in comparison the game’s Escherian nightmares.
There is also the issue of the real to take into account. Layers of Fear feels like a nightmare, its space exudes a feeling of unreality, and as the player you assume that the hallways you enter are not actual spaces. Within this fantastical bubble, the game’s nightmarish contents fail to leave a significant impression. The type of horror Layers of Fear attempts to invoke relies on a notion of jeopardy, and duality, that its dream-like state is unable to provide. For the otherworldly to be truly frightening it must either pose some kind of threat, or exist in opposition to the normal space it invades. The supernatural is only so because it is beyond the natural – in a dream the supernatural is everyday, nor can anyone be harmed, thereby blunting the blade with which the game attempts to instill fear.
The real treats lie in the extravagant detail of every room, in their wholly deliberate construction and supreme use of every inch of space. The artist’s troubled history is laid bare through the deliberate arrangement of ephemera and mercurial moods of each interior. Rooms are often repeated, but never is there a careless copy and paste. Each iteration is the manifestation of another scar with its own particular, dense configuration of books, shelves, and jagged scrawls.
My encounters with the Unity Engine have been few and far between, but never have I seen it produce such wildly evocative, and visually arresting scenes. Layers of Fear flicks the switch on a smorgasbord of visuals effects: colour filter, bloom, distortion, reflection, all implemented to carefully alter the player’s perception of the surrounding space. From the tiny rivers of rainwater wending down the windowpanes to the delicately oscillating motes of light, Layers of Fear is proof of what master craftsmen can achieve with fairly rudimentary tools. Well, rudimentary by comparison to the fearsome graphical might of the Unreal 4 engine, which here proves itself entirely unnecessary.
In deference to the idea that this article must at least partially constitute some kind of review, which so far it hasn’t, I’ve prepared a few statements which qualify the game’s attributes for those who enjoy being told things by games journalists:
No, this is not the scariest game you will ever play
Yes, it is a tour de force of linear design
No, it’s not really a ‘game’ in the traditional sense
Yes, the ‘overwhelmingly positive’ Steam reviews are accurate
No, £15/$20 probably isn’t a fair price, but you should pay it anyway
Yes, you’re a cheapskate
No, there’s no xenomorph, wrong game
Yes, you probably will want to play it twice, effectively doubling its poor longevity
No, other games are never this daring, which is why they’re so utterly tedious
Your game collection has lied to you, it has whispered gently in your ear for years that our digital selves must be chained to the conventions of the real world in a space which is imaginary. Silence these naysayers right now by playing Layers of Fear and witnessing anew the idiosyncratic beauty of your favourite medium.