Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
The dimly lit mansion that serves as the setting for Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear is its best character. It’s foreboding in the usual horror sense—Victorian Era architecture overlaid in heavy shadows; an ominous cellar lit by flickering lamps and candles. But Layers of Fear’s mansion is more than just a creepy physical space. It’s a reflection, too—of the confusion between artistic imaginings and reality from which the game’s protagonist, a painter spiralling into alcoholism and an unspecified mental illness, suffers.
Layers of Fear works hard to achieve this effect. In the game’s prologue, the player explores a “normal” version of the painter’s home, searching through bedrooms, kitchens, and offices in search of a key to unlock his studio. The house is strangely empty and creepy in the way that all old, lonely houses are creepy. But it’s a realistic place that the audience can imagine a family living in—or having lived in once at least. Scattered notes and newspaper articles hint that it’s been the site of horrible tragedy, and the painter now lives there alone, attempting to overcome the loss of his wife and daughter and his artistic drive.
All of this is sad, but it isn’t until the player unlocks the painter’s workspace and uncovers a partially completed canvas that the game starts trying to instill fear.
Layers of Fear isn’t an entirely successful horror game. Its scares are drawn from the predictable realms of creepy dolls, blood-scrawled messages and shadowy figures. Just the same, it soon finds a unique identity by matching the perspective of a tormented artist with a constantly changing environment. Once the painter has revealed his stalled work-in-progress, the mansion begins to take on a life of its own.
An ordinary hallway may loop for what seems an endless length, reflecting the protagonist’s inability to break free from the circuitous patterns of his failing creative process. When you learn of the painter’s drinking problem every cupboard begins to vomit mounds of empty bottles. While you and the painter reflect on his frustration of being unable to continue work on his paintings, a room narrows to the size of a large cupboard and every door opens to a brick wall.
In one of the most dramatic examples the player enters the bedroom where the painter and his wife used to sleep. A gramophone stands in the middle of the room, a reference to the lost wife’s career as a professional musician. The room is in rough shape when the player enters. But when you place a record on the turntable and it begins to play too slowly, in reverse, the space dramatically deteriorates and dark muck collects on the ground. To solve the puzzle at hand—collecting an item that prompts an expository monologue—the player has to move the room between its normal and ruined states, turning an emotional narrative beat about the painter longing for his happier past into a literal space for the player to inhabit.
This is great design. While not very nuanced, the drama of these moments shows how well video games are suited to telling psychological horror stories. The medium’s interactivity can be used to force the player to closely associate with their avatar—to literally see through their eyes. As the painter, the audience feels as if the mansion they’re exploring is a place that could really exist (an effect that’s cleverly enhanced through the realism of Layers of Fear’s detailed visuals and straightforward, grounded prologue). Playing with this sense of place by altering the game world on the fly can be shocking. It makes navigating the mansion unpredictable, tossing aside any rules of real world physics and logic that the player enters into the game believing will hold true.
There have been plenty of horror games built on the increasingly creaky premise that a character’s mental illness is inherently frightening, but Layers of Fear’s approach sets it apart. Though its writing is too blunt and many of its scares are predictable, there’s still plenty to admire in the originality that shows in its environments. Horror, especially, benefits from how video games can close the distance between audience and character.
In Layers of Fear the player feels as if they’re inhabiting the painter’s mind. Because the audience is responsible for moving him forward through the mansion, its physical distortions seem like a reaction to their own actions instead of something happening only to a character.
There may not be much novelty in how the painter’s dialogue and notes are written—he’s a character defined largely by superficial, violent “madness”—but the way he sees the mansion brings extra depth to his character. This is what makes Layers of Fear noteworthy. Despite stumbling in many ways, it’s a fascinating example of how video games can effectively combine level and narrative design to bring a player uncomfortably close to the viewpoint of a character losing their grip on reality.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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