There’s an art to making interactive horror.
For a game to be frightening, the player must empathise with – or even inhabit – the role of a victim. And what do victims have in common? They have limited agency to resist the things that are done to them. That can be a problem in videogames, which are distinguishable from other media precisely for the agency that they offer. This friction is one of the reasons Resident Evil has continued to falter as it rushes to incorporate ever more action tropes.
Layers of Fear understands this problem. Following the insurgent popularity of so-called walking simulators – games in which you can move in a 3D environment, but do little else beyond just seeing what happens – this is a game that undermines player control in more than a merely mechanical sense. When exploration is all we have, the ability to trust your environment is everything. Through the eyes of an insane protagonist, such comforts are cruelly denied.
The madness plays out in a Victorian-era mansion. Without introduction, we stand alone in the entrance.
A cursory exploration of the drawers and cabinets of the reception room reveals newspaper clippings and letters: a journalistic celebration of the resident’s success as an artist; a missive from the local rat catcher warns against future contact from this apparently unhinged painter. Venturing to the pantry reveals a preposterous excess of traps without a rat in sight. There’s something wrong with this picture.
Pressing on, we find reference to the artist’s physical ailments too, manifested most plainly by his ungainly limp. Listening to the rhythm of our steps, it becomes clear: we have been hobbling this whole time. We are the artist. The discovery of a shrouded canvas confirms it, before the inevitable removable of its cloying sheet seals our fate. As the cloth falls, a deathly air perceptibly descends with it, and it’s apparent that this thing was covered for a reason.
What follows is a forbidding exploration of the house, in which nefarious deeds and terrible fates are uncovered in respect of the artist, his wife and their young child. Grim mementos are found and brought back to the canvas, inspiring the next stage in a portrait that slowly takes its ghastly shape in an evocation of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. As the process continues, the house adopts an impossible geometry, shifting between sublimely distant ceilings to claustrophobic, closing walls.
Every turn threatens to undermine what we know about this place. Did that painting subtly change while we weren’t looking? Didn’t that door open onto a different room just now? Far from giving agency to the player, this is a game that plays you. It’s all you can do to hold onto your nerve, and dare to see what tricks and traps it has in store for you next.
Inevitable comparisons to P.T. (Konami’s infamous Silent Hills promotional demo) are surprisingly flattering. P.T. shares a deceptively ordinary home as its setting, inhabited by an infernal, spectral matriarch. However, it was also short enough that its bag of tricks remained mysterious, hiding its very purpose until after it had been completed. Layers of Fear mostly sustains its tension for a significant stretch longer,
rarely relaxing its campaign of confusion.
Its technical weaknesses do not bear such scrutiny, however. Distracting frame rate issues undermine an otherwise accomplished visual construction, hobbling the immersion that is otherwise so compellingly won. In a game about an artist, I half wondered if the terrible frame rate might be a deliberate and malicious choice: a series of paintings experienced in giddying stop motion.
Yet I was compelled until the end: desperate to see the protagonist’s masterpiece completed, to know what escape there might be from his torment. The real terror is the suspicion that there is no escape. That, in a fog of insanity, one is both the victim and one’s own aggressor. Layers of Fear preys on this fear expertly and relentlessly, painting the player into a corner with masterful strokes.
Layers of Fear was reviewed with a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Microsoft Xbox