Layers of Fear: Press W to paint
Welcome back! Long time readers might remember the last time I talked about Layers of Fear. I was very negative about the game at the time. Disliking the story's overuse on spooky imagery and over-reliance on jump scares and ripping off PT. I also was unimpressed with the gameplay, as it devolved into walking through a sightseeing tour interrupted by the occasional puzzle and loud noise. Needless to say, all of my criticisms are completely unchanged, but I am....little bit more respectful to the game. Considering that it would lead to the excellent Blair Witch three years later, I respect the game’s failings and the contribution these failings made towards Bloober Team’s learning process.
Taking place entirely within a single house, you are a painter that sets out to create his magnum opus. But in doing so we go down a horrifying rabbit hole of the painter's broken mental state. I said this in my original post and I will say it again. The plot summary is nowhere near as interesting as I make it out to be. The story is mostly delivered through flashbacks and finding scraps of paper. I will get into why the story doesn't engage well or leave much of an impression is due to pacing and atmosphere.
A Cliché (as according to Cambridge Dictionary) is “an idea or expression that has been used too often and is often considered a sign of bad writing or old-fashioned thinking.” To my mind clichés are not good or bad, rather a means of narrative shorthand or the building block for an original idea. However, when they are used in abundance with little originality then it does detract. The problem with Layers of Fear is that the clichés are not even effective in creating terror. Looking at spooky children's drawings, hearing women and children crying while twitching erratically is not scary. And they have been done to death in other games/media. This coupled with the constant crashes and bangs of jump scares and you are left with a game whose main means of scaring you are extremely weak and keep resetting the tension. Layers of Fear is less about exploring madness but rather a showcase of horror set pieces that signify a lack of creativity.
The tale of a mad painter: Pacing
Unlike other better horror games (Blair Witch and System Shock 2 for example) Layers of Fear is barely in the house before the haunting and the shouting’s start happening. In both Blair Witch and System Shock 2 ease the player into the horror, be it through the tutorial (System Shock 2) or the first act of Blair Witch. The player is eased into the world and is given a reason to care about the characters (Blair Witch), to establish a sense of normality and power before the game takes it away. (I am describing DDLC’s story structure as a whole, to be honest). What I am saying is that we are barely introduced to our protagonist before we are subjected to the loud bangs and screaming baby dolls.
The protagonist arrives home, collects his keys from the desk, starts painting, then gameplay and scary stuff begins. As he never reacts to the strange stuff around him I could not relate to him (if he doesn’t care about screaming babies then why should I). Unlike Senua who is presented with a motivation, a character, and an empathetic introduction (the voices) we never get that in Layers of Fear. As a result the imagery kind of struggles to leave any impact or offer anything compelling. What doesn’t help is that any sort of examination of character just results in misery porn. The wife is always bemoaning her husband’s mental illness or her disfigurement. The husband is always either drunk, abusive, or just a failure. The characters are completely one-note, just miserable people being terrible to each other. Blair Witch has Ellis’s relationship with Bullet; Senua has Dillion, just something that makes the protagonist seem more than just a vehicle for the shock exploitation.
Layers of Fear is a walking Sim and sadly suffers from most of the problems that come with it. Namely that the gameplay loop consists of pressing W until the end. While nowhere near as boring Dear Esther, Layers of Fear suffers from a lack of threat and puzzles that amount to finding the object.
Pressing W to continue
There is a rather nice addition that I noticed during my second playthrough. The painter walks with a slight limp. That piece of storytelling doesn't add much to the gameplay but prevents the game from feeling like you are controlling some magic flying camera. Even though the game is very linear, Bloober Team does encourage the player to explore the limited environments for collectibles. These provide context for the misery porn and give insight into the grimdark. There is at least more things to do then in Dear Esther. But sadly never quite gets out of the trap of unstimulating gameplay loops. I think the developers wanted to avoid the trap by having the level layout contently changing and morphing. So the player would feel like they were not in control and helpless against the painter’s madness.
I think this is a good idea in theory but it is used far too often. If there was any sort of pacing or escalation (the house gets and more confusing as the game goes on) it might have been a great source of tension. But as Bloober Team just started with illogical architecture and never expanded on the idea (or stopped it for a while to create a false sense of security). It starts with rooms changing before our eyes and ends as such. As a result the illogical level layout simply becomes the new normal and stops being frightening.
The lack of threat
Layers of Fear has the problem in that it feels less like a survival horror game but rather a haunted house ride. There is no persistent sense of threat or vulnerability. Scary things happen around you but never to you. There is no SHODAN, Blair Witch, or Monika to torment you, no personifications of the painter’s madness to interact with. You see the crying wife (who is not Lisa from PT we swear) but you can never interact with her. The child looks spooky but it never does anything spooky to you. Because of this, the game is not scary, you are not surviving the horror or at any risk of the horror. But rather you look at the horror, and then you walk to the next spooky set piece. It quickly becomes tiresome as (once you discover there is no threat) you merely getting a cheaper Haunted Mansion ride.
The few puzzles that are there mostly amount finding the thing to progress, as a result, they are rather easy. There is one puzzle where you have to find the checker pieces to progress. It mostly consists of finding the piece before moving onto the next one. There is some challenge is looking through increasingly bizarre environments to find a single item. But there is little more to be gained asides from observation skills as the puzzles are pretty easy to solve with logic.
Artstyle and Graphics:
Even though the game is clichéd in terms of its visuals. They are still pretty great visuals overall. The use of paintings is properly the only moderately original, spooky visuals in the game. They are well but needed to be explored better. I love the use of paint as a signifier of otherworldly activity and the lighting. There is some really good lighting in this game and could have been very atmospheric if it were not for the content banging and screaming. The texturing is excellent and (again) offers a very nice sense of realism to the surreal.
I don’t think Layers of Fear is a particularly good game. The gameplay is remarkably unstimulating, the story is so cartoonishly horrific that it becomes difficult to take it seriously. The jump scares also don’t help as well, dashing any hope of an intense atmosphere of dread. The fact I never felt I was in any danger speaks volumes of that. But I am glad we got Blair Witch out of it.