What person can say they have never experienced fear? While at times it can cause us to behave in an irrational manner; panic and anxieties can induce us towards actions that enable self preservation. Fear is not a unilateral from person to person, it differs. Our reactions to threats, perceived or imagined, can range from extreme and destructive behaviors to mild heart-rate increases.
What person can say they have never witnessed art? While at times what is art can be debated in an irrational manner; there’s no denying that aesthetics is an intricate form of expression and communication, a necessity for preserving mental health. Art appreciation is not unilateral from person to person, it differs. Our reactions to what is art, abstract or otherwise, can range from obsession to create or own it, to mild amusement bordering apathy beholding it
“A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome–more loathsome, if possible, than before” -Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Layers of Fear endeavors to be more than a video game. It wants to be disturbing, eerie and appreciated as a work of art. Inspired by the artistic works of another literary virtuoso, Oscar Wilde. However as the story unfolds, it is clear that Hitchcock, Kubrick, del Toro, Aronofsky: these are the names drifting through my mind while admiring Layers of Fear’s stunning visual impact. As a horror-calloused gamer, with an immunity to conspicuous maneuvering towards obvious cheap scares; I was aghast with how its imagery and thematic elements went beyond evoking a mild creepiness, but drawing out actual feelings of fear and paranoia.
When we received our review copy, anticipation turned to trepidation: was I going to play Dorian Gray: The Walking Simulator? The answer to that question is a resounding “No”. There’s a portrait involved, an artist, and a Victorian era home, and the similarities mainly end there.
The story itself, while thematically disturbing, is rather trite. Nonetheless, this story is told by uncovering scattered pieces hidden in numerous inconspicuous spaces combined with a game design unfolding methodically then violently; the result is an uncommon game who’s story feels new and unique. Layers of Fear takes the approach of “you get from it, what you put in it”. It is a similar approach to Gone Home, you can blow through rooms ignoring most hidden areas and still enjoy the game. The other option is to scour through each drawer examining minutia to aid in reconstructing the complete picture of what really occurred (and is occurring). However this paradigm is deeper with Layers of Fear, and offers multiple endings for those willing to explore.
The game opens in the foyer of a home, filled with Victorian decorum. On the left is a kitchen area, with cast iron stoves and numerous ornate drawers and doors to poke through. On the right, a locked door with a note from the maid. She relays to you that your drawing room was not cleaned, as per your request, and the key to the room is in your office. The smeared globs of red and green oil paints, and a few newspaper clippings left about, confirm that you are a known artist.
From here no clear cut directions are given of where to go, there’s a lack of HUD and extraneous guides, just a white dot for selecting what to interact with. Your only choice is to continue rummaging through drawers for more clues. I stopped often to take in the beautifully design room interiors. Long hallways with arched windows and damask curtains, libraries with shelves lined with tanned weathered books. Velvet drops hiding circular end tables. Polished and carved red woods lining the exterior of an antiquated wingback chair. Granite mantles, black and gold rotary phones, nailed slats of wood for the floors and swirled marble tiles that are textured in such high detail you can almost feel them. The intricate details such as these, added to each room enhance authenticity. It’s possible that just the detailed look of this game could intrigue non-gamers and even non-typical horror game fans into exploring it.
Level design, object design, visual effects, lighting, and texture quality is top notch, utilizing the Unity engine. Audio work is crisp and well defined for each object, with beautiful piano accompaniment or dark somber tones to lure your emotions to the subject at hand. Every aspect of this game’s design is working to augment immersion into this home, this family, and their story. As game engines go it rarely matters which is being used, in my case. What matters is the end result, and how the game’s developers put it all together. What developer Bloober Team SA was able to orchestrate out of this engine is nothing short of impressive, I have never seen such a good looking, well made, better working Unity based game than this one.
Once the initial admiration and exploration of the first few areas come to an end, you’ll have a key and will soon be entering the private studio. Inside there’s a canvas set atop an easel. Pulling the tweed cover off, the classical piano solo draws to a fade. Panicked sounds blare out, musical notes shiver with the room as it changes form. A cryptic message appears etched in dark water above the doorway, “Get it right this time.” That message wasn’t there before. Heading back out, you will notice more changes. Rooms are different, doors close mysteriously behind you. Did that doll move? Was that a rat in the shadows?Am I running in circles?
The descent into madness, can at times feel like a single drifting snowflake eternally lost after landing on frosted ground. Most of the early part of the game offers minute tidbits of those that lived in the home, and why this affluent manor is now uninhabited. There was once a loving couple that lived in here. There were dreams and aspirations, plans for children, and happiness. Something went wrong, that much is clear, but each scrap only explains so much. As you delve deeper the visual effects intensify, at times bewildering your senses, leaving you more uncertain of where to go next. Don’t bother with a map, nothing ever stays the same.
The house itself has a mind of its own, it evolves and grows, or collapses into a single plain room where everything is muted. The descent into madness, can at times feel like an enclosed water slide that never ends. As you begin to pick apart the story, the phenomena within the home continues to increase. The portrait in the studio twists and contorts with each passing revelation. With it, the house itself is contorting and shifting.
Horror tropes can come in forms you’ve come to expect, the shadow of a crying woman shuffling down a dim lit hallway. Dark shapes flittering to and fro. Other elements are less expected, and these are more intriguing. The eerie paintings, those with already macabre themes, melt into newer more grotesque forms; in cased you missed the point earlier. The etched messages on the walls will change again, more menacing this time. Turning around and opening previous doors will often reveal a different room than where you came from. With books and glassware that are flung suddenly across the rooms from unseen forces. While other rooms will explode with floating objects and bright colorful sketches; outlandish and unexplained but surreal and amazing to behold.
I fell down the stairs, as I plunged into madness. It felt the best way to go down, with so little left to go. By the game’s third act you are immune to random movement in the shadows, melting pictures, and spinning rooms. Now you are ready for more ghastly and disturbing portions of the game. The outer layers are now peeled, the outlandish occurrences careen across the screen like a derailed train. The conclusion is nearly upon us. Everything that terrified me, worried me, and even grabbed me had been built up by the first to slower acts. The time investment into investigating each resident and their associates, made each dark revelation something that would resonate for days. What’s left to do? Finish the painting. Get it right this time!
Layers of Fear is masterfully paced. Devoid of complex gameplay actions, there are tasks that need to be solved. Story pieces can be missed if you are not diligent in your searches. The clues you do find (or don’t) will influence the game’s ending. The game can be played multiple times to see them all. Some of the rooms required a more thought to acquire an item, or advance the story. I really enjoyed those moments, and felt the game had room for more thought provoking puzzle solving, even so, I was fascinated with what was presented. With such superb aesthetics, control over the pacing, disturbing imagery, and casual puzzle solving, it masks the two dimensional nature of “walking simulator” genre games, and keeps players engaged at all times.
Does this game evoke fear? Yes. Not irrational “scary monster” fears. Fear comes in many forms. The fear losing love, family, friends, prestige, and even your own self can be felt in this game. There is a chilling terror that forms as more horrifying elements come to light. There is a constant foreboding presence throughout, keeping each step you take filled with anticipation. Only during the rare moments that a horror element was repeated, did the tension release it’s vise grip. Within seconds, something else would jolt me back into the moment. The story would suddenly accelerate, pushing forth more and more terrifying imagery in relation to truths unraveling. The grotesque link between the manor, the artist you play, and the portrait in the studio, is both brilliant and captivating; as well as executed to near perfection.
Is this game art? Layers of Fear makes a compelling case. I think it qualifies. It’s elaborate design, attention to era specific details, meticulous story pacing, and surreal imagery are there to be appreciated and noticed: just like any painted canvas. The game evokes emotions, both in direct and indirect means. There is room to sit back and ponder on what you are seeing is connected to the story, as well as, what the symbolism displayed means for you. I was completely glued to my seat for the last few hours of this game, unable to tear myself away even for a moment. Many claim to be psychological thrillers, but Layers of Fear actually had a strong effect on my pulse. It sets a new bar for what video game thrillers can be, as well real merit to the idea that video games can be utilized as a deeper artistic medium.