FBT takes a cowering, terrified walk through mind of a madman.
Most walking sims see you padding through somewhere that holds a memory, or some significance, which Layers of Fear has. They tend to feature a lead who needs to confront some aspect of their life in order to move on, as does Layers of Fear. They usually have puzzles and events but it’s all about discovering the hidden truths, a reality hiding in plain sight. And that’s what Layers of Fear is about. So, it’s a walking sim. Except, I’ve never been too scared to actually walk in a walking sim. There’s even a VR version. F'that.
In the 1920s, an artist heads to his workshop, driven to finally paint his life’s work. Navigating his stately home to find the tools and inspiration he needs, the artist becomes unhinged as he’s subjected to all the horrors the house - and his mind - has been keeping secret.
The first few chapters are astounding. It’s a master-class in game design and keeping you off kilter. You are utterly disorientated as corridors change, doors appear or disappear, ornaments, pictures and objects move in the corner of your eye or leap out at you. It’s like playing The 7th Guest on mushrooms. You’re constantly either terrified or confused.
As each part of the painting is completed, via increasingly horrific means – a lock of his daughter’s hair, blood … the house becomes more decrepit, surreal, aggressive towards him as he delves deeper into his past actions toward his muse-wife and child, obsessively looking to draw out inspiration as the desire to complete his masterpiece becomes all consuming. What started as an uneasy, dream-like logic puzzle becomes a house of horrors you drive further to reach the objects he needs to create the perfect picture and ease the guilt. It becomes a nightmare trying to navigate the house and his fractured state of mind, being terrified at every corner – if it even is a corner.
You can become completely stressed, convinced you just walked through a door that’s no longer there, questioning everything you see. You never feel safe, you become conditioned to really not wanting to open a door. And then there’s nothing behind it except another door. And now you really, really don’t want to open that one. The only problem is after a while, that level of intensity just exhausts you.
The first few chapters really get under your skin, as if the house is toying with you, but once it starts to torture you, you get desensitised. It’s like those early 00’s movies, 13 Ghosts or the Haunting remake (this references the original brilliantly in one scene, and there’s an early Evil Dead nod), and it becomes a tired pantomime jump-scare grind. There’s also the fact that as a walking sim, you’re never really in any danger. You can be sort-of killed, and those moments feed into which ending you confront, but in later levels you start to feel like you’re in a fairground haunted house, enjoying the scares but never feeling threatened.
It would have been more effective to slow down rather than double-down. The story of what happened to his family, how all-encompassing his work became and how he slid into obsessive behaviours is compelling but so fragmented and flash-frame shock-reveal dependant that it doesn’t quite land emotionally, and without that you just push through, trying to get the picture finished. You are caught up in his mania, and worried about the wife and child, but it feels like the game considers the plot secondary to the next ‘whoa’ moment.
Often you feel this is as much a demonstration of developers’ creativity as it is storytelling. You sometimes step away from the game and find yourself pondering how they did it, trying to spot the shifts and changes. A lot of the events have no relevance and feel a bit cliché – a doll stands up and walks. Scary! But why?
Still, it is incredibly inventive. You completely lose any sense of reality, it’s a dizzying, terrifying experience, an astonishing if theatrical look at schizophrenia and paranoid delusions; you’re reliving, like a dream, both a terrible trauma and the realisation it’s your fault - unable to face up to what he’s wrought, the painting is the artist’s way of working through that realisation, and we’re influencing it - your choices decide how that picture takes shape, based on your interactions and if you go toward or evade certain events. Like I’m in any state to make a considered choice. Somehow, I managed to get the ‘best’ ending out of three possibilities. Not sure any of them would be considered a ‘good’ ending given the reveals, but I can’t bring myself to play it again to find out.
Layers of Fear also features a solid if short DLC where you can play the daughter, and through her memories you see how events came to pass, while choosing to follow in father’s footsteps or mum’s wishes for her daughter. It’s not got the same sense of dread, and it’s a great deal more overt in the choices you must make to lead the daughter to a resolution and understanding, but as a side game detailing the events from a different point of view, and exploring the artist’s breakdown, it’s compelling if unsurprisingly stuff.
Certainly this isn’t the first time a video game has scared us, but Layers of Fear is the first time I’ve truly felt lost in someone else’s nightmare and unable to escape - I have to go further to get out; it’s scary trying to make sense of the insensible, realising you can’t trust your own eyes or ears. For maybe two hours of its four-hour experience this is truly incredible. The rest is mind-numbing. But great to look at. If you dare...