I hear a lot of people online boasting about their apparent immunity to horror games. They load up any game from Silent Hill 2 to Amnesia: Dark Descent, and spend the entire game in a state of meh-faced passivity, or they laugh at the jump-scares and teabag the monsters, all the time basking in their perceived superiority.
I feel that this inherently misses the point of the horror genre. There will always be a certain amount of distance between the audience and the actions on-screen, and you need to put in a little effort in order to close that distance and open yourself up to the experience. You have to want to be scared.
I preface this article with the above because I want to emphasise that I was actively trying to be scared by Layers of Fear, and it just couldn’t manage it.
Horror is subtle. It’s a quiet, creeping thing that works so slowly that you never quite realise when it was that you started shaking in your seat. Horror is a trickle, not a torrent.
Layers of Fear starts with a waterfall and just keeps turning things up. The only area that even hints at a true, proper horror game is the open area at the very start of the game, which consists of maybe five rooms. Once you start the game proper, it immediately hits you with doors that keep changing where they lead to.
This choice results in multiple layers of failure (:D). Firstly, it signals to the player that this entire game is not grounded in reality: it’s a dream, or a hallucination, or a world based on the character’s broken mind. All of these are great settings for horror games; Silent Hill 2 is a classic of the genre that takes place entirely within a setting based on the main character’s psyche, but note that we don’t know that for much of the game.
Horror requires a grounding in reality. It needs us to believe that what we’re seeing has weight and meaning. Without reality, why be scared? How can we be unnerved by the subtle irregularities in a world that the game has established as unreal? Why be concerned about danger and consequence in a dream?
Secondly, the moving-door trope is best served to disorientate and unnerve the player once they’ve learned the geography of an area. By introducing it so early, and so often, the player knows to never bother learning the layout, as it’ll just be taken away again. I feel that the developers took a powerful tool and had no idea what to do with it, so they just kept using it and hoping it would be effective. Though taking great ideas and completely mistreating them is something that Layers of Fear just keeps doing.
Much of Layers of Fear is walking into a room, watching the “spooky” thing happen, then walking out of the room through the same door but into a new area. By the 45-minute mark I started playing the “what generic spooky thing is going to happen in this room” game. Is something going to fly across the room? Will objects spawn in? Will they fade away? Will a filter be applied to the screen? Though probably the paintings will just melt, again.
Each of these in and of themselves are not bad ideas, and I’ve been scared by all of them before. To be fair, the first couple of times they appeared in Layers of Fear they were effective, but the repetition eventually robs them of any impact and poisons anything new, because you know you’ll see it a hundred times before the end of the game.
Even as the game progresses and the world becomes more and more surreal, it doesn’t turn up the fear. It turns up the blood, the spooky events, the twisting of the world etc, but since the game never took the time to ground itself in reality, it doesn’t have nearly the impact it should.
On the topic of ridiculously overdone; around two-thirds of the way through the game, it develops an intense, but thankfully temporary, fetish for dolls. Everything is dolls. Teleporting dolls! Running dolls! Laughing dolls! Floating dolls! Black abysses filled with the disembodied heads of dolls!
As you might have guessed, this became more boring than scary very quickly. An extended period of the aforementioned baby-head abyss had me checking my phone and responding to messages.
Layers of Fear tries to convey a sense of danger to the player by adding in a rarely-seen but incredibly generic ghost-lady that I have to assume is supposed to be your wife. She pops up a few times throughout the game, sometimes in scripted sequences. She ambiguously kills(?) you and then leaves. For some reason, this is the only aspect of itself that Layers of Fear uses sparingly. In a game that sorely needs to give its spooky goings-on a sense of danger, they hold back on the ghost-lady.
For a better example of how to properly utilise your ghost-lady, we need only turn to the game that Layers of Fear was based on: PT, Playable Teaser. The ghost lady in PT attacks you, sure, but she also laughs at you, appears in mirrors, glares at you from balconies. My point is, an effectively-used ghost lady can be more than just a direct physical threat.
The game hints at a second monster, that leaves paint behind it. By which I mean the game occasionally makes thumping sounds and puts paint-marks on the ground. This is, of course, the opposite problem of the ghost-lady. The paint-monster never presents as an actual threat, and only appears a handful of times as noises and paint-trails, which are unsurprisingly difficult to find threatening.
The final nail in the coffin comes in the form of something that Layers of Fear got right. Layers of Fear has fairly good jump-scares, with satisfying sound cues in case you need to be reminded when to be scared. This is the main role of ghost-lady, but it can also be handled by doll-heads and light-switches, so she better not get too cocky.
Good horror is hard. I can’t emphasise that enough. For every good horror game or movie there are ten that wallow in deserved obscurity. The issue here is that Layers of Fear doesn’t. While I understand that fear isn’t something we can quantify, there is no denying that Layers of Fear fails on several, fundamental levels.
We need to hold our horror games to higher standards. We should not be satisfied with this.