Layers of Fear (2016)

Layers of Fear (2016), developed by Blooper Team, published by Aspyr Media

If games like Dear Esther or Gone Home are called walking simulators. Layers of Fear should be called door opening simulator. While you do a fair amount of limping walking in the game, the main activity in it is opening doors in an expectation of seeing a jump scare.

The tale begins with an artist opening the door to his home. In the role of the said artist, you hobble, as there is something wrong with his leg, around the very nice looking house,  looking for something, that something being a key to his studio. During this search, you see snippets of a story as well, presented in form of notes and letters spread all over the house. There's nothing definitive about the story at this moment, they're just things of the life of the artist, hinting what is going on.

After you've found the key, you can finally enter the studio, where you find a canvas, covered with a cloth, sitting in the middle of a messy room. As you uncover the painting, the game truly begins, plummeting deeply into the damaged psyche of the man trying to create his masterpiece.

You can say there are two goals in the game; the first one, that allows you to proceed, is to find an item of importance that allows the painting to proceed, the second is the find all the clues, notes and letters on what happened with the family of the artist. Where the items of importance help you to finish the painting, the story elements determine which of the multiple endings you see, as they determine what kind of a painting the artist ends up doing.

The progression is simple enough: you walk around a big house, which gets more and more derelict and misshapen the deeper into the psyche you travel. You go through dark corridors, dimly lit rooms, see jump scares and collect things. At times you find something that triggers a memory the painter hears in his mind. To find these items you need to open doors, trunks, drawers and cabinets. And that's about it.

From time to time, you come to a little puzzle you need to solve to open a path forward, but other besides those few puzzles, the main bulk of the game is just moving around, looking for stuff.

I've seen Layers of Fear described as a survival horror game, but there's no survival element in it. At least I didn't find anything that could be considered a deadly threat, as you don't die. Nothing kills you, as it all is only in the mind of the man you play as. And therein lies the basic problem of Layers of Fear: jump scares is all it has and after 30 minutes or so, you've seen all the game has to offer on that, so it gets gradually less and less scary.  And the less scary it gets, the less enjoyable the hobbling around the house becomes, as you start noticing how slow the movement is and how repetitious opening the doors becomes as well as how annoying it is to find a door in a dark room.

Horror is a genre that is difficult to do, especially when it is overly reliant on the type of scaring tactics presented here. While Layers of Fear does a remarkable job in creating an atmospheric environment with graphics and the sound design, it is, in the end, just too long of a tale to be properly scary to the end.

In a way, the developers might have been aware of this as well, as the game does turn in a more psychedelic direction, trying to provide imagery of a grotesque and unsettling nature rather than relying fully on scares, but in that I found the game losing its edge as well. Not because the jump scares and the psychedelic presentation feel mismatched, but because I just didn't find the latter scary,  I found it rather gimmicky.

The story itself leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It does give you clues and notions on what happened to the painter for him to be suffering these hallucinations and horrors, but it doesn't give a clear-cut answer on a lot of things. How much you'll see, depends greatly on how much time you put in rummaging the rooms and containers and how many secrets you'll discover. As these discoveries also affect on what ending you'll see, there's some amount of replay value that this brings, but if you end up replaying the game or just Youtubing the endings, depends greatly on if you liked the game mechanics or not.

Personally, I could tolerate the mechanics for a duration of a single playthrough, as it takes only 4 hours or so, but I can't see myself playing the game again. I don't find the work/reward ratio of the design to be fulfiling enough for that.

If Layers of Fear sounds like something you'd like to try yourself, it is available for consoles as well as for Windows and Mac.