Layers of Fear makes a strong case that games need an editor.
Layers of FearPublisher: Bloober Team
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Bloober Team
Release Date: 2016-02-16
Layers of Fear makes a strong case that games need an editor. It’s a first-person walker in which we explore a seemingly normal house, albeit one housing a crazy person who thinks that the house is infested with rats. There’s a nice spooky atmosphere to this early part of the game that becomes even spookier when a doorway moves and we realize the house is changing around us. What was once a fairly small home becomes infinite.
When you first walk into this haunted house one thing immediately stands out: the head bob. In other words, the camera moving up and down as you walk. I'm usually fine with this kind of simulated head movement, but there's a momentum to this bobbing that makes it difficult to interact with the world. As a first-person walker, Layers of Fear is designed around the idea of close inspection. You're meant to zoom in on paintings and open every drawer and closet, but the momentum consistently makes this harder than it should be. I'll stop and aim at a doorknob and the camera will lean off target just enough to mess me up, turning the main interaction of the game into an irritant. Thankfully you can turn off the head bobbing in the Option menu, and I recommend doing so as soon as possible.
Aside from that issue, your interaction with the world feels great. All that you're really doing is opening and closing things, but this maps to the controller with a wonderful physicality. You grab things with a trigger button, then use the right stick to push/pull/swing/move the object in question, mimicking the in-game motion. There is a weight to every interaction, big doors open slowly and little cupboards are flung open. It feels good to simple rummage through the house, which is a good thing because that's where you'll find most of the story.
Notes and such are hidden around the hallways, telling the story of the family that lived here: their initial successes in life, their inevitable tragedies, and their downfall and madness. It's a typical ghost story, but even a typical ghost story can be good as long as it's told well. Sadly, Layers of Fear is a very poor storyteller. Those notes and such are few and far between, so most of your rummaging will result in coming up empty. Eventually it starts to feel pointless, all those desks and drawers and shelves, so many per room, even more per hallway, and all of them empty as far as you're concerned. Even worse, the truly important story items will be laid out, not closed up somewhere dark and hidden, undercutting our whole motivation for exploration and examination.
The intro offers no context for the rest of the game. You don't know who are or why you're here. There’s a complete lack of any narrative premise. There is a narrative, and you are someone important to that narrative, but those pesky details like plot and character don’t come up until (literally) the very end. This results in a disconnect. Yes, I'm intrigued by the house and its horror and its history, but my interest is just a casual curiosity. I have no emotional investment in anything, I just want to see what new trick the developer throws at me. It feels like the game was initially designed with this kind of academic ethos in mind, and then partway through its development the developers decided to add a story and did so without changing anything that was already made.
The environment is similarly confused. The main hook here is the changing nature of the house, and it’s a good hook. We’re lost in a hostile environment and we can never not be lost because the environment is actively working against us, trapping us. But the way that the game is designed is that there is only ever one path forward. Even if I’m in a hallway with multiple doors, all but one will be locked. It’s hard to feel lost when you’re on an obvious path.
At first the linearity works to convey a terrible (in a good way) inevitability. We can only move forward, and yet each step forward seems to anger a ghost even more. We can't go back, the only way out is through, and yet going through the house invites the specter to rage against us. It's effective horror, trapping us in a dead end and forcing us to walk towards our own demise.
But it only works for so long. Clocking in at about three hours, Layers of Fear is pretty short for a game, but it still manages to drag on for far too long. It really only has one trick: move the hallways, then close the door behind us. Trap us in a dead end and then force us towards our demise. It's a frightening situation repeated over and over again every minute for 180 minutes. At some point during that time, this stops being scary and just becomes dull.
Together, the lack of narrative and repetitive pacing ensure there's no clear sense of progression. As the story bits begin to repeat themselves, going over the same tragic event multiple times, and the rooms move around with no purpose, it feels like the game is just killing time, just padding itself out until it’s an acceptable length for a game. After about two hours, I had no idea how far along I really was. It felt like the game could end in 10 minutes or 10 hours, which made for an endlessly frustrating experience. It’s absurd just how awful the pacing is. There’s no rising or falling action, no sense of progression, no plot or character or motivation, just a surreal nightmare that doesn't end. That might sound scary, but a nightmare that repeats itself is predictable, and what’s predictable isn’t scary or compelling or interesting.
There is a narrative structure that becomes apparent after a couple hours. Every now and then you’ll return to a room with a painting, having collected some tool to help complete it. This is ultimately revealed to be the main point of the game, wandering through a hellscape looking for the right brush and paints and canvas to finish a work of art. This raises a neat thematic idea: What is art worth suffering? Is it worth going through literal hell? Is the drive of creativity stronger than the drive of fear? This would make for an interesting story, but the game doesn’t actually tackle these ideas. This plotting isn’t even mentioned in the first hour, and you’ll only realize that the painting is important when you return to it for the third time out of six. Basically, it takes two-thirds of the game to realize what the plot is about, and even then, the final third is just more of the same hallway shtick.
There’s some great horror imagery in Layers of Fear, and it certainly wrings every drop of cleverness out of its central hook. However, that just means that we’re sick of that hook by the game's end. It starts with so much promise, and for an hour or so, it lives up to that promise. Then it keeps repeating itself, as if the developers assumed that a scare that worked the first time must still work the 87th time. By the end, Layers of Fear becomes something more horrible than any ghost or haunted house. It becomes boring.