Major Spoilers Ahead!
I don’t think I’ve ever played a horror video game that genuinely upset and/or unnerved me. At the most, I’ve given them an “Ahh, you got me!” after a well done jump-scare. During Layers of Fear, I found myself actually starting to panic.
Remember when I told you about the spoilers? Okay, I want to really get into some of the gritty details of this game, so you have been doubly warned.
The overall idea of Layers of Fear is that at some point, while exploring your house, you (The Painter, as we shall call him) have something of a psychotic break. You even find a note describing the symptoms of schizophrenia and marking all of them as either “yes” or “always had that”; you’re meant to believe it’s his study of his wife, but I believe they may have been describing The Painter.
So after this break, The Painter begins to experience vivid hallucinations. The room you just left from will transform into a different room after simply shutting the door and opening it again. Sometimes, you’re met with a brick wall. Others, the door will lock and you can’t go back, only forward.
Back to the part about how I said I started to panic. There’s a special sense of disorientation in this game — think the improbable layout of the Overlook Hotel ramped up to 100. Like, if the Overlook Hotel was more powerful and sentient, it would pull this kind of shit.
The most vivid moment for me where I almost had to put down the controller for a while was in a hallway. Only about ten feet long, no big deal. A simple hallway with a table in it. I walked down the hall and took a left at the end, since that was the only way to go. I turned the corner to find another hallway, very similar, with a table in it. Weird. I walked down the hall and took a left at the end. I walked down the hall and took a left at the end. I walked down the hall and took a left at the end. I walked down the hall and took a left at the end.
You can see my problem. I was stuck in the same hallway.
No matter how many times I turned the corner, I was in the same spot. Now, obviously I wasn’t actually in that hallway, but god damn did it feel like I was. And that’s when I started to panic. I can’t really explain why it was so upsetting, but I lost all sense of direction, and with it my sense of safety. Then, somewhere, a phone began to ring, but it sounded off somehow.
The brilliance of this puzzle was that it took me running in the same hallway like a terrified mouse for about five minutes to realize that the telephone was ringing backwards. So what did I have to do to get out? Go backwards. Go the other way down the hall.
Sure enough, I ended up in a new hallway (thank god) with a telephone in it, ringing normally. The nightmare was far from over but the relief I felt upon figuring out the trick to the hallway was so real. While Layers of Fear succeeds in other aspects of the horror video game — well-executed jump scares, scary monsters, creeping terror, spooky remnants of the past — that is where it really excels. The ability to make you feel like you’re really lost in this vast house, but moreso, in the unstable broken place that is The Painter’s mind.
And then there’s the matter of the story. What is the actual, complete plot of Layers of Fear? For those of you who have played through already, I’d love to hear your theories. I have my own idea of what happened in the lives of The Painter and The Musician, but I think that’s a story for another day.