There’s a long history of mad artists in horror, from Oscar Wilde’s legendary The Picture of Dorian Gray to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s hell-bound painter in Hell Screens. The myth continues until this day, that to be a successful artist, you also need to be a little mad.
Or a lot mad, in the case of Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear.
The 2023 edition of Layers of Fear is a remaster of several games into a single package, with shiny, upgraded graphics. It includes the original 2016 Layers of Fear, its sequel and additional chapters, alongside a new framing story. Although there are five stories to play through, three of them relate to the original Layers of Fear, the story of a brilliant painter and his family driven mad. The other two are the story of an actor on a sinking ship, and a writer in a sinister lighthouse.
I never played the 2016 Layers of Fear, so I came to the game ready for a fresh horror experience. With such a diversity of stories, it’s no wonder the Layers of Fear remake is a mixed bag. The Painter’s story is a genuinely chilling horror game. The others suffer from repetitive gameplay, vague puzzles, and confusing narratives. Thematically, they’re tied together with a sinister, supernatural figure, but they’re not so interlinked as to feel like a cohesive whole.
It’s also important to note that Layers of Fear is an extremely dark game, tackling themes of neglect, mental health, self-harm and suicide. It deals with these themes to varying levels of success, although it often relies on cliched storytelling to do so. If any of these things are issues for you, I don’t recommend this game, and the game warns players to that effect.
The Painter’s Story
In the Painter’s story, players explore the artist’s house through a series of chapters that chart his rise and fall. Like many great horror stories, the house takes on the characteristics of the Painter’s psychology, and the excellent environment design amps up the fear factor. Each chapter of his story reveals more about his failures – both as an artist, a husband, and a father. Chapter 4 explores his relationship with his daughter, and childlike illustrations cover the house’s many rooms.
It’s this kind of experimentation in game design which is exciting to see. There have been plenty of games which have played with level design in this way, like Kingdom Hearts and What Remains of Edith Finch, but I appreciated the way the house devolved over the game. Familiar spaces transform from cosy bedrooms to Escherian landscapes over time. Paintings spill out their contents from the imagined to the real world. Nothing is what it seems – doors close and disappear, rooms change shape, objects transform before your very eyes.
The first scenario is the strongest at maintaining the interest of the player across a variety of rooms and puzzles, while traversing the twisted and surreal passages. There was enough variety to keep me intrigued, although it was during the fifth chapter of the Painter’s story I felt like the game could have been cut tighter.
Perhaps this is because the Painter’s story doesn’t go in an unexpected direction; it tackles his descent into alcoholism, and the affect this has on his wife and child. Characterisation has always been a struggle in Bloober Team’s games, with the Medium’s main character suffering from an identity crisis. Here the Painter is your archetypal vision of a tortured artist, and the story leans too much on these tropes. His overdramatic narration opines how the art world doesn’t understand him, especially as his work is overtaken by visions of the terrifying Rat Queen.
Yet knowing the outcome of the Painter’s story removes the tension from the follow-up stories, that of his daughter in ‘The Inheritance’ and his musician wife in ‘The Final Note’. His wife too is a tortured musician, torn from her love of music by a vicious accident. Her outcome is grim, and expected, for what are tortured women to do but die? There’s a benefit to the ambiguity of the Painter’s story. We don’t need all the gaps filled in for it to work. Despite the reliance on cliches, ‘The Masterpiece’ left me with a genuinely unsettled feeling I haven’t had in a game for a long time.
The Actor’s story
The Actor’s story is almost as long as the Painter’s story. That’s because it’s Layers of Fear 2, reworked so that it fits in the framing device of the Writer’s story.
The Actor’s story brings a new interpretation to the concept of layered fear. Where the painter explored a very literal layering using paint, the actor explores the layered character. In this game, an actor can’t fully know themselves, because their true identity is lost under the layers of character. The game commands you to shape the character, but gives you very few options for developing their personality, leaving you instead with a blank canvas. Because I wasn’t drawn to the Actor’s story through their character, I had less of a compulsion to keep going with the narrative, especially when things became repetitive.
There was a missed opportunity here to set the Actor’s story in old Hollywood, rather than on a sinking ship. This narrative riffs on classic films without developing an identity of its own, leaving the player to meander down corridors without a definitive purpose. Even the puzzles in this game felt loosely linked to the concept of film. At times, I didn’t understand the point of the puzzles. In Chapter 2, the overbearing director commanded me to steal food from a dog, but the controls made it impossible to understand what I was doing wrong (or right). A child lambasted me for failing to steal the food, but I didn’t know why I needed it. This confusion all stems from a lack of clarity in the character’s motivation.
That’s acting, I suppose.
Intermission: The Writer’s Story
The Writer’s story is used to link these tales, but it feels like a contrived way to tie two disparate games together. Which is a shame, because I loved the concept of a black horror writer invited to write a novel in a sinister lighthouse in the mid-20th century. I wanted to see this game developed more fully, because the unnamed narrator drew me in with her determination from the opening scene.
Different stories, same mechanics
What all the stories have in common are the game mechanics. Some critics would compare Layers of Fear to a walking simulator, although I think of it more as an interactive escape room. Although there are narrative choices throughout the chapters, the scenarios are fairly linear in how they progress through the level. You’ll find yourself traversing corridors looking for an open door, following the flickering lights through large spaces, or simply walking in circles for effect.
Many of these levels contain simple puzzles, such as finding the combination to a lock, or manipulating the space by moving objects. The more surreal puzzles are the most impressive; at several points in the Painter’s story, you’re required to change perspective through a series of frames, and these puzzles are as original as they are trippy. Often, you’ll look one way, and turn around to find the corridor you came from has disappeared. This surreal environment design surprised me at many points, leading me to become genuinely disoriented.
The track-like nature of the game becomes more apparent in ‘The Final Note’, the story of the Painter’s musician wife. Although looping through the same passage simulates the trapped mental state of the character, it becomes tedious after several turns. My brain demanded something new. Comparing all the scenarios, it seems that ‘The Masterpiece’ was the most developed and thought out; the additional stories lacked the finesse present in the first game.
In each level, you’ll get a torch or lantern to banish oily swirls of evil thoughts or freeze the spirits which pursue you through the levels. It’s a fairly basic mechanic, but it’s developed to much better effect in the Actor’s story, where the torch is used to animate mannequins to assist you along the way.
There’s also some jankiness in playing Layers of Fear on a console. Getting used to opening and closing doors with R2 takes effort, and sometimes this can be a slow process at critical points, like when you’re trying to escape from the various spectral figures in the game. If you pick anything up during overhead narration, the object’s audio cancels the story audio.
But the sound is one of the highlights of the game. The info screen urges you to play with headphones on, and I’d encourage you to do so. Having the sound up close adds an extra level to the game’s creep factor. The whoosh of enemies as they sneak up behind you, the chattering of children in walls, and the overused broken light noises significantly contribute to the chilling nature of the story.
Anyone with an interest in horror video games would do well to play through the Painter’s story, to understand how a sinister narrative can be told through sound, objects, and environment design. But the stories that follow don’t hold up to the original, and detract from the strengths of the first game. In the end, the remastered package is too lengthy and repetitive to maintain the tension. Better to play the conglomerate of Layers of Fear in pieces, much like the torn artwork that haunts the characters within.