I recently played through Here They Lie, a short horror story produced by Sony’s in-house Santa Monica Studio that targeted the company’s then-new PlayStation VR device. I rather liked it, and in part because it reminded me of Layers of Fear, another pretty-good short game in the same genre from a couple of years ago. I never got around to writing about that one at the time*; with some freshly nudged perspective, I shall amend that now, with an aim to swing back to Here They Lie later.

Of the two games, Layers of Fear employs a stronger mechanical coherence to present a much more pure horror experience of the haunted-house variety. As far as momentary frights go, I’ll risk the statement that Layers has scared me more than any other video game before it. After a calm opening (Okay, you’re first-personing through a creaky old mansion, you know the drill) and a handful of dime-store jump-scares, the game debuts its core gimmick of quietly rearranging the set-dressing behind your back. I mean this literally: at many key points, the nature of the world directly behind the camera shifts, with no fanfare. The room might suddenly appear full of objects not there before, or the painting on the wall has doubled in size, or the door you came through has vanished utterly. Confused, you follow your instinct to re-establish your bearings by spinning back to face what you’d just been looking at a moment prior, exactly as the game knew you would, and then…

Before playing Layers I would have never guessed how profoundly this effect would work on me. Again and again, this conceptually simple trick of unexpectedly altering my simulated perception unsettled me thoroughly. I will never forget the single scariest moment in Layers of Fear, implemented entirely without a drop of gore or even a loud noise: just an exquisitely timed presentation of a certain prop, which performs a certain action and then vanishes before its appearance had even registered completely with my consciousness. I shouted so loudly I woke up my wife sleeping two rooms away.

After that, for reasons of both personal comfort and domestic tranquility, I had to adjust my attitude while advancing through Layers. I shifted from my default breezy couch-flop, through the leaning-forward focus I’ll adopt during a trickier game’s boss battles, and straight into an actively self-defensive posture. Instead of freely whirling the camera this way and that as I would in any other first-person game, I learned to turn around s-l-o-w-l-y, and paced my advancement through new the map to a crawl, all so as to limit the rate at which horrible things could make their acquaintance with me. Semi-consciously, I tightened my gut muscles, controlled my breathing, and all but growled over gritted teeth when opening another door, putting up a real-world psychosomatic energy-barrier against the literally unpredictable events that likely lurk across the threshold. I probably looked like hell, playing it, but I assure you that I loved every minute.

While it keeps its focus on a grand haunted-house experience over video-gamey challenges, Layers does feature some risk. You can “die” through a misstep, which in the game’s fiction I take to mean that your character faints from fright; he awakens peacefully a little later, in more or less the same spot, his grogginess temporarily quiescing the spooks of his mind. If I recall correctly, these always come as the consquence of a discrete action, or a failure to act despite ample opportunity; not once did I die due to failing a fight or a stealth sequence or the like, as nothing like these appear in this game.

Crucially, this sort of failure doesn’t result in a world-state reset: whatever horror “killed” you passes into memory, as surely as if you had successfully navigated past it, and any items you’d collected towards more gracefully resolving the scenario get quietly removed from your inventory and permanently discarded. Nothing stops you from loading an earlier save and trying a different approach, but accepting the game’s invitation to just trudge forward regardless feels more correct. I never regretted playing this way, on my one trip through the mansion, even though I ended far short of a gold-trophy, no-deaths win. At one point writing literally appeared on the wall telling me not to do something. I wasted no time in disobeying it, and the game shrugged and sent a horrible vision to come scream in my face until I blacked out. Friend, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alas, the writing in Layers is… pretty bad. It has some kind of story presented in the usual scraps-of-diaries-and-news-clippings format, mixing in bits of voice-acted audio flashbacks, all setting up suggestion for the player-character’s predicament. For the most part, they sound bland at best, and terribly off-key at worst; while trying for a serious and circa-1900 tone, they instead have the voice of a snarky young redditor of 2015 improvising an “old-timey” story with little to no research. The game’s creators live in Poland, but even allowing for linguistic leeway, it leaves us with a strong impression of writing as an afterthought, executed with far more enthusiasm than skill. After a while I found the narration frankly painful to listen to, and just fast-forwarded through it all.

Despite the game’s hokey plotting, my writing this retrospective (as well as recently wandering through the interestingly contrastable Here They Lie) has whetted my appetite for revisiting Layers’ paint-spattered halls; I may very well give its DLC a go, or maybe just try to make it through the base game unscathed. In any event, I do generally recommend this title for those craving a high-quality spooky-mansion digital experience. Come for the stagecraft rather than the story, and use the dimmer-switch on your living-room wall as your difficulty slider.


* I see from my achievements’ time-stamps that I’d started and completed Layers of Fear on either side of the 2016 election, so I’ll forgive myself the distracted delay.

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shawn kilburn

I really enjoy reading Jason McIntosh writing about games (and other things too). Living vicariously through thoughtful games-playing, basically :)

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