Portrait of a Killer: How Scary Was Layers of Fear?

Joel Harvey

If you were one of the lucky ones who downloaded P.T. before Konami killed it, you probably know true gaming fear.

Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s Silent Hills demo was a pure proof-of-concept; the concept being your utter dribbling terror. But seeing as we’d never get that game, we got the next best thing – Layers of Fear.

We say “best”, but what we actually mean is “horrific”. Because Layers of Fear was your gateway into the mind of a psychotic killer. And surprise – that’s not a good place to be. Developed by Polish studio, Bloober Team, the game was released in 2016 to much acclaim and gasps of “what the f**k was that?” from everyone who played it. But was it that scary? Let’s reassess the whole nightmare.

Laughing Children

Layers of Fear is, in many ways, the full-length game of that P.T. demo. Playing in a first-person perspective, you try to make your way through a house that doesn’t want to play nice with reality.

If you’ve ever read the excellent, mind-bending book, House of Leaves, then you might gain a semblance of the diseased roots where both games stem from.

You’re also given the whole ‘unreliable narrator’ vibe in Layers of Fear. You appear to be the protagonist at first, but it transpires you might actually be the antagonist of the story; yes, you could very well be the killer. And progress through the game is your attempt to navigate, and come to terms with, the horrific crimes you’ve committed.

With the horror leaning towards the psychological variety then, it gives the developers carte blanche to mess with your head. And this is precisely what Layers of Fear does best; twisting everything you see in the game into a surrealistic, senseless nightmare.

There is no clear logic to the layout of the game – the rooms in the house change every time you enter them. And the doors behind you lock, leaving you on a path leading lord knows where. Probably to a tonne of jump-scares, no doubt.

The frights in Layers of Fear are nothing new though. Bloober Team calls upon all the well-worn horror tropes to get you on the edge of your seat. From creepy laughing children, to signs saying “don’t look back” (guess what happens if you look back?), the whole clichéd horror gang’s here.

But it’s what Layers of Fear does with all these traditional elements, that makes it such a nerve-shredding journey into hell. Especially with what it does with those goddamn paintings.

Where’d That Painting Go?

It’s the smart use of paintings in the game that really adds a whole new dimension to proceedings; an extra layer of fear, if you will (snigger). Your character is a painter who’s left the pastel watercolours behind him and made the transition into the blackness-of-the-soul kind of artistry. Because of this, the house is littered with creepy paintings; babies and weird-looking dudes, you know the types.

The eyes of the paintings will follow you everywhere, and if you’re really, really lucky, so will the actual paintings too. “Where’d that painting go from the wall? Oh yes, it’s now right in front of my face when I turn around. Of course it is.”

Again, the use of paintings as a scary theme of a video game is nothing new – go play D on the PS1 and see what we mean. But Layers of Fear bludgeons you over the head with them so much throughout the game, you really do feel like you’re losing your mind.

See also: the use of children’s toys in the game. Actually, you probably don’t want to see these. Look away, look away now….

Enjoy The Ghost Ride

And now we get to the crux of the game. Because Layers of Fear is less about gameplay, but more about the crazy, terrifying experience. Whereas P.T. would’ve only been an entry point into a presumably action-horror world of Silent Hills, Layers of Fear does not go any further itself.

It’s essentially a walking simulator horror game, which we have no problem with at all (it’s done very well). But ultimately it’s a ghost ride at a funfair – you sit there and you take the shocks being thrown at you, but you play little part in moving the ride along yourself.

Sure, there are multiple endings to the game and there are very slight puzzle elements too. But these are almost shoe-horned into the game to create the illusion of playability. And the story itself is a mismash of horror films, ultimately making very little coherent sense when you add it all up.

All you’re there for in Layers of Fear, is to pay your money and enjoy the ghost ride. We say “enjoy”, but what we really mean is “become tortured mentally by everything that’s happening around you”.

Start the discussion

to comment