Layers of Fear tries to ask a few questions. Can a videogame play with the idea that you have no idea what reality has been constructed behind your back when you’re not looking? Can it violate the laws of physics? Can it ruthlessly deconstruct physical space? Can it do zero-G? Those are the questions it intends to ask. Of course, anybody who has ever played a videogame already knows the answers. But Layers of Fear asks anyway.
And then it jumps in your face and makes a loud noise.
After the jumpscare, another jumpscare, and another, and another, and another.
In one of the most memorable scene in Poltergeist, JoBeth Williams is in the kitchen. In the shot, we can see a dining room beyond the kitchen with a table and chairs. She crosses into the kitchen and bends down to get something out of a cabinet. The camera tracks down with her. When the camera follows her standing back up, all the chairs have been arranged in an elaborate stack atop the table. A subtle mischievous musical trill plays. Tobe Hooper didn’t play a loud clanging noise. Furthermore, he only used this trick once.
Layers of Fear loves this moment, but it doesn’t understand it. It accompanies its tricks with loud noises. It uses them over and over again. It makes the same mistake as lots of bad horror by confusing being startled with fear. There aren’t many layers to being startled. I count one. But here comes Layers of Fear with another cheap jumpscare in which the world shifts or something jumps at you. Usually, it’s a kind of mummy/zombie thing with the obligatory vibrating head. Sometimes it’s a scary doll. Sometimes it’s just light and noise.
As Layers of Fear shifts the world around, it has to be careful not to be too confusing, because then you might take too long getting to the next jumpscare. So it rolls out its hackneyed funhouse tricks one after the other in carefully linear fashion and as regularly as clockwork. A door is there that wasn’t there a second ago. You walk through it. You’re in the same room you just left. Something suddenly falls to the floor. A vase or a painting or a ceiling fan. Did a ghost knock it down? Who knows? You turn to the exit. Someone throws a knife at you from behind and it sticks into the door frame. You turn around and no one’s there. Of course not. What did you expect? A knife killer? Someone standing there sheepishly because he’d almost hit you with a knife? It was always going to be no one there. And even if something or someone had been there, then what? Something bangs violently on the door. Guess who’s there when you open it? You got it. No one.
This stuff might have worked as part of an actual game. For instance, a dream sequence in a Max Payne game. Or a level in Painkiller. Or maybe something where you have to go into cyberspace in Fallout 4. But when a game consists of nothing but the expected gimmicks, it gets tedious. When you have no rules, breaking rules is meaningless. The gimmick plays out and there’s still 90% of the playing time to go. All the while, there’s very little story and even less game. Pick up shreds of information. Listen to a snippet of bad voice acting. Infer what they mean if you want. Or not. Layers of Fear is mostly here to startle you.
I suspect Layers of Fear was made specifically as Let’s Play fodder. This is what Let’s Plays have done to game development. Bloober, a studio whose previous claim to fame is a Bomberman clone, seems to have tailor-made a game for watching some idiot in an inset window shamelessly overact for his YouTube audience. With its short running length, its minimal storytelling, and its overreliance on jump scares, Layers of Fear seems to be chasing the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s. In other words, not so much a game as a tool to drive traffic to someone’s YouTube channel. That’s not game development. It’s pandering.