Layers of Fear 2 is brilliant, and unfortunately it probably won’t be recognized as such because it defies genre definitions. In 2016, writing about the original Layers of Fear, I asked “Can a horror game be successful if it never manages to scare?” and the same question dogs this sequel. Make no mistake: It’s rarely frightening at all. In fact, when Layers of Fear 2 does fall back on jump scares or clumsy chase sequences, those are its worst moments.
So how do you set expectations?
It’s tempting at times to segment these games off into their own genre, to try and preempt pigeonholing. I’ve seen film circles struggle with the same questions of late, throwing around the term “post-horror” when discussing Get Out, Us, Haunting of Hill House, Hereditary, and more. Myself, I wrote that Layers of Fear’s follow-up Observer “wasn’t a horror game” when it released in 2017.
My mistake. Problem is, “horror” has always been one of the more one-note game genres, perhaps because the medium came of age during the slasher era and its decades-long death rattle. For a while you shot the monsters, a la Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Then you ran from monsters, a la Penumbra and Amnesia. A refreshing change, that latter, but still fundamentally more of the same vein of horror.
But there’s a rich horror tradition, one where the threats are mostly unseen or unknowable—The Thing, The Shining, The Omen, even In the Mouth of Madness and Jacob’s Ladder. Games can do the same, as evidenced by first Soma, then Layers of Fear and Observer.
Which brings us to Layers of Fear 2, a meticulously crafted homage to classic film that uses the visual language of horror to explore artistic creation—and specifically, acting—without uh…being scary. At all.
Note, it’s very hard to explain any of this without referencing specific examples or ruining the process of putting together this story yourself. The usual inclination is to summarize as much as you can, then duck out with a vague value judgment and a promise to the reader. “The story is great, but I can’t tell you why for fear of spoiling it.” I’ve written some version of that sentence countless times, as recently as last week with Observation.
I want to talk about Layers of Fear 2 though—at your expense, perhaps. And so if you want to go in blind (and you should) I recommend rereading the first sentence of this review and then walking away. Layers of Fear 2 is a brilliant work of art. That’s my official stance.
Layers of Fear told the story of a painter gone mad. Thus people (naturally) assumed Layers of Fear 2 did the same, but with cinema. And there are certainly parallels, with Tony Todd’s gravel-voiced Director hoping to create his own Great Work.
You aren’t playing Tony Todd though. You’re the actor, and the whole premise of Layers of Fear 2 is that you’re one of the early adopters of the Method—which, as you probably know, asks actors to search for emotional truth within themselves in order to embody a role, or “Build the character,” a recurring mantra in Layers of Fear 2.
This manifests similar to madness, with constant flashbacks and disorienting geography, but it’s not. It’s a tool, a process. Nobody uses the words “The Method” though. Rather, it relies on the audience having certain knowledge of film, film production, and film history in order to connect the dots. Without it, you’d come to a completely different (lesser) understanding of the story being told.
Layers of Fear 2 is building towards this moment where you realize it’s all intentional. All the glimmers of recognition, the moments where you thought you noticed a pattern? You did. There is a pattern.
It takes time, though. It builds, and at first the constant changes in tone and location seem random. You start Layers of Fear 2 on an ocean liner, but as with the first game the ship is an impossible Escher space where you exit a room and find yourself back inside, or double back to find a new hallway’s replaced the old.
These parlor tricks continue through the entire game, but they gradually grow more ambitious. A door projected from film onto the wall turns into a real doorway. An elevator opens up onto a city block, skyscrapers stretching into the mists above. A normal suburban kitchen opens onto woods, with a glimmer of opulence in the distance. The escalation—the increasing detachment from reality—mirrors the actor’s process, as they lose their identity in favor of digging deeper into the character. Or don’t, as may be.
And there are so many references to catch. I started to understand around the time I saw Metropolis, or “Mechanopolis” as it’s called on the in-game poster. Both the iconic factory scene and clock make an appearance, the first time I realized Layers of Fear 2 was borrowing scenes from film history directly. Others follow, from Melies’ Trip to the Moon to The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, Nosferatu, Casablanca, and so on.
They offer more than visual flair. The Wizard of Oz sequence, for instance, dovetails with details about the actor’s bleak childhood. As you walk from a sepia-hued kitchen into a facsimile of the Emerald City, the implication is that the actor took refuge in both film and in their own imagination, an escape from their abusive home life. The Trip to the Moon segment adapts the iconic rocket-hitting-the-moon sequence so it also reflects the father’s wartime injury, which left him with only one working eye.
I don’t need to spoil every reference. The point is: There’s intent, here. Layers of Fear 2’s film homages certainly make for unique visuals, and a surreal journey. But more than that, they convey elements of the character’s personality and history by drawing on the audience’s knowledge.
That’s sort of the problem. If you don’t have a certain frame of reference it’s all lost—seemingly random changes in tone, in color versus black-and-white, in setting. None of the references are too obscure, to be fair, but they’re certainly not all common touchstones. The exaggerated shadows of German Expressionism look splendid, but if you don’t understand the parallels between the character’s situation and say, Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu, then there’s a disconnect.
Even for those who catch every reference, it’s still something of a challenge to sift through them—especially in the moment, connecting various motifs to the two or three story arcs playing out simultaneously in past and present, and (for the most part) tied to collectible items. Layers of Fear 2 lends itself to multiple replays, catching references or visual tricks you missed the first time when you were distracted more by the mechanics of playing it. Hell, even in the process of writing this review, I’ve had multiple realizations, along the likes of “Oh that’s why such-and-such happened.”
Some, I’m not sure I’ll ever know for certain. There’s an extended sequence in the ship’s engine room for instance, and I’m pretty sure some of the machinery was designed to resemble an oversized 35mm camera. Then I worry I’m reading too much into it.
Layers of Fear 2 is steeped in enough symbolism that these overreaches seem normal though—even encouraged. Like Observer, Layers of Fear 2 completely commits to a theme—the visuals, the narrative, the audio—and a much grander story is created in the spaces where these elements meet. Provided, of course, the player’s willing to meet it halfway.
So again: Layers of Fear 2 is brilliant. I think I might be in the minority on that one, and that’s fine. Hell, plenty of people didn’t love In the Mouth of Madness either, especially at the time, but I think it’s one of John Carpenter’s best.
The jump scares are a bit overdone, same as the original Layers of Fear, and there’s an abysmal chase sequence in the second act that could’ve been cut completely. Still, Bloober Team’s rapidly proved itself as a master of psychological horror, using symbolism in ways most games don’t even attempt, let alone achieve. So what if it’s not very scary? There’s more important work to be done. Great work.
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