Layers of Fear (2016) and Inheritance (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Layers of Fear (2016) and Inheritance (2016)

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There was reassurance, darkness, and - finally - pain.  My doctor assured me the stint did not need to stay in for long, it only needed to be installed as long as it took for my body to finally expel the stones it carried around.  I was taken care of for a bit then I was alone.  At some point in the night I developed a fever, the pain medications barely kept the needles digging through my crotch at bay, I couldn't lay down and could barely walk but the fever and pain kept me moving.  Eventually I found my notebook.  I'd been writing poetry before the surgery.  In between my screams, stomping, and falling I scribbled whatever thoughts came to my mind.  The trips between the bathroom, my bedroom, and living room where I insisted on keeping my notebook bled together.  When it finally ended my scribbles were useless, the words were barely coherent, and whatever usable prose remained tied too strongly with the feverish pain from previous nights.

My madness felt like it had no end and when it finally caved to the pain meds as the fever broke I don't remember what happened to me afterward.  Any time I read a video game managed to create a feeling of madness I left disappointed.  Not that it's a sensation I have any wish to return to, but that developers are unable to grasp the tenuous balance between being in control and at the mercy of my worst impulses.  Layers of Fear, despite an intriguing premise, led me to think I'd be entering another video game experience where madness equates to hallucinations out of the corner of the game's vision or my save file refusing to chart my progress.  Those are the sorts of design choices that may lead a player to frustration - not madness.

From Layer's of Fear.

Then I rounded a corner and found nothing.  I walked on, finding more nothing, just the bare walls of my home rejecting the paintings I had worked so hard on.  When it came to an end I saw candles, finally a suitable altar for my work, and one of my paintings affixed to the wall.  Maybe this would be the time for peace and I could find pride in my work as an artist.  Then the painting melted.  All those carefully selected paints layered on top of a specially prepared canvas could not withstand the pierce of my gaze.  So on I walked, looking for another altar, a place I could rest and find self-worth in my paintings, not realizing this was a journey with no end, with my vision plagued with the splashes of paint I watched melt.

Layers of Fear had me long before this moment.  Developer Bloober Team's meticulously created surrounding might seem at odds for a horror game when we're conditioned to sudden shocks or surprises.  It's not that Layers of Fear lacks those, but they are a disruption to the protagonist's perception that everything in this home hides a key to his happiness.  Bloober Team is more interested in a broader question, one that anyone who has had a night or two of nagging existential despair will understand - can the horror end?  Layers of Fear's mature step is in refusing to offer a, "Yes," or, "No," answer and its conclusion is more terrifying than any alien stalking me or health bar shifting offscreen.

From Layer's of Fear.

The horror never ends.  It lingers and festers, generating more despair and anxiety the longer I live, and any solace I find is temporary at best.  That's where the jump scares, which I'll defend as a fine storytelling tool until my fear is extinguished with death, are exquisite.  They all speak to the protagonist's brief recognition of the mess he's made of his family.  Fleeting images of children dart interrupt your walk around the home to fade into darkness, record players moan an unsettling version of a jaunty tune before coming to a halt, and the hazy shadow which stalks your movements may disrupt the protagonist's entire being before forcing him to wake up a few paces before.

There are clichés, sure, but a well-deployed cliché both transcends its typical use and serves as a reminder why its a cliché to begin with.  Look at the dolls in Layers of Fear.  In cinematic horror they're usually a cheesy bit of uncanny reality that reminds us of childhood that is unnaturally preserved.  Layers of Fear uses dolls more in the way Lucky McKee did in his fantastic 2002 horror film May.  The dolls in Layers of Fear are the protagonist's attempt at preserving his daughter's childhood as a time of innocence that frees him from the guilt of his abuse.

From Layer's of Fear.

Then I got on that damn carousel.  I thought I was just winding a toy, but my vision started circling out of control.  On one wall, there's a child's drawing of her perception of the abuse, and on the other a growing collection of doll heads staring straight at me.  As the carousel turns, the drawing grows more aggressive and the dolls more plentiful.  This is as close to a perfect exercise in video game horror as I've seen, taking the jump scares that serve as painful reminders and stretching them nearly to the breaking point, all while the player is helplessly whirling around on the carousel unable to stop the creeping horror of the truth behind the protagonist's abuse in the child's drawing or the dolls used to shield himself from guilt.

One of Bloober Team's first video games was a Chopin music game called Music Master Chopin played in a Guitar Hero style.  Whatever appreciation they gained from incorporating Chopin's music into a video game bled into Layers of Fear's sound design.  A piano primarily guides the way with staccato vocals providing a sharp counterpoint, reminding the player that any foundation that may be found in Layers of Fear is one step away from breaking into horror.  Without the soundtrack, Layers of Fear is great.  With the soundtrack, Layers of Fear reached a level of immersion I've rarely felt.

From Inheritance.

The DLC addition, Inheritance, doesn't fare as well.  One of the warning signs is heard before seen as the daughter of Layers of Fear's protagonist returns to the crumbling house to confront her past.  Dialogue is sparse in Layers of Fear, but Inheritance proclaims its intent to explain the abuse the daughter suffered in mood-shattering verbal detail.

Which is a shame because Inheritance has a heck of an idea going for it.    Inheritance is trafficking in the same territory as Jeff Nichols' excellent Take Shelter or Russell Banks' novel Affliction - confronting family in the hope that the family sickness, anywhere from alcoholism or schizophrenia, hoping to find evidence the family sickness skipped a generation.  We've all got issues with the past we'd like to go back and confront.  The protagonist's daughter returning to the scene of her trauma only to be triggered back into her memories is about the best we could hope for if the confrontation takes place, which makes her eventual slip into the family sickness as tragic as it is expected.

From Inheritance.

There's an excellent section that blends Inheritance's unique child perspective with the immersive mental collapse of Layers of Fear.  A poor cat toy, missing its tail and wheel, stares pathetically at the daughter until it can be reassembled into working condition.  Once completed, it shields the daughter with its smile as she walks through a darkened room with items thrown around as she hears a vicious argument.  This is play therapy in brief by giving the daughter something that she took joy in to avoid angering her mother and father.  It's touching and sad in a way the daughter's half-formed memories of her parents (skeletal frames of paint) are not.

But it's also because of Inheritance's stab at a different perspective that my immersion broke constantly.  The view shifts from the standard first-person perspective as an adult to a heavily distorted fisheye lens viewpoint when she's a child.  Why fisheye?  Good question, as none of my memories involve the edges of my mental imagery stretching away as the focal point remains grotesquely in-view.  This also introduces something that may have been present in Layers of Fear but I blocked out entirely - loading screens - as her perspective shifts from adult to child.  The odd aesthetic for perception as a child, combined with the way gameplay stopped to signal that transition, and the heavy reliance on dialogue annoyed my ears with details I was already able to file away from Layers of Fear's less direct approach.

From Inheritance.

I'm not too disappointed though as Inheritance's flaws further highlight how gripping Layers of Fear is.  It's not a quiet accomplishment - spending enough time with the unsettling vocals on the soundtrack and shifting piano sets an audio tone far away from quiet.  But Layers of Fear is a confident in its uncertain conclusion few video games have the strength to admit.

Getting a notice my save game was deleted is a disruption.  Walking endlessly toward an answer bleeding into the screen's edges as I slowly realize there's no way out is horror, and how Layers of Fear roots itself in the same madness I felt scribbling gibberish to escape my misery shows its understanding of that.

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Layers of Fear rating:

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Posted by Andrew

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