Published May 21, 2019.
Let us take first an outline example of the creative artist who turns away from definite and pressing human claims on him in order to live a life in which, as he supposes, he can pursue his art. Without feeling that we are limited by any historical facts, let us call him Gauguin. Gauguin might have been a man who was not at all interested in the claims on him, and simply preferred to live another life, and from that life, and perhaps from that preference, his best paintings That sort of case, in which the claims of others simply no hold on the agent, is not what concerns us now: though serves to remind us of something related to the present concerns, that while we are sometimes guided by the notion it would be the best of worlds in which morality were universally respected and all men were of a disposition to it, we have in fact deep and persistent reasons to be that that is not the world we have.
We are interested here in a narrower phenomenon, more intimate to moral thought itself. Let us take, rather, a Gauguin who is concerned about these claims and what is involved in their being neglected (we may suppose this to be grim), and that he nevertheless, in the face of that, opts for the other life. This other life he might perhaps not see very determinately under the category of realizing his gifts as a painter: but to make consideration simpler, let us add that he does see it determinately in that light-it is as a life which will enable him really to be a painter that he opts for it. It will then be more clear what will count for him as eventual success in his project: at least some possible outcomes will be clear examples of success (which of course is not meant to be equivalent to recognition), however many others may be unclear.
Whether he will succeed cannot, in the nature of the case, be foreseen; we are not dealing here with the removal of an external obstacle to something which, once that is removed, will fairly predictably go through. Gauguin, in our story, is putting a great deal on a possibility which has not unequivocally declared itself. I want to explore and uphold the claim that it is possible that in such a situation the only thing that will justify his choice will be success itself. If he fails—and we shall come shortly to what, more precisely, failure may be—then he did the wrong thing, not just in the sense in which that platitudinously follows, but in the sense that having done the wrong thing in those circumstances he has no basis for the thought that he was justified in acting as he did; while if he succeeds, he does have a basis for that thought. (Williams 1976, 117–18)
Layers of Fear (2016) is a horror game about, thematically, the unacceptable costs of a slavish pursuit of artistic accomplishment (hence the opening long quote from William’s moral luck, on which more anon). The protagonist is an artist, once quite a successful one, in 1920’s America. He has an adoring wife and daughter, but begins to neglect them terribly. His relationship with his family fails, his work suffers: his style changes to the macabre—critics detest it, sales dry up. Tragedy strikes when his wife suffers severe burns in a fire, left with lasting scars and confined to a wheel chair. Neglecting her and their child during her recovery, the wife kills herself. His mental health deteriorates; he develops schizophrenia, the bulk of the experience revolves around his hallucinations. This portrayal, while not perhaps accurate, is sensitive: the problems with the artist are not primarily medical but moral. He could be having a much better time than he ends up having, given the family’s wealth, his evidently concerned friends, if only he had behaved differently.
That’s roughly the narrative context. Mechanically, the game is light. The player navigates in first person, opens doors, rummages through drawers to find notes, newspaper clippings, letters that provide narrative details, examine the odd object, which often spark some remembered dialog, and interacts with objects to solve puzzles. These puzzles are straightforward but obtusely presented. They serve not to challenge the player, but regulate their progress, slowing the pacing and motivating a thorough search of an area of the environment. These are fairly well-worn systems by this point (Gone Home is where this package most prominently comes together in contemporary games, although the basic idea goes back to early text adventures), and serve fairly clear purposes. The player is made to feel like they are investigating a real location, walking around, rummaging, looking at stuff. The narrative gets a largely epistolary treatment, and the player is given (i) some agency over how much narrative they experience and (ii) a motivation for exploring (one might find out some juicy detail).
For those who like this sort of thing, Layers of Fear starts very promisingly. The scene opens in an empty house, a beautiful, two-story, late-Victorian house, filled with photographs, paintings, notes, rooms, cabinets, shelves, stuff. One of the joys of scrounging around homes, both digitally and in reality, is that one can get to know someone indirectly, without the laborious stuff of conversation and with the chance to play junior detective. And this holds here, although it is pulled off a little hamfistedly. You learn, for instance, that the artist is an alcoholic not merely through an excess of bottles, or a shopping list demanding ten, no, twenty, no, strike that, thirty “booze” (not any particular alcohol, just booze), or notes remarking on this, but all of these. Layers of Fear may be a vague game, all symbols and shadows—and it is very dark—but it is not a subtle one. The investigative material is also somewhat threadbare here. The environment is replete with objects and written material, but one can pick up and examine only a limited fraction of this. Still, the environments are handsome and expressive enough to make this satisfying.
Even in these early stages, though, there are some fundamental issues with the exploration component. Two narrative questions games of this type should bother answering are why the player character is so interested in combing through every inch of the environment and why that environment has so much and so evenly spaced revealing material. Layers of Fear has no good answer to the first question. It is clear why the player might want to open every drawer and cabinet in the house, but given that it’s his house, it’s not clear why the artist is so inclined. The game has to appeal to the artist’s aloofness and distractedness to explain the latter: he does not talk to people and so must be reached through notes, which he deposits randomly throughout the house.
The game is less adroit here than its contemporaries with similar systems because, perhaps, it is less interested in exploration. After the initial scene ends with the artist unlocking and entering his studio, ready to begin working on a portrait of his late wife, the game becomes segmented and relentlessly linear as you enter his hallucinations. In each chapter you walk through a horror-film remake of the house, each one building, usually, on some different dimension of the artist’s failing (his neglect and mistreatment of his wife, of his daughter, of his dog, etc.), and ramping up the spectacle. The game has very much the feel of a digital haunted house: you walk along and every so often something spooky happens. The main engine of the “fear” in Layers of Fear is the spooky spectacle, you walk for a while, or wait, or maybe hit a dead end, turn perhaps, and then, boom, that’s when a ghost boos its way into your face, or the screen glitches out and, blam, the paintings are all messed up. Sick, dude. Though there are still notes to be picked up, it is not so much a task of exploration as one of inspecting every inch of the carnival, something that is not so compelling when the spectacle itself happens much more regularly if you just plow on, barely pausing to let out an amused shriek when the carny jumps out of a coffin.
In truth, Layers of Fear is not at all fearful. These jump scares are not even particularly startling; they happen at a ready enough clip and with enough clear build up that one can anticipate them quite reliably. They are, though, creative, often visually well crafted, thematically pointed, and well executed. All of these scares revolve around and incorporate aspects of the artist’s life: his painting, his daughter’s dolls, the imaginary rats that scuttle and interrupt his work, his wife’s ghost. This also does not exhaust the game’s offerings as it works to disorient and unsettle the player. It does this through stellar environmental design in a constantly shifting environment. It starts slow, with, say, paintings that are a little too prominent, a little too haunted, a little too staring straight at you. As the game progresses the house warps into a surrealist dreamscape, the walls and floor thick with paint, the furniture stuck, in places, to the ceiling and walls, and rooms taking on breathtaking and impossible dimensions. Over and over, the house will reorient itself behind your back or blink into a new configuration right in front of you. You walk, hit a dead end, go back through the door you came in and now you’re in a new hallway altogether.
This is all hecking cool and impressive and just puts a smile on one’s face, but, again, it’s not scary. A large part of this is that there’s no danger here, either narratively or mechanically. No characters can be harmed by the goings-on. This is all happening inside the narrator’s head, and he cannot hurt anyone more than he has: his wife is already dead and his daughter has been taken away from him. The player is not so much as inconvenienced by any systems. The ghost, when she catches you, oogy-boogies in your face, you faint and then smelling-salts your way back to a fresh hell. Indeed, there’s such a lack of danger that, when I played, I did not realize you could even escape from the ghost; I never tried running. Still, the game does have a delightfully macabre underbelly, though it’s largely bloodless in its explicit imagery.
During my play-through, I thought quite a bit of the recent film I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, which I think makes for an interesting stylistic and thematic comparison. (And here I want to do a quick stealth review for that film, as I think it’s been under-appreciated.) I Am the Pretty Thing, is, like Layers of Fear, a piece of horror media more interested in being stylish than being scary (although I think Layers of Fear did have some intention to scare). Visually, I Am the Pretty Thing is bright, naturalistic, and immaculately composed. The narrative is incredibly simple: the protagonist is hired as the nurse for an old horror novelist suffering from dementia. One of the novels turns out to be real—there really is a ghost in the house—and when she encounters the ghost, she dies of fright. The central thematic element of the film is the burden and perhaps impossibility of bearing witness. The ghost discloses parts of her story to the novelist, but not all of it, not how she died, she cannot remember the whole thing. So, the novelist can only tell part of what happened, and, later, when her memory goes, not even that. The protagonist cannot receive the disclosure. And so the past lingers, we, unlucky, incapable of confronting it but also incapable of ridding ourselves of it.
Despite its greater length and more detailed plot, Layers of Fear does not have anything so interesting to say. Pursuing one’s own narrow projects to the point of ignoring the well-being of your family is bad. All the characters believe this; even the protagonist largely believes this, at least enough now to feel extreme guilt and remorse about his behavior. My central complaint here, and this is why I led in with the Williams, is that the narrative itself could easily have been made much richer by simply having the artist be successful, even more successful than he had been, at producing well-received paintings while mistreating his family. As Williams puts it, “If he fails then he did the wrong thing&ellip; in the sense&ellip; he has no basis for the thought that he was justified in acting as he did; while if he succeeds, he does have a basis for that thought.” If the artist had been succeeding, then there might be some internal tension in his character. He would be haunted by the death of his wife, the loss of his child, but he might also cling to his success. There would then be a question of whether callousness or ruddy, ordinary humanity would triumph in his character. As is, the artist is just self-sabotaging and strategically irrational with respect to his art (surely more family time, less alcohol, more sleep could only improve his performance). This adds to the madness and pathetic quality of the character, but the result is a story with no source of conflict or tension in sight.
The game pretends that this was a question. There are, apparently, multiple endings to the narrative, selected depending on one’s behavior throughout the game. This is all rather opaque to the player. Again, the game plays as a slide-show of spooks, nothing throughout gets experienced as a choice and, indeed, the behavior the ending is keyed off of is entirely disconnected from the player’s relation to the game or their relation to the player character. The ending one receives is mostly a matter of accident, unless one looks up online how to achieve one or the other. Given this, having multiple endings was a poor narrative decision: just stick with the one that best resolves the damn thing.
In one ending, the main character completes the painting one works on throughout the game (a portrait of his wife and child), fully embraces his regret and burns down his works and home, with himself inside. As Williams writes of a possible Anna Karenina after Vronsky’s suicide, “What she did, she now finds insupportable, because she could have been justified only by the life she hoped for, and those hopes were not just negated, but refuted, by what happens.” Given that the artist’s life is an unremitting failure on all fronts, for which the player may feel some anger and some pity, and is now completely without hope, this would allow the character to appreciate what the audience has long known and conclude with some finality.
In another, the narrator paints a portrait of his wife. It is accurate and pleasant, but for him it appears that her skin is scarred with burns. He has painted many such portraits in the time since the house was emptied. In this ending too, he clearly regrets his actions, having written a postmortem apology to his wife. Still, he starts up his mad painting again. If the character’s madness had been more compelling, more dreadful in the first place, this would be a stronger ending—at least in the sense that a ghost story becomes mildly spookier when it ends with “And some say the spirit is still wandering the halls to this very day!”
Finally, there’s the ending that shows some of the narrative direction I am recommending. The artist completes his painting and declares it a masterpiece. Fittingly, it’s a self-portrait. And it ends up revered as such, eventually making its way into a fancy retrospective. The artist decides that his wife’s death and everything else was worth it if this is the result. And that’s a little neat; it makes clear what’s villainous about this character. But it is not at all led up to properly: there’s no inkling given before that the character could resolve in this way; he’s too obviously broken for this to make sense.
There is cause for complaint with the simplicity of Layers of Fear’s normative universe, and this is a large part of the source of my narrative suggestion. In this universe, what the artist did was bad. Morally bad, bad all things considered. He should have eased up on the painting a bit and spent more time with his family. He didn’t. Things turned out badly. Very badly. For everyone involved.
Williams concludes of the case of Gauguin that, despite the moral cost of his decision to pursue the art, could be praiseworthy all-things-considered. Gauguin, in the story, considered the project of his art more central than care of his family and, having attained success, does not regret his trying. One might disagree with the calculus, but at the least Gauguin’s attitudes, his decision making, is rationally intelligible. We can see where he is coming from, even if we don’t like it. And this leaves open room for the thought that sometimes what’s all-things-considered praiseworthy is morally bad; that morality is “one value among others, and not an unquestionable supreme.” This is the question morally bad artists can raise. Morally bad, but good artists, that is. Bad, morally bad artists raise no such question. And I think Layers of Fear made a mistake by choosing a protagonist in this last category.
Layers of Fear, then, is not a particularly good game. It is shallow in terms of narrative, theme, ideas, and character. It does not make particularly good use of its mechanics. It’s not successful as a horror experience. As an audio-visual experience, however, it’s quite entertaining. If, like me, you are shallow enough that woah, neat dude is enough to keep you hooked for a couple of hours, you could do worse than picking this up on sale. Just turn of your brain, feel free to laugh during dialog, and look up a walkthrough for the puzzles.
Williams, B. A. O. 1976. “Moral Luck.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 50: 115–51.