For more than a decade I have had a “Courage the Cowardly Dog” magnet on my fridge. It has survived multiple moves–including one across the entire country–a toddler, general kitchen messiness, and pushed the boundaries of the lifespan of a prize from a box of cereal.
The cartoon, for those that have sadly missed it (I think it’s on Netflix now), centers around a little purple dog named Courage. He lives with an older couple in the middle of nowhere and saves them from surreal horrors you’d think I made up if I listed them.
Courage is always terrified. Always. He has a catalog of screams thicker than the phone book. He faints. He loses his shit. But he never quits.
I’m a lot like Courage, both in my gaming life and IRL. This is why it took me over a year to finish the game of today’s topic, Layers of Fear.
Layers of Fear is a horror/interactive storytelling game where you play an artist (unnamed) during the Victorian era. Through environmental clues and flashbacks, you learn that your once-promising career as a painter has crashed and burned into a dark, morbid mess, much like the department store fire that disfigures your wife.
And that’s the one consoling element of Layers of Fear–you’re an asshole. As you wander your empty, labyrinthine home, you discover items that spark flashbacks which reveal you’re simply a terrible person. You married your wife because it killed you that “the most beautiful work of art doesn’t have my name on it.” You’re harshly critical of your child’s crayon drawings. You’re distant, drunk, and deranged. Your wife, now horribly burned in a freak fire and no longer beautiful, disgusts you.
I say “consoling” because taking it upon myself to punish this man was the only way I got through six hours of this surreal nightmare. I imagined myself an avenging host, driving him to open doors (both literal and figurative) which every natural instinct told me not to open. I marched him down dark hallways toward gnashing teeth. I made him go in the basement.
If “spatial horror” isn’t a thing, it needs to be. Layers of Fear is STEEPED in it. What first appears to be a beautifully designed and rendered Victorian home–albeit empty and therefore inherently creepy–quickly reveals itself to be the kind of Inception-style labyrinth that could only exist in the mind. YOUR mind, the mind of an angry, guilty, self-obsessed artist.
Doorways open to gorgeous rooms that become sinister behind your back. Pleasant paintings melt and warp into horrible scenes. Frenzied whispers draw you to items that illuminate ever more dark corners of your past and your abhorrent behavior. You walk down a long hallway with a door at the end, but when you open it there is nothing but brick behind it. You turn around and the hallway has been replaced with a room that shrinks in on you every time you spin around to find an exit–and it’s all seamless.
Oh and a flickering, soot-stained specter of your monstrous wife seems to be stalking you.
I can’t accurately describe the spatial tricks Layers of Fear pulls because it’s like trying to describe a dream. The wall is there and then it isn’t. A claustrophobic gap between walls folds in on itself for eternity. A circular walkway leads to an upper level if you walk in one direction, and the lower level when you walk in the other–without touching a single stair. You look through a window and see a hallway, then turn around to find yourself on the other side of the very same window. Quite frankly it’s astounding and what kept me coming back.
Fortunately, I was able to avoid spoilers despite the popularity of Layers of Fear with the Let’s Play crowd, and when I finished it I was dismayed to learn there are three possible endings, and that I had earned the “neutral” ending. You can google it if you want, but I maintain that my ending is the “true” ending and how the story of this shitty little man should end. He doesn’t deserve the “good” ending. The “bad” ending is also fitting for this story and I would have accepted it, but my ending has a righteous finality I think is best.
The whole game is beautiful, the story is unique and mysterious, the scares never stop, and it has the kind of finely-honed unease of your favorite slow-burn horror movies like The Shining and Alien. The team behind this game deserves so much praise for their creativity and ability to scare with new tricks for the entire six hours it took to complete it.
I screamed, I moaned, I railed against what I was doing to myself, I cursed and grimaced, but I finished it. And I’m so very glad I did.