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Layers of Fear: the Anatomy of a Remake
An examination of horror game remakes via Bloober's most recent release.
Content Warning: this article discusses mental health deterioration and crisis, psychosis/unreality, and domestic abuse/violence toward a spouse. There is also mentions of alcoholism/substance abuse, suicide, ableism, and animal abuse. Layers of Fear is a real cheerful one, huh?
This article also contains depictions of nudity and spoilers for Layers of Fear (2016) (2023), Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002), and The Shining (1980).
(Sorry in advance for the silly images and captions in this one, I am desperately trying to lighten the vibe.)
With a name like Bloober, you could be forgiven for thinking this studio makes those match-3 mobile games with absolutely ridiculous ads. But no: the Bloober Team, based in Poland, is trying to stake their claim as the next horror powerhouse. And with several titles already under their belt including the upcoming Silent Hill 2 remake, they’re well on their way to putting their money where their mouth is.
I was interested in their 2023 remake of a previous game of theirs from the not-so-distant year of 2016: the painting-based horror game Layers of Fear. While 2016 wasn’t that long ago (though it may feel like an eternity has elapsed since then), this particular title feels like staring into the past. Layers of Fear is one of those games that was stylistically very much a product of its time: certain trends in the horror market shaped its narrative and gameplay, so I was curious how Bloober would adapt the title to be remade for a modern audience - especially given how quickly greater societal trends have evolved on some of its more taboo subjects.
Now, I personally have quite a few opinions about the games made by this specific team for that very reason: I do not think they have a good track record regarding the handling of sensitive topics. Granted, horror is and should be about confronting that which we find uncomfortable and even grotesque: but there are ways that this can be done in such a manner that it does not “punch down,” demonize groups of already underserved people, or depict upsetting events in such a way that it could be detrimental to the health and safety of those who might be playing. While the Bloober Team clearly has a passion for horror and some truly excellent developers on staff, I personally have been deeply disappointed with how they engage with sensitive subject matter throughout their titles such as Blair Witch (2019) and The Medium (2021).
Despite this, I ultimately decided that the Layers of Fear would make a great case study for the “remake” phenomenon currently sweeping the AAA market - especially in the horror genre. Making a game is incredibly difficult. Remaking a game is another task entirely. How do the developers rebuild a game from the ground-up while also providing enough freshness and retaining its critical essence?
Safe to say? It’s pretty complicated.
The Rise of Remakes
While we might associate remakes more with Hollywood and our cinema counterparts, games are historically no stranger to remakes, either. The first commercially remade game was 1942: Joint Strike in 2008, which remade Capcom’s 1984 side-scroller 1942. Now, it is worth noting that “remaking” is distinct from “remastering,” which typically leaves the original game intact, but often updates things like textures or music to match current industry-standard. Remaking on the other hand involves quite literally building the game again from scratch, which is a labor of love to say the least.
Some games actually have both forms, for example: The Last of Us Remastered and The Last of Us Part I - both are essentially the modified versions of same concept: however one is considered a remake, the other a remaster. You can best see this illustrated in the triptych of Ellie below.
Horror has seen a variety of remakes as of late, and to thunderous critical acclaim - the Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4 remakes received glowing reviews, and the Dead Space remake managed to completely capture the soul of the first while delivering on its gory gameplay with all the grisly tech art contemporary graphics cards can render.
And it’s no real question how we got here. With the simultaneous rise of IP and franchise-driven consolidation in media, companies are essentially puppy guarding the shafts of their gold mines.
However, when video games engage in the act of remaking, the impetus is different than that of cinema. In cinema it’s about that fresh-take - that reimagining. But often in the case of games, it has to do more with the way that technology has advanced at a breakneck speed over the past 40 years. Iconic titles originally constructed with low-poly models and stilted VO can be remade into the sparkling AAA near-photorealistic style consumers have come to expect of new releases - often with startling adherence to the original.
This element of preservation seems to be more keenly adhered to in game remakes. And while there is some variation of just how faithful adaptations remain from game to game, often a great deal is carefully conserved. Check out this video doing drive-by comparisons of the original 1998 Resident Evil 2 with its 2019 remake counterpart. While the dialogue itself was rewritten, much of the gameplay, story, and level design is entirely intact.
The Resident Evil remakes have managed to strike the perfect balance of “faithful remake” with the addition of modern aesthetics, quality of life elements (although failure to return to a “fixed” camera angered hardcore fans), and accessibility features. And the numbers don’t lie: as of August 2023, the RE2 remake has officially become the best-selling game in the entire franchise.
But what if a remake wants to do more than just a 1-to-1 adaptation? More and more, remakes are taking additional liberties with their content… including Layers of Fear.
Layers of Fear (2016)
The original Layers of Fear is a psychological horror game surrounding the story of a previously prolific, now “washed up” painter as he attempts to complete his masterpiece. Developed by the Bloober Team and published by Aspyr, it released in 2016 to mostly positive reviews, with one journalist from Polygon going so far as to say it’s “like P.T. on drugs.”
The gameplay is mostly puzzle and exploration based, and the large Gilded Age home the player finds themselves trapped in is almost a character in itself. It seems to grow and change in a very House of Leaves-esque fashion, getting progressively trippier as time goes on. As the player progress through the house, reading scraps of paper and interacting with keepsakes, they are able to piece together the story of their past… and things get a little bit weird.
As previously mentioned, the “DNA” of the Layers of Fear is comprised of rung after rung of popular conventions of the 2010s, which - while very popular at launch - feel dated in retrospect. But it’s important to identify these qualities in order to analyze this game’s 2023 counterpart.
It’s funny, though the house the player is trapped in is arguably filled with ghosts (both literal and figurative), examining this game in 2023 reveals the many ghosts of genre’s past, such as the following.
The “Walking Simulator”
This divisive genre/gameplay convention was popular in the 2010s, focusing primarily on creating short-form gaming experiences in atmospheric environments for a single player. The genre gets its pejorative name from its limited range of player agency: interaction is often restricted to walking around, reading notes or newspapers strewn about the vicinity, and examining items. This makes “walking simulators” a younger cousin to the typical point-and-click adventure games of the 2000s, which often exhibit similar gameplay, but less atmosphere and immersion. Exemplary games of this genre include Dear Esther (2012), Firewatch (2016), and What Remains of Edith Finch (2019).
Walking simulators proved to be quite schismatic at the time, with some players detesting their “pretentious,” “art school” approach to game narrative. Others merely found them boring or not engaging as the genre didn’t cater to their taste. Furthermore, walking simulators were highly accessible, and often popular with those who were otherwise not interested in the gaming sphere. This was naturally seen as a plus to some, and a massive detriment to others. But love them or hate them, their presence inexorably changed games forever.
“While these games looked and played quite differently, they shared an approach that, in retrospect, appeared to be a tipping point in games culture. Both [Dear Esther and Journey] had a willingness to sit with time and space — to let the gameplay experience wash over you. The wandering from point-to-point was the endeavor. They stood out starkly against the major players dominating the industry at the time like Call of Duty or Halo, and there was a world of difference between the kinds of emotions these indie games played on and narrative-driven AAA titles”
This genre works particularly well in horror settings, as progression in the game requires interaction from the player. There’s no way for the player to “cover their eyes” during a frightening cutscene or otherwise escape the mounting dread from the oppressive atmosphere. The work of putting the story together is a continuous expectation, which can prove more difficult if the particular game wishes to be nonlinear in form (or just particularly obtuse). This level of narrative immersion often creates a much more personal, intimate horror experience which, for the right player, provides a scary good time.
Helpless (Insane) Protagonist
In September of 2010, Swedish developer Frictional Games released Amnesia: the Dark Descent to absolutely rave revues (and the terrifying crack! of breaking conventions of horror games wide open). You see, being pursued by some kind of untouchable enemy is nothing new for the genre - but Amnesia took it one step further. The player as Daniel is entirely helpless: without weapons or any means to protect oneself, your options when faced with horrible enemies are: die, hide somewhere until the enemy goes away, or run like hell.
The game additionally requires some intentionally-clunky interactions which are designed to be compromising if you’re being pursued: such as forcing players to physically click and hold on a door in order to open it, or draw their cursor in a little circle to wind a crank. The helpless scrambling a player may resort to instantly ups the ante in terms of the scare factor, as there’s little they can do to evade or eliminate the threat. By eliminating “fight,” the only options remain “flight” or “freeze.”
But the planned sense of helplessness goes beyond the metaphysical, as Amnesia utilizes a “sanity” mechanic first pioneered by Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem in 2002 (a game which could warrant an entire Resident Anna article on its own). This mechanic is deceptively simple: the lower your “sanity,” the more the world around you will react accordingly. This includes things such as visual disturbances and strange sound effects which harken to the protagonist’s state of psychosis.
While Amnesia clearly borrows from Eternal Darkness, its predecessor additionally broke the 4th wall: attempting to make the player question their reality, as some of the sanity effects make it appear as though a bug is crawling on the screen, or that the TV has shut off.
Perhaps we should be thankful that Amnesia did not attempt these gags.
At the mercy of a monster externally and a failing connection with reality internally, the 2010s were filled with games where helplessness was the vibe. Unreliable narrators, unkillable patrolling enemies, and overall being powerless to your surroundings were common themes. Exemplary games of this style and era include of course Amnesia: the Dark Descent, P.T., and Alien: Isolation.
Using horror as a lens to look at unfortunate things in your past is about as milquetoast as you can get. But there was a real trend of horror games in the 2010s having the narrative twist relate to <checks notes> the consequences of your own actions???
Now, before I get too ahead of myself: the rammys are a very valid element of storytelling and often provide lots of exposition and character development and blah blah blah. But there was this trend for a while, arguably popularized by horror games such as Silent Hill 2, where “the rammys” (which often included murdering your wife for some reason??) were the primary narrative twist - I won’t list exemplary games here for the sake of spoilers, but just know that there are several.
When lacking any sort of appropriate characterization or dynamism, the rammys actively run the risk of your player feeling less sympathetic for, or, otherwise, less connected to your protagonist. And maybe that’s what you as the developer want - perhaps you want the audience to be disgusted with the player character. But in Layers of Fear’s case - a walking simulator where the player is a stand-in for your protagonist - you risk destroying the carefully constructed sense of immersion.
Predictability of topes like the rammys is a major hindrance of the walking simulator, as the player won’t be as enticed to interact with the beautiful worldspace you built if they already feel like they know what’s going on. That drive to learn what happens next or find out additional details keeps them interacting. With both predictability and disgust, it’s a lot harder for your player to stay engaged, which is a premium in the walking simulator genre.
There is also a deeply cynical part of me that can’t help but notice that if horror games are the standard: “facing the consequences for my own actions” is apparently considered the worst possible/most horrifying thing the often straight male player character (and often by extension the narrative team) can experience. Even more so if “my own actions” are “I was horrible to the women in my life.” But we don’t have time to get into all that :)
Narrative Highs and Lows
The story of Layers of Fear received high praise at launch, with horror fans noting that it took inspiration from P.T and Anthony M. Rud’s short story “A Square of Blank Canvas” (1923), which was published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales.
“The Highs” are many: not content with walking around a singular location where a player can backtrack and expect to find things exactly as they were, the house in Layers of Fear changes and distorts heavily throughout the gameplay. This element of impossible geometry gives the house an almost dreamlike quality, depicting the protagonist’s sense of disconnection with reality.
This technique is masterfully employed here as things continuously change once just outside your peripheral vision. The effect strikes me as similar to the otherworldly, uncanny quality the Overlook Hotel has in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. There are many spatial abnormalities within the Overlook, and it has been the speculation of film buffs for decades. The most famous of these anomalies even has a nickname: “The Impossible Window.”
By weaving in these little inconsistencies, Kubrick puts the viewer subconsciously on edge and establishes the Overlook as a place that may be liberated from space, time, and logic completely. Bloober has done a fantastic job of this in Layers of Fear, displaying some serious tech art chops for 2016. As the game continues, the player can’t help but wonder how much of the environment is the literal home the protagonist has returned to, and how much might be some sort of complex allegory of deteriorating mental health as collateral in the quest for perfection.
But while the highs provide a pretty nice view, “The Lows” are unbearably low. Any game which hinges its narrative upon mental health immediately finds itself in a very precarious and sensitive position. Add in components like domestic violence and physical disability and disfigurement, and your need for sensitivity consultants skyrockets. Unfortunately, as is evident by the depiction of the events that unfold and this studio’s track record: I do not personally believe that much care was given to the topic of sensitivity. You’ll see why.
This is where things start to get really gnarly.
The tragedy of the narrative pins itself on the wife of the protagonist, who was a professional pianist and the painter’s muse. However, as the protagonist singularly fixates upon their work and their mental health subsequently deteriorates, their previously happy marriage does so too, resulting in a domestic abuse situation. Throughout the scrawled notes and bits of VO, the majority of the time the protagonist is depicted as an abusive alcoholic and certainly the aggressor in the dynamic, even going so far as being alluded to killing the family’s pet dog.
All of this culminates in his wife - who over the events of the story became facially disfigured due to a fire - dying by suicide in the bathroom of the estate. Unsure of how to cope with what has happened, the protagonist does not give her a proper burial, opting instead to use elements of his wife’s body to complete his magnum opus - a portrait of her. As the narrative progresses, we learn how he utilized the various components: her skin as the canvas, her blood as the overlay, her bone marrow as the undercoating, a brush made from her hair… you know. Totally normal things.
To say that all of this is problematic doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Not only has horror more than outgrown the “dead wife” trope, the narrative of this game truly can be described as “adding insult to injury.”
The protagonist character is already described as requiring a prosthesis on one of his legs in order to walk - medals around the house indicate that this injury may have been sustained during his tenure as a solider in WWI. He already suffered the horrors of war and is now a disabled veteran - yet all of this feels like an accessory, tangential to all of the suffering he faces at the hands of his own actions. Similarly, the protagonist’s wife already must deal with having an abusive spouse over the events of the story - but she has that history of surviving a terrible fire wherein she sustained serious burns, especially her hands and face. It all just feels unnecessary to me: especially given that there is a certain banality and lack of reverence for the very real challenging experiences that people live with every day in favor of the fantastical... here, they feel like a prop.
In death, the figure of the wife appears in a paint-soaked dress, her face obscured by bandages and scarring. Her character model is somewhere between an artistic portrait and a nightmare, complete with an outfit that can only be described as “tiddies-out.”
She has no personhood in her death - she has become transmogrified into the literal manifestation of the rammys. I can’t help but feel that the shortened, 2010s-esque high-low of her hemline and the entire lack of bodice create an element of sexualization to her already disrespected corpse - again, “adding insult to injury.”
Safe to say: the lack of interest in sensitivity and trope subversion left a great deal of opportunity for the 2023 remake. I hoped that this new iteration would reflect changing societal understandings of issues like mental illness, intimate partner violence/abuse, addiction, and disability. I was so curious how it would turn out, even with my misgivings about the original and skepticism about the developer. The concept of a horror game inspired by painting still whips.
And then… the Layers of Fear remake wasn’t what you would much expect from a remake at all.
Layers of Fear (2023)
Launching on June 15th, 2023, the Layers of Fear remake surprised everyone: it was both a remake of the first Layers of Fear, its sequel Layers of Fear 2… and new original content that ties them both together.
I honestly loved this approach. While hardcore fans of the original weren’t necessarily thrilled by this new development, I really appreciated that Bloober were trying to do something different - ultimately deciding to use it as a case study in remakes entirely. The world changes so quickly: what besides the graphics might change along with it?
This game is seriously gorgeous. With the launch trailer proudly boasting that it was “the first Unreal Engine 5 horror game,” it’s got the ray tracing to back it up. Many of the iconic interiors of the game were faithfully remade in Unreal 5, and they are truly breathtaking.
And while some of the scares and trippy effects were identical, there were enough new sequences to keep even familiar environments fresh.
There are instances of “choice” moments: where the player can choose which hallway to go down in order to progress, potentially offering a branching experience with built-in replay value. New characters and notes providing insight into other sides of the story make the experience feel more fleshed-out and not as one-sided as the previous installments. A greater inclusion of voiceover also provides a sense of real personhood behind each character, allowing you to more acutely feel their presence in the periphery.
But perhaps the most surprising of all: there were new gameplay mechanics!
Though the legacy of the walking simulator is irrefutable (whether you enjoy that particular style of game or not), Bloober noted that the walking simulator format was a sticking point with players who really wanted to be able to engage with the gorgeous world the team had built for them. One potential solve for this comes in the form of a handheld light source, such as a lantern or flashlight.
Although perhaps a little heavy on the symbolism, the Painter can use the beam of light emitted from his lantern to “burn away” the distorted areas within the estate, for example. Additionally, if approached by the ghostly form of their wife, the Painter can use the beam to temporarily stun her and cause her to dematerialize. This can allow the player to make an escape in what would otherwise be a “game over” scenario, essentially adding a pseudo-combat element to the game.
This departure echoes greater trends in the horror market, where interactivity goes beyond walking and reading notes, but is still relatively restrained. A good example of this is the indie title Endoparasitic - where you are able to protect yourself from monsters with a weapon… but you only have one arm. And I really do mean you only have one arm. I found the addition of this mechanic interesting, as I think it follows natural ebbs and flows in trends and mechanics.
As is the Layers of Fear tradition, there are highs… and lows.
I really commend the developers for trying something new with their overall plot: adding the character of “The Writer” to essentially create a metanarrative of the first two games and their DLCs was an intriguing choice. She is a woman who recently won a writing contest, the prize for which involves a retreat at a spooky lighthouse. And we all know only good wholesome things happen in lighthouses in fiction! :)
The addition of this frame makes you as a player consider that what you are experiencing might be through an additional lens of distortion… especially as The Writer becomes increasingly convinced these stories she’s writing are real by none other than The Rat Queen, a recurring character from Layers of Fear 2.
This lady, sporting a striking resemblance to Count Orlok, is the personification of mental illness in itself. Or, at least - a relatively one-dimensional interpretation of what a sentient entity of mental illness could be like. She is associated with the common motif of rats throughout the series, as it’s implied that they may not be real at all throughout the series, rather auditory/visual hallucinations.
The way that the Rat Queen claims to have influenced or contributed to the various arts of the protagonist in any/all of the stories could be narratively compelling, but it isn’t done with any degree of empathy. She appears to have no motivation other than watching people suffer. There is no depiction of the Rat Queen where she is merely trying to help the protagonist survive difficult situations and life stressors, keep the protagonists safe from recurring trauma, or any of the other multi-dimensional understandings of how mental illnesses develop given the bio-psycho-social model we’ve talked about on Resident Anna before.
She’s a very cool concept for a villain, but much like the rest of the women in the series - lacks any true depth or dimension.
So with the highs… come the same old lows.
While there were marginal gains in terms of representation in the remake (with the inclusion of a character who is a woman of color and a general greater fleshing out of the women in general), I still couldn’t shake a certain disregard - or at least, a certain misunderstanding - of sensitive topics. Granted, I understand that the developer is based in Poland, so there may be some elements which are lost in localization - but that benefit of the doubt can only go so far.
As you can probably tell by my casually-scathing analysis of the wife from the first game, I was very curious how they were going to expand upon her character. The remake offers more characterization for The Musician (the wife), however it does so in a way that simultaneously muddies her concept. I think the developers wanted to show how toxic her relationship was with her husband, and in doing so wanted to show the wife as a more willing participant in the escalation of the domestic discord.
This is further extrapolated upon in The Last Note, the “Musician’s Story.” This DLC which is included in the remake allows the player to view the perspective of the wife… up to and including her suicide. It goes without saying that depicting suicidality in works of media must be done with the utmost care: both to prevent upsetting anyone in the audience who may be struggling with their own mental health, and to provide dignity for those who are in mental health crisis. While I am thankful that nothing was shown directly, the inclusion of imagery such as a noose could still be very triggering… and yet, there it is. Sitting on the desk.
So we get to hear her speak - we get to know her own struggles with her own mental health… but we still cannot change her fate. Are we merely meant to just… feel more empathy for her before she is doomed by the narrative? The insult to injury never ceases.
Similar to the character of Lily from “The Actor’s Story,” (the portion of the game that is a remake of Layers of Fear 2) it seems as though the men in their lives are forever haunted by the loss of a woman. It does not matter how much context we have for those lost lenores, as no amount of context or showing their side of the story makes up for the fact that, well… they’re dead. The survivorship rate of women in the Layers of Fear series is, unfortunately, still pretty laughable. And you might say: “but Anna! It’s in the pursuit of art!” To which I say: those women were artists in their own right - why should they have to give up their lives to improve the artistic expressions of the men in their life? Critic Ashley Bardhan commented on this in her review of the remake:
Whereas something like Faust satirizes the tortured artist, conveying that creative people aren’t necessarily special people, that they can be as bad as anyone, Layers of Fear seems to say that art is uncontrollable. It’s a hungry, magical force, and if a wife, or a sister, or a daughter are caught and bloodied in its insatiable mouth then, well. So be it.
They did, however, give the wife’s ghost form a suitable makeover…
Risk and Reward
Bloober definitely took some risks when it came to this remake - something that I genuinely commend them for! And while some of them paid off… it appears others did not. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, baby.
Receiving a Metacritic score of 73, the reviews for the remake were pretty mixed. Overall it seems like people were split on the addition of The Writer and the pseudo-combat mechanic. But for the most part, players seemed content to re-live The Painter and The Actor’s stories as if for the first time.
In the end: I definitely think Bloober got some things right in trying to create a remake with additional added material… but a lot of things, such as their treatment of women and sensitive subjects, feel stuck in 2016.
Thanks for reading - I know this article got pretty gnarly at points, so thanks for sticking with me. The next one is going to be a bit more historical and focus more on analytics of psychology and sociology, so expect a nice change of pace.
If you are experiencing mental health difficulties or are in an abusive relationship, resources are available to you. Please do not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. No matter what that voice in your head may tell you: you are worth it.
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