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Premature Evaluation: Layers of Fear

Gone Mad

Each week Marsh Davies lets fly at the blank canvas of Early Access and either returns with a masterpiece or ends up rocking back and forth in a corner eating Unity Asset Store crayons. This week he’s played Layers of Fear, a linear boo-scare walk-em-up set in the reassembling spooOOooky house of a maaAAaad painter.

I’m not sure a household needs more than one reproduction of The Abduction of Ganymede. It’s a fine work, sure, but I don’t want to be staring at a pissing toddler’s dangling bum while I’m having dinner, let alone every time I turn a corner in my home. But then, I’m not really sure of a lot of the other decorative choices that my character appears to have made here - the cupboard of black phlegm, the infinite library, the hell mirror, the Erik Satie levitation cellar, the room of bad chairs. Not even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen would go so far as to daub “ABANDON HOPE WHILE YOU STILL CAN” above a doorway. It doesn’t even make sense, Laurence!

Rembrandt wasn’t having it. Instead he depicts Ganymede not as a handsome youth, but a toddler, urinating himself in fright as the eagle claws him into the sky. It’s not entirely clear what he intended to say with this, but it is certainly some sort of rebuttal; as well as being one of history’s greatest painters, both aesthetically and technically, Rembrandt was a rather marvellous scoundrel and subtle provocateur. There is a bawdy, unglamorous and humane quality to a lot of his work and even his commissioned portraiture may not be as unthinkingly flattering as first appears. At least, that’s the assertion by a similarly subtle provocateur: the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, who has made two films on the subject of Rembrandt’s famous painting of a militia: The Night Watch. The first of these is Nightwatching, a drama starring Martin Freeman in a career best performance as the crude, flawed and wholly endearing Rembrandt. Here he is commissioned to paint a group portrait of men he knows are involved in a murderous conspiracy - and he takes the job, but only so that he can use the opportunity to expose them as the shitlords they are, using subtle symbology to indicate their guilt.

What initially promises to be a freeform exploration of the protagonist’s quaintly demented home turns into a linear ghost train pretty quickly, reassembling the house to provide a nightmare sequence of nicely furnished but spatially impossible rooms. Many contain things designed to assault you unexpectedly - or, failing that, at least loudly and suddenly. Turn around and the corridor behind you will have changed into an entirely different one, sometimes slathered with horrible black ichor, sometimes with a creepy doll in it, doing that wibbly-wobbly-head thing that creepy dolls and paranormal entities have done since Jacob’s Ladder came out. Console gamers will also remember the yucky lady from PT, who turns up here to do pretty much exactly what she does in PT, beat for beat.

When it avoids cliche, however, the game’s tricks and choices are quite effective. Paintings seem to melt and smear as you look at them, and then the entire room along with it. The environments are attentively constructed, seeded with the odd prop that you can pick up and admire in lustrous hi-poly detail - albeit to no particular end. And if it doesn’t quite match the alarming photo-realism of PT, then it achieves enough fidelity to make the disruption of physical space unusually powerful. The various visual distortions and hallucinations you suffer are appropriately disorienting, but it’s the game’s reassembling geometry that steals the show, luring you into rooms which turn out to have no exit; turn around and the one you came through is gone.

As in his later pseudo-documentary film on the same subject, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, Greenaway substantiates this unorthodox interpretation of The Night Watch with a careful reading of its symbols - which he suggests would be more apparent to the contemporary audience than a modern one. I find his analysis of the painting reasonably convincing, but the historical account of its reception goes against him, and, it seems, much of Greenaway’s research stops with the painting itself - art historians have complained that he has invented some of the figures to which he refers as proof. But this is possibly Greenaway’s intent - playing a larger game with the role that truth has in cinema and documentary. Just as Oliver Stone’s JFK (unhelpfully) overwrote fact with fiction, Greenaway's films mischievously fabricate history out of an analysis of paint and plausible docu-presentation. But put aside the questions of authenticity: Nightwatching is more than a conspiracy thriller with an art history degree - it is a deeply compassionate, often hilarious and literally beautiful film: every frame is composed like a painting of an old master. And in its depiction of a man, loving and foolish, it is certainly true enough.

It has to let you out eventually though, and this knowledge becomes something of a problem. I am easily startled and rarely scared by these sorts of games - and yet, not that far into the 90 minute running-time of the Early Access build, I was no longer being startled either. The rhythm of the game becomes too regular: go into room, wait for things to go bang or woo, leave room by the one available door (sometimes the one you came in, though it may now lead somewhere else). There’s nothing wrong with this set-up until it becomes the only set-up you’ve got, and though Layers of Fear does occasionally break up the pace with a trivial puzzle, the reliable frequency of its shock moments prevents them from being exactly that. Yes, yes, giant bleeding baby face, I know you’re going to be there when I turn round. And there goes another mirror. Time for the lights to go out.

The game isn’t always good at directing your gaze to even witness these things: on more than a couple of occasions, a loud bang and dramatic sting of music signalled that I had missed the event entirely while examining a particularly nice chair asset, or rummaging around in drawers (all of which are operable with a pleasingly tactile analogue mouse-movement). Oops! Sorry, ghosts.

But what of Layers of Fear’s other featured works? There’s the portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus by Lavinia Fontana, remarkable less for the painting than its subject: one of the earliest documented cases of hypertrichosis in Europe, a condition which causes an abnormal amount of hair-growth. Antonietta (sometimes called Tognina) and her family were celebrities in their day, travelling between noble courts and attraccting the attention of scientists and painters alike. But this particular portrait is also remarkable because its painter, Lavinia, is considered to be the first woman to work as a jobbing artist: i.e. outside a court or convent and among her male contemporaries in the open market. Her first ever painting, Monkey Child, is lost to history, but its title suggests it may well have depicted one of the Gonsalvus family as well.

But in spite of this, when it’s not knocking off PT, it comes up with a few horrors that are suitably spectacular to be worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, I can hardly say what they are without spoiling them - which is simultaneously a criticism of the game’s other, more derivative efforts, which come pre-spoiled by all the films and games you’ve seen which had them in too. In general, I am confused by the horror genre’s fondness for regurgitating cliche. I guess there’s some associative fear-response to horror film imagery you’ve encountered before, and I guess, too, that a manky thing that’s trying to kill you is fundamentally unsettling regardless of how many times that threat is presented.

But, even so, the most effective horror hinges on its unfamiliarity: Sadako and the xenomorph are terrifying precisely because they are unknown both in their capabilities and their intent. Too many films have since thought Sadako was scary because she has terrible posture and needs a shower - as though by nudging you in the ribs and saying, “Hey! Remember when you saw that other movie that was scary?” you will instantly buy into their superficial reproduction. It’s to mistake mere imagery, mere reference for the richness of imagination required to concoct something truly unknown.

Almost inevitably, for a collection of art that is, like, well mad and that, Layers of Fear includes a Hieronymus Bosch. But even if Bosch’s presence is predictable, I happily admit an immense fondness for his work - which remains more alarming than anything in this, or nearly any other horror game. And this particular image, which is an enlarged crop of a single detail from Christ’s Descent Into Hell, is superbly chosen. Bosch’s paintings are huge scenes crammed with minuscule vignettes, like a 16th century Where’s Wally, only with more demons waving their arses about. It’s easy to look at Bosch’s lurid chimeric creatures and wonder just how serious about this whole damnation thing he was. Sure, they may be driving people into flaming pits, but there is something comic about these beasts - at least to modern eyes. But in this chosen image we have a moment which stands out as assuredly chilling. Half obscured by a mound of dirt, a man is being forced to kneel at sword point, while a gallows is erected to hang him. His captors are occupied, but the man’s head is swivelled to look over the hillock, right back at the viewer, his mouth agape, expression ambiguous. Is he shouting to us for help? I wonder if this is not a self-portrait, screaming wordlessly, condemned by the hell that Bosch has himself imagined. Its inclusion in this game is apt, but almost unfortunate in the comparison it proposes: this is what a true masterwork of horror looks like.

Needless to say, Layers of Fear is at its best when coming at horror from its relatively unusual perspective: that of the artist. Though rarely seen, the protagonist’s own paintings are enjoyably ghastly, and the game punctuates your descent into lunacy with repeated modifications to a single canvas, slowly conjuring an image that lies almost exactly between Francis Bacon and Clive Barker. I can’t really lay out any more of the plot without evaporating some of its intrigue, but I can say that the delivery of it leaves a bit to be desired - voiceover recollections are hammy and the writing is clumsy with modern colloquialisms, contradicting what appears to be an ambiguous period setting. (I wonder if younger players will understand how to work a dial-operated phone.) It’s definitely from the Thematically On-The-Nose Blood Graffiti school of environmental storytelling.

Some visual bugs undermine a few of its hallucinatory reveals, and, being a game you’re likely only going to enjoy once, I’m not sure I’d recommend playing it before the experience is fully polished. A note pinned to a door uses the phrase “if you care so lunch” - all the more peculiar an error given that it appears to be handwritten, rather than a typo. There are lots of other minor mistakes besides, but what I really want from the remaining time in early access is not precise spelling as much as a different pace. The game’s less linear opening, and the objects you can pick up and inspect, suggest the possibility of a more sober structure, perhaps with more involved puzzling or a liberated sense of spatial exploration, which would amp up the contrast of the game’s attempts at alarm. At the moment, the relentless pummelling you receive only goes to prove that, no matter the game’s visual imagination, players can get used to anything - even something as truly horrifying as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s interior design.

Layers of Fear is available from Steam for £6. I played the version with the Build ID 750039 on 31/08/2015.

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