Two years ago, Anderson Cooper took part in an auditory experiment on a CNN special, An Exercise in Empathy: Hearing Voices. The aim was to put Cooper in the shoes of somebody suffering from schizophrenia. It bombarded him with a cacophony of voices whilst he attempted to complete a series of simple tests.
Several years before, a virtual reality simulation, called Walk in Their Footsteps, was created by Janssen Pharmaceuticals primarily to help doctor’s experience the kinds of delusions and hallucinations commonly experienced by their schizophrenic patients. At about the same time Peter Yellowlee, a psychiatrist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, built a 3D prototype in Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life recreating his patient’s personal experiences with the disease.
Fast forward to today and with VR horror games on the Oculus Rift offering a new level of immersion, horror seems to have taken quite a sharp turn into new and frightening territory!
When the Silent Hills playable teaser dropped, placing the player into photo realistic environments and confronting them with horrors grounded in the commonplace versus the fantastical, you would be forgiven for thinking that these ‘schizophrenia simulators’ might have had some influence over the game-changer.
Regardless, the basic principles behind these medical aids are what make a fictional experience like P.T. and more specifically Layers of Fear (the topic of this post) so effective – why? Because more than simply trying to scare, it places the user in the shoes of a person that views the world differently, and that core concept is at the very heart of Bloober Team’s experience. Not only this but, like other horror titles, the game explores its basic premise further through an equally cerebral narrative.
It does both simultaneously by immediately presenting us, the player, with a simple statement:
the (playable) character cannot to be trusted.
We would like to ask you to cease bothering our pest control specialists, as well as refrain from sending us any more of your highly inappropriate letters (I’ll have you know that my mother is a respectable woman and does not take kindly to such accusations). All of our employees that visited your house reported absolutely no signs of rodent infestation of any kind, and as such decided not to act further than prophylactic spraying.
Early on you clatter about a darkened closet in alarm and fumble for the light to discover the floor beneath you laden in rat traps. You catch glimpses of the pests scurry around in the dimmest reaches of the peripheral, hear them scrabble and screech in the walls, causing chaos somewhere. You find obsessively drawn pictures of the creatures hidden away in every dark nook and yet… there is no infestation. The rats don’t exist. Nobody sees the creatures but you, ‘the Painter’.
In other mediums, it is not so unusual for a story to be told from an unreliable narrator – for example in a book (The Turn of the Screw, 1898) or a movie (Oculus, 2013). But to skew the perspective of a character in a video game and to do it by granting the player some higher understanding? It demonstrates an understated complexity that is frankly rare within the medium. Much like the aforementioned medical simulators the player is placed firmly within the realm of someone else’s perceived reality.
Layers of Fear continues its assault of the perceivably impossible as the Painter wanders the halls of the rambling house.
Rooms are dressed in old paintings; everywhere they hang, appearing in cahoots, speaking in some hidden language used to whisper and plot against the struggling artist. Paint drips from the frames, images warp, and in one particularly disturbing scene loom over you upon turning around.
Gradually it is the house itself which takes upon a life of its own, constantly changing on what feels like whim: floors capsize, rooms change in a blink, mirrors can be explored, memories call you from the past through the rotary, ceilings vanish, floors multiply, order becomes disorder, safe havens become dangerous – there are no rules. Even the one constant -the workshop- transforms every time the Painter returns to it.
Like the Janssen simulator, the scenarios of the game warp unexpectedly and to frightening levels. Technically speaking, exploration within the video game plays on what you, the player, knows or have discovered (ie. this should be the kitchen, not a hallway), and what you don’t (how many floors does this house have?) Just when you think you understand it, something new materializes or changes and you are left confused. And confusion only adds to tension when you know that any doorway could lock behind you, driving a wedge between you and safety or something potentially important.
But the Painter is a disturbed perhaps even deranged character. What we can only assume to be evidence both contradicts and confirms his terrifying situation at every turn. His perceptions can’t and shouldn’t be believed. Instead of offering comfort though it is this very idea that only fuels the mounting sense of dread. Because despite our relative distance as the player Layers of Fear begins to manipulate your own perceptions and warp your senses, like the Victorian ‘Haunted Swing Illusion’ or the aforementioned ‘Walk in Their Footsteps’ sim. The knowledge that you are viewing the world through the eyes of a disturbed mind becomes increasingly unsettling as it is unsafe, which makes the game uniquely terrifying.
Beyond the dread is an effective story, adding new colours to the palette. It tells us that perception isn’t the only thing not to be trusted – the Painter himself might just be the most tragic yet cruel playable character out there.
‘The thought alone that the most beautiful piece of art doesn’t have my name on it is killing me. So, will you marry me?’
You want to know what is truly scary? Someone that is either trained over the years or biologically incapable of empathic feeling, or worse, someone who can only see themselves in the things and people around them. Perhaps even more frightening is, when viewing life through their eyes, understanding that person despite it all.
In Layers of Fear there are mementos, photographs and flashbacks to be found in the ageing desks and bookshelves. Upon reading one of them -a doctor’s note- it is revealed that the Painter’s wife was tragically disfigured in a fire she started in one last attempt to draw her husband out of his workshop and back into their marriage.
The doctor recounts the Painter’s hurtful descriptions of his wife’s now chilling smile and her off-putting spasms – statements of which are dreadfully apathetic on a level that sticks with you. You can’t help but feel disgusted by what you are reading because there is nothing more terrifying than a human being without humanity… and of what use is a beautiful thing once it has been spoiled?
Earlier in the game, during a flashback, the Painter suddenly realises that it is his daughter’s fifth birthday. It is his wife who catches the blame for his forgetfulness however; from his point of view, she should have interrupted him even though it is something he expressly forbids and to such a degree that the couple rarely see one another, communicating instead through notes and letters. His outrage only magnifies an unwillingness or inability to take responsibility. It is a facet of his personality that grows even uglier as he drowns in a spiralling addiction to alcohol.
At every turn you are faced with the prospect that the Painter was, and continues to be, a harmful person with or without his addictions or artistic failings. His marriage, his child, his life and home were all playing second-fiddle to his one true love: his work. As such, he destroyed the things that truly mattered. As tragic as his situation is, the story is presented in such a way that you can’t help but wonder what it is about painting that he loves – is it the joy of artistic pursuit or the adoration and recognition he craves? One can only speculate.
The Painter ultimately ends up alone in his madness – a nightmare of his own making- and I suppose this never changes. Whatever painting he completes by the end, he has still lost his wife, child and sanity.
‘Her face. Her hands! I… … she will be devastated.’
He stumbles about the traps of his own psychological workings. The man is cyclically confronted by his memories, regrets, failings and pressures – all of which you get to experience for a short time, just as if you were the Janssen sim’s avatar, attending a ‘routine’ appointment.
It is one thing to create an idea of isolation and madness but it is quite another to simulate it. Bloober Team, either knowingly or unknowingly, managed to harness the real power behind medical ‘Schizophrenia simulators’ to skew the perceived play experience. Firstly by granting the player perspective, then through disorientation as we walk in the Painter’s reality. The developers only added further layers of complexity (excuse the pun) by detailing a character’s very real journey without glossing over the cracks in his fractured persona.
Titles like Layers of Fear, P.T. and even Outlast have successfully opened the door to a deeper level of immersion. I would go so far as to say that they have breathed new life into an ailing genre of video game, and with Lilith Ltd’s Allison Road and Totwise Studio’s The Hum: Abductions on the horizon I am eager to see just how other development teams attempt to simulate terror.