Layers of Fear places players in an old house, telling them nothing about why they're there. Paintings of horrific events cover the walls. Music floats from somewhere within the house. A single locked door has a cryptic note tacked to it. Food, drink, and other objects show that someone was here recently, but they're gone now.
Something is wrong about the house, but it's difficult to know what.
Players eventually learn about the painter who makes this strange house his home, and about some of the ghastly things he's done. Is he lurking in here? It's disquieting, but the threat it pales next to the unnerving things that are happening in this structure of wood and brick. The house itself is what seems to be the most dangerous and unpredictable thing in the game.
"The ‘haunted house’ setting is one of the most well-known horror tropes, and it does wonders for Layers of Fear," says Rafal Basaj of Bloober Team, the Polish studio that made what they dub a "psychedelic horror" game.
"We had a lot of ideas for the rooms, and how we can use the environment to scare the player," he says. One of the most successful ideas was getting players to make the building itself by unreliable.
"We left hints like ‘don’t look back’ knowing that almost every player will do just the opposite, and we tried to use their natural curiosity against them at every turn."
In many games, layout of a level is static, which allows players to find their way around without getting lost. The kitchen is always in this spot. The bedroom is always in that spot. That hallway will always lead you to the exact same place. It's a source of comfort to the player to know the layout, even if they never consider it.
In Layers of Fear, a door that once lead to a room may now lead to an elongated hallway, or to some stairs, or to a brick wall.
The odd occurrences are all machinations of a being that wishes the player harm. In this case, it just happens to be the place itself. Knowing that their surroundings are conspiring against them keeps players on edge.
"We believe that true horror comes from the unknown," says Basaj. "The environment plays a vital role in creating a thick and uneasy mood. Real-time changes to your surroundings create this feeling of not knowing what will come next. People expect that crazy things will happen, and that they will escalate quickly."
Eventually, the player accepts that a door will lead some place different the next time they open it. Still, a room won't change while they're in it, will it? Games tend to do loading behind closed doors, so surely the only real changes will come when moving from room to room.
In this, the developers find a new way to erode any sense of security in knowing a place. Immediate surroundings soon begin to change the moment the player turns their back. It's not long before the only thing a player knows for sure is what's right in front of them.
This effect was created by drawing the players eye and making them look in certain directions, allowing the developers to change the world behind them. "The trick lies in creating a setting in which the player will trigger an effect of changing, either by walking over a specific spot or by looking in the right direction." says Basaj. "We used lighting or sounds to entice the player into triggering those effects. It’s not rocket science, but it is effective as hell."
Bloober Team is doing a lot of internal and external playtesting to maximize the impact of these effects. "Refining the scares means checking out the most common behaviors of players and adjusting scenes to make them as powerful and effective as possible." says Basaj. "This was one of the main reasons we have launched Layers of Fear in Early Access and Game Preview programs – more people playing equals more feedback."
Many take for granted that there are small reliefs along the way when we play horror games. We come to know the ways in which the game will attack or frighten the player, and we rely on that knowledge to make ourselves feel safe. It soothes the player, even if only a little.
This is why moments like the dogs breaking through the windows in Resident Evil work so well. The player feels safe in their belief that they know all there is to know about the room or corridor they're navigating, but then the game throws something new and unexpected into the mix. Layers of Fear uses this all over the house, constantly subverting what players expect.
After a time, the player learns to outwit some of the game's tricks. They will adapt, walking backwards or using other tactics to maintain line of sight. The developers needed to find ways that would force players to look away, or else all of the uncertainties they put into the game would fall apart. That meant studying behavior, and more importantly, thinking through player psychology.
"We left hints like ‘don’t look back’ knowing that almost every player will do just the opposite." says Basaj. "And we tried to use their natural curiosity against them at every turn."
A player in a horror game wishes to arm themselves with knowledge against the scary things that could happen. When they know why a haunting is happening, it helps them get their bearings and respond to it, in the game world or in their own mind. This means the player, despite knowing something horrible may be waiting when they turn their back, is also hungry to turn around and see what awful thing is waiting for them. At least then, they will be able to know what it is they are supposed to be afraid of, and why.
A final touch Bloober team employed was mundanity. The house does shift in horrifying ways, but it's the simplicity of the place that unsettles the player. "We didn’t want an enemy that would chase you, or any kind of combat that destroys the immersion," says Basaj." If you believe that the story of our painter could happen in real life and it frightens you to the bones, then you don’t need any other distractions that could potentially destroy the atmosphere."
"The devil is in the details," he adds. "The mood is created by lighting, music, sound effects, each and every asset to make the world more realistic. It's a place that we can imagine ourselves living in. The scariest things hide in our own minds; we just give people the opportunity to let it out."