TA Chats with the Studio Behind Layers of Fear

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
From the ashes of the cancelled Silent Hills have risen several games that can be considered spiritual successors to the Del Toro/Kojima project. Similar in presentation - they're usually first-person games focused on exploration and discovery - these horror games have taken the initial promise of what P.T. aimed to be and have found new avenues to explore across various settings, stories, and nightmarish scenarios. One such game of this breed is Bloober Team's Layers of Fear. I first heard about the game from a PC gaming friend of mine last fall and I was thrilled to see it land on Xbox One's Game Preview program shortly thereafter. Having played through the intensely atmospheric game in its current form, we spoke to Bloober Team's PR Manager Rafal Basaj to learn more about their fine art-inspired "psychedelic horror" title.

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Layers of Fear continues to be branded, at least by journalists and bloggers, as a spiritual successor of the cancelled P.T./Silent Hills project. How much of an influence did that concept demo have on your game and what other influences do you cite?

P.T. proved that there is a market for more ambitious horror games, ones where you don’t have to run from enemies or cheaply scare the player. It showed that people are fond of games built on the mood and atmosphere. It was a type of game that for a long time we wanted to make but never really started the production. Once we saw that there are fans waiting for such an experience, we felt it was our opportunity to see this idea through. P.T. had influence over our project, but our main inspiration was The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and the masterwork paintings from the past centuries focusing on the art of ugliness movement that has been present in our culture for decades. Gaming wise, Amnesia: the Dark Descent was more of an inspiration for us than P.T., but if you would ask our designers what inspired them, almost everyone would provide different titles. Our team is very fond of the horror genre, be it movies, books or games, and we try to watch, read and play almost everything that hits the market. It’s easy to get inspired by all of the great work other people have done in the genre.

You’ve billed Layers of Fear as a “psychedelic” horror. That’s an interesting word to use because we don’t see that often as a descriptor. For those who haven’t tried it yet, can you describe what about the game makes it psychedelic?

The dictionary definition of psychedelic is "a mental state characterized by a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of either euphoria or despair". The main idea for the game was to change the environment in real time, distorting the perception of players and leaving them with a hallucination-like feeling. Both euphoria (of creating a masterpiece painting) and the despair (tragedies that the protagonist had to endure) are parts of the main plot. "Psychedelic" best defined the experience that we wanted to serve the players.

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Sound design seems to play a major role in Layers of Fear, especially the absence of sound. Having played it myself, I found the most unnerving moments to be when dark and silent hallways waited beyond closed doors. Is it difficult to know when to create sound to enhance a scene and when to let the silence take over?

Indeed sound and music design played a major role in building the atmosphere of the game. We worked mostly on our gut feeling and we were satisfied with the effects we achieved. However internal and external tests were pivotal in the finishing touches. We observed the players’ reactions to see how they react to different parts of the game and, based on that, tailored it to a state it is now. Lack of sound is often the most disturbing sound, so there are a lot of silent corridors in the game. To be honest it often was a struggle for us to keep it quiet in some parts of the game as the sound and music guys did a tremendous job and it was almost heart-breaking to devoid the players of enjoying their skills more often.

The overture that plays in the first few minutes of the game is haunting and so fitting for the setting. I fear asking in case I’m exposed as uncultured, but is that original music for the game?

Yes it is. This is an original piece created by Arkadiusz Reikowski, who is responsible for the whole soundtrack for the game.

The story is one of a painter gone mad from tragedy and determined to create his masterpiece. What reasons led you to telling that story in a unique time period like the 19th century?

The time period in the game is never specified, however the 19th or early 20th century is what we were aiming for. It was a period when fine art still played a huge role in our culture. Therefore, we could create a setting that prioritized this art, which ended up being the most important visual aspect of the game.

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With your game arriving on Steam Early Access and Xbox Game Preview, it’s surely gone under some remodeling, perhaps both creative and technical. What has the feedback been like from the community of players and how has this altered the game as a whole?

First and foremost I would like to thank the community that has gathered around our game. They were a huge help and provided a lot of constructive feedback helping with the development process. Comments critical of the game almost always were backed up by solid arguments that really helped narrow or focus and perfect the experience. There were elements that almost immediately were added to the game (mostly technical aspects), some were disputed to late night hours, others were discarded because they didn’t fit into our vision of the game. All in all we have read every single comment that was written on our discussion forums or emails and it all had an impact on the final shape of the game.

Virtual reality is supposed to arrive this year and change gaming forever. Horror games seem to be a great fit for such technology. Will Layers of Fear offer VR support at some point?

We are excited about VR and we are researching the technology and how we might be able to use it with a game like Layers of Fear. One of the major challenges is redesigning the game to feel natural. Simply building the game for VR doesn’t solve making the experience great. I don’t have anything to confirm right now, but if we ever have something ready for the technology we will let you know.

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According to your website, Layers of Fear isn’t the only horror title you’re working on. I’ve asked other studios behind horror games this same question and I’m always curious; why do you think people play horror video games? What draws some gamers to horror as a genre?

The easiest answer – because it’s fun! When you are scared you produce more hormones responsible for keeping you happy – it’s a defence mechanism that helps you deal with situations where you’re scared so much that you can’t move or react. Being afraid is also part of our biology – we were always scared of something – predators, lack of food, being imprisoned. Although our world isn’t exactly safe, we face fewer dangers than we used to and it’s something that paradoxically we need to experience more often. Playing horror games is kind of living to the fullest without taking risks.

After what your website calls “a bumpy start” as a studio, your game BRAWL was well received among PS4 and Steam players. Layers of Fear was first imagined during the production of a separate title. It has arguably become your biggest game and it hasn’t even officially released yet. Do you feel like you’re now gathering momentum as a team?

Definitely! BRAWL was an idea we had for a while. We wanted to give the players an old-school formula of playing on one couch, without forgetting about the contemporary gamers and their love for competitive online multiplayer games. It was also an indication where we want to go with our future games, as it had a gritty horror theme and an interesting storyline for each of the eight unique characters in the game. Layers of Fear is the exemplary image of games we want to focus on now – rich in atmosphere, with a great plot that makes you stop and think about what is happening. Psychological horror is a separate genre right now and we know we can excel at it.

What do you want players to take away from Layers of Fear when it releases?

We want them to ponder on the story that we have created, to think how easy it is to lose everything and how one tragedy can change our lives. We want them to think about ambition and family relations. We also want them to soak in the atmosphere and discover that everything beautiful can have an ugly side. Finally, we want them to have fun with Layers of Fear! We want them to be scared and left thinking more about what happens in the game. One advice – play the game with your headphones on at night, it definitely adds to the experience that awaits you.

You can pick up Layers of Fear in its Game Preview form now on Xbox One, or wait for the full game debut on February 16th.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.