As I paced the weathered lighthouse hallways, anxiously fidgeting at each and every doorknob in an attempt to find one that might give me both passage and a false sense of security, I could feel the ocean spray on my skin. I could smell the sea salt, the dampened wood, and the smoke sent billowing from blown out lanterns. In time, these sensations would pass, as walls became flesh and the sound of crashing waves, a widow's wail.
In short, Layers of Fear (2023) is an intensely atmospheric game--the depths of which are made all the more impressive when you consider that I was not thousands of miles away, wandering the halls of an east coast lighthouse, but rather sitting in a plastic chair surrounded by a thousand other game enthusiasts at GDC. After spending 30 minutes with the game--during which I controlled two characters, The Painter and a new character referred to as The Writer--I spoke with the team regarding the upcoming, er… well, we'll get to that in a second.
Originally titled Layers of Fears in an attempt to differentiate itself from the original Layers of Fear, which first released back in 2016, Layers of Fear (2023) is an ambitious game in that it is a remake, remaster, and definitive edition all in one. The game--which is being developed by Anshar Studios in collaboration with the series' original studio, Bloober Team--combines the first two games in the series, completely rebuilds them in Unreal Engine 5, and adds several pieces of new content, including some much-needed throughlines.
"So for example, there is a new chapter with The Wife that completes the story of the original," Anshar Studios creative director Damian Kocuerk explained. "And more importantly, we added the Writer; she's the one that you start with, in the lighthouse. Her character binds the stories together. So we kind of bring out more of the mythology that was in there to make it one big story, and the definitive experience of the Layers of Fear."
While my short time with the game didn't reveal just how The Writer ultimately binds the story together, I found her addition extremely important for another reason.
As I made my way to answer the phone ringing just down the dim, creaky hallway--a truly classic horror scenario, to be sure--the first-person camera didn't give me any real indication as to who I was controlling. However, when I reached for the phone, I was surprised my character's hands were both feminine and dark, a hard-to-find combination in video games. I was even more delighted when one of the phone calls she took was from her adult son, who called to encourage his mother's independence and wish her well on her writing retreat.
"Part of Layers of Fear is the artistry behind it--the kind of [artistic] obsession. So what we wanted to do was add a writer so [the game] had another side of art to show," Kocuerk said. "And then we looked for a hook. And there were many female writers--and in particular, Black female writers--in that era. And that was a tough place to be for them. It's a tough time to be in, which kind of fits with the themes that we're trying to do."
During the '60s and '70s in America, several Black female authors released truly profound works of literature: authors like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry, and Octavia E. Butler. However, it has always been a struggle for these works to receive the level of accreditation they deserve. To see this wave of writers not only acknowledged, but the dreams that fueled these visionaries explored in a game, was a wondrous surprise. The Writer's backstory and inclusion also adds more nuance to Layers of Fear, as it shows that "artistic obsession" is not an inherently evil or selfish thing. Rather, The Writer is merely trying to reclaim her independence and leave her own mark after spending the past two decades in service of her family.
"A lot of horror is like, 'Why did you do this stupid thing?' [But] she is a mother and she raised her son, and now it is her time to split off and do her own thing. And her son is positive [towards her independence] and he pushes her to do her own thing--to do what is good for her. So we try to explore that a bit to show that obsession isn't always so [clear cut.]"
The addition of The Writer is the greatest example of what Anshar Studios is aiming to do: create thoughtful enhancements. Kocuerk said the team looked to the community for guidance, spending a great deal of pre-production researching what they liked and what didn't work. Anshar Studios also met up with the developers behind the original games to see what ideas were left of the table, or what they would have done differently with more time and resources.
"We want to [create] the crowning work of this universe. It's a very important franchise for Bloober--it is something that put them on the map," Kocurek said. "So we wanted to do more and this made sense. To give the players that love the universe more, to give them something in addition to that, and not just remake what was already done.
"While we still have the same event [and] the same sequences, we put them in different order to build better intensity. We added a lot of animations to increase the immersion, added the VO, and added the encounters with the wife, all to put more in your hands to make it a less passive experience [..] I sometimes call [the process] death by a thousand cuts. It's a lot of different changes to push it all higher--to build a better atmosphere, build better intensity, and kind of make it more visceral. It's not one big change, it's just a lot of smaller ones, to make it the best that it can be."
Of course Anshar Studios isn't the only team resurrecting a well-loved horror series. With nearly annual Resident Evil remakes, the revival of Dead Space, a new Alan Wake on the way, and even Anshar Studios' collaborator, Bloober Team, working on the highly-anticipated Silent Hill 2 remake, there is no denying the games industry is seeing a trend of horror game remakes. Naturally, I had to ask Kocurek why he thought that was.
"I think there is no one big answer to that," Kocurek said. "One thing, though, is that the times are a bit darker with COVID and everything. So things are maybe not as positive as they used to be. And for many people, [horror is] a safe space to experience fear--a safe space to experience the darker side. So it helps them get by and helps them learn a bit about themselves. It might be that."
For those itching to learn more about themselves--and the game's new character, The Writer--Layers of Fear is slated to release on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC this June.
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