Layers of Fear

Over the past couple of months, I've been playing some horror inspired action games, finally playing through the first Witcher and the new Doom on PC (both fantastic). But last night I wrapped up my first play-through of Layers of Fear, a surreal trip through the confines of an artist's madness. It was touching, haunting, and gorgeous. It was also real as fuck.

Without spoiling what the game is doing, there are repeated cycles, each diving deeper into the protagonist's issues and failings as an artist, husband, father, and public figure. One of the cycles had me stepping through a door with the graffiti "WHAT IF YOU FAIL?" haphazardly painted above. It was right then I realized the game was speaking directly to me. The producers' intention or not, this story of artistic failure and the nightmare of loss was about the very real horror of anxiety and depression. From squirreling away knickknacks, half-started projects, and vices, to rationalizing absurd, harmful behavior, and justifying the abject terror that comes with even thinking you're not doing your craft justice. I've been there, I've been the monster of my own design, I've put the evil thoughts I think other people think of me into their heads, regardless of what they truly believe. Through good intentions, I have ruined relationships and connections. My own hubris has clouded my ability to be self-critical, while my own self-loathing blinds me to genuine good work.

The game itself is simple, it's what we call a "walking simulator." There's very little action, though there are jump scares. Some of those work, some are obvious, but when the game decides to get dark and bend reality, it's obvious (to me, at least in how I played it), this was a Hell of one's own making. This house with its never ending hallways and shifting doors is the mind prison of the artist, where the medium overpowers the art, and the artist is devoured by his tools in a cruel effort to "get it right." I have felt that with my writing. Playing a game that seems to give anxiety a sort of flesh, or at least, builds an infinite, inescapable house out of it, is triggering, but also exhilarating. Dive deep! Face these things headlong! Pull the scab off quickly and really see the damage you have caused...

Maybe not that last part.

But that's how anxiety feels, it's a good, natural defense at its most base level, but then there's living with it, becoming a part of it so that it comes to define you. I see a therapist regularly, I'm on meds to control that shit, but those tendrils and stains of darkness are always there. Layers of Fear dares you to explore every corner, knowing full-well something is going to try and get you, but tucked away in a drawer under a melting and bloody painting, is the photograph of your spouse that brings a smile to your face no matter what. There's light to be found in the darkness, but the point is, even sources of inspiration and bastion can be detrimental. Surely this time it will be different, except for when it's exactly the same. The cycle begins anew, maybe a little better, maybe slightly more twisted than last time.

There's no happy ending to anxiety, there is only acceptance. In acceptance, there is a way out, and the only way out is through. "That's a happy ending," you think, but darkness is always there, you're just doing good keep it behind you. As the game says at times, "Don't look back."

I loved my experience with Layers of Fear, and I see myself exploring that house again. Not just for the fun of it, but because it feels so much like my own home, when I'm at my worst. Having a space that is so familiar yet alien, terrifying, but safe, feels like a tool I know I can rely on to work out and exercise my own fears and depression.

Kudos and hardy thanks to the folks at Bloober Team and Aspyr for such a rich experience. And holy crap, Arkadiusz Reikowski music is so flipping good!

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