Some months ago came Layers of Fear 2. The studio, Bloober Team, never leaves anyone indifferent.
A huge surprise that nobody was expecting, given that Layers of Fear (the first game) had everything perfectly well finished. But we did get a sequel, although the plots are not related whatsoever.
While in Layers of Fear the ongoing theme was painting, playing as a painter once incredibly succesful, now gone absolutely ignored after certain dark events in his life, in Layers of Fear 2 the running theme is theatre. In this game, we play as James, a really sought after – yet extremely eccentric – actor that is playing a role on a ship. This recording will always be lead by The director, always present, the hand guiding the player, dubbed by horror icon Tony Todd. Pretty much like the first game, James will be forced to face people and chapters from his past, his current fears, and a wide array of choices that will determine the ending of the game.
Inside the recording, the player never quite knows what is real, fantasy, present or past. For the vast majority of the game, events happen in the ship, however other locations are explored too. Environments can be quite big, with lots of alternative paths, choices and options. On top of that, there are different kinds of collectibles: posters, slides, audio files plus some strange objects of which only four exist in the whole game. These collectibles are the biggest difference, in terms of gameplay, when comparing it to the first game. While the first game was a true “walking simulator” experience, with barely a couple of puzzles that added variety to the adventure, this game demands more investment from the player through more puzzles, challenges, instant deaths and, of course, collectibles.
Starting from the main menu, everything is made so that it is easier to achieve every collectible and all three endings. This game is designed to be played several times, and this is something obvious from the very start, since there are three individual save slots, the possibility of playing each “act” separately (the game is divded by acts, as if it was a theatre play) and, on top of that, upon finishing it the player unlocks a “new game +” option, which saves all of the collectibles that have already been collected. Also, to add to everything said, depending on what paths are chosen, there are different results, situations and collectibles that vary.
From now on, everything are going to be spoilers, as it is impossible to analyze this game without spoiling it.
This whole saga is about exploring the psyche of an mentally ill artist, however, in this case, the player only starts to understand the specific topic to this game after playing it more than once.
In Layers of Fear 2 there are two stories: the one that the game openly tells and the one that is not told as directly and needs more gameplay time.
During this game, James is often faced by The formless man, this being the instant death element in the game. At first it may not seem very relevant, it could just be an element to make the game more exciting, just another one of James’ memories (when he was a kid, he made a figure of a man that his sister said was formless). However, it is much more than that.
I dare saying both The director and The formless man are two sides of the same coin. Both appear to have very little relevance at first, but after a second gameplay their relevance and what they truly mean start to be quite obvious.
Speaking in a completely aseptic way, strictly holding onto what the game offers, the “first layer”, the plot talks about how James is forced to face his past. His story is that of a boy who grew without a mom with an abusive father that hates him because his wife died during childbirth. Driven by his circumstances, he manages to escape from that house thanks to his sister Lily, who is a little older than him. Both siblings are really close to eachother, since James is very young and she plays the role of mother figure to him. They often play pirates, and Lily promises that she will always be within him. They run off to a ship that had stopped at their city and live as stowaways. It is super tough for them, but at least they are together… until Lily dies at a terrible fire in the ship.
That is what the game tells. However, if the player starts the game again, they will soon notice there is much more behind it.
One of the keys is The director. This character, at the end of each act, puts the player in compromising situations in which they are forced to choose between two available options. Duality. If one chooses to do as he says, the situation folds up easily. However, doing the opposite, the game forces the player to repeat once and again, suggesting that disobeying is wrong, trying to make them surrender to doing as he says.
Another key is the dressing room. It is full, again, with signs that point at duality, this time explicitly male/female. James’ dressing room is filled with clothing both for women and for men. In fact, sometimes during the game, James’ shadow can be seen. Sometimes it shows two people, sometimes it casts a female figure, others a male one.
There are loads of details like these in the game, such as the fact that, upon receiving damage, James groans in a feminine voice. Once in a while, the player can find documents that expose this duality theme, such as James’ autographs – sometimes dressed as a woman, sometimes as a man-. Towards the end of the game, the player can do a small puzzle about filling in gaps that says “You are so close to getting out. Whichever way you go, you or her, as long as you choose anything, is better than this place”.
On top of it all, also towards the end of the game, Lily (whose voice sounds all the time as conversations with her brother) begins to turn super hostile with James. She reprimands him for being a coward, for not having the bravery to face things. In one specific scene, Lily swears she will kill James and, through the very own gameplay, the game shows this explicitly.
James has gender dysphoria with split personality disorder that comes from his trauma after losing his sister. He became obsessed with that sentence about always living within him and, as he became older, he would always play with genders. Since he could not choose what nor who he was, he suffered from this depression that did not seem to have any kind of outcome.
The director is our society, what is expected from James. The director always forces James to do “the right thing“. Often, the player can read articles and notes that talk about James’ eccentric behaviour, how different people remind him that he should let go of such behaviour.
The formless man is James. He does not know what he is, who he is, he is a formless man. That pressure, that guilt from being sitting on the fence, not knowing what to do, what role to adopt in his life, it haunts and kills him.
In fact, as a personal opinion, I think it is possible that James is not even an actor, but rather he is trying to live his life and is forced to play a role as part of the society. A role he is not even comfortable with.
It is amazing to play this game several times, obey or disobey The director, discover its several options and endings. Each one of the three endings of this game is dedicated to one of its pillars: James, Lily and The formless man, depending on whether the player always obeys The director, always disobeys him or chooses a mix of choices.
To sum up, this is a game that can go unfairly unnoticed. Despite this, honoring its title, it has several layers that await to be discovered to reach the most interesting parts of the plot.