Courtesy of Bloober Team & Anshar Studios

Layers of Fear reimagines horror with Unreal Engine 5

Brian Crecente
The new Layers of Fear isn’t just “horror reimagined” (as the game’s tagline says); it’s also a reimagining of Bloober Team’s defining franchise.

While the first Layers of Fear hit in 2016–six years after the studio’s launch–the horror game helped to refocus Bloober Team’s work. In the years since that 2016 release, the studio shifted completely to horror titles, releasing–among six projects–Observer, Layers of Fear 2, Blair Witch, and The Medium.

And now, with this year’s Layers of Fear, Anshar Studios and Bloober Team return to that narratively-focused first-person franchise with a title that brings together the original title and its sequel, along with all downloadable content and a new story that stitches those works together in a neat, spine-chilling package.

We chatted with Anshar Studios about the process and benefits of moving the franchise first to UE4 and then to Unreal Engine 5, how the team made use of Unreal Engine tools like Lumen, and the challenges that adding a flashlight to the entire game brought.

You described Layers of Fear (2023) as being built upon the foundation of Layer of Fear (2016) and Layers of Fear 2 with a “surprising new story direction and new content.” Does that mean this will be a retelling of those stories or something connected to them but entirely new?

Damian Kocurek, creative director at Anshar Studios:
The game is based on the original stories of Layers of Fear and Layers of Fear 2 as well as DLCs. On top of that, we're expanding the known lore with a brand-new chapter (the story of the writer) that will bind all pieces together, creating a seamless, overarching plotline for the series.

Layers of Fear (2016) was built in Unity and Layers of Fear 2 in Unreal Engine 4. This latest game is built in Unreal Engine 5. What has it been like moving the franchise between different engines?

Tomasz Bilnicki, programmer at Anshar Studios:
Each engine is a bit different and gives us some different challenges and opportunities. Moving from Unity to Unreal Engine required, of course, the biggest effort since most of the game was rebuilt to increase the visual fidelity and push the horror into the new age. This meant to prepare everything for more realistic lighting and materials, building new systems and features on Unreal while using Unreal specific features and using completely new things to achieve different effects, like Niagara. Moving between UE4 and UE5 was definitely a smoother transition and mostly required for us to learn new things (like Lumen) and how to develop things with them in mind.

What made the Bloober Team decide to create Layers of Fear in Unreal Engine 5?

When we saw the visual effects that Unreal Engine 5 enables us to achieve, we were knocked off our feet. This is something we very much wanted for the new game. UE5 presents us with a multitude of ways to create an immersive, visceral horrorscape with lighting.
Courtesy of Bloober Team & Anshar Studios
How has it been transitioning from developing on Unreal Engine 4 to developing on Unreal Engine 5?

Unreal Engine 5 is very similar to Unreal Engine 4. Many elements remained unchanged and the transition to the new engine was made easier.

The obvious challenge was to learn about new possibilities and technologies such as Lumen, Nanite, TSR or Virtual Shadow Maps, which simply required research and development to get the most out of their capabilities.

The biggest challenge, however, was to check what had changed or been removed. One of these elements is the lack of tessellation in Unreal Engine 5. Early in the development of Layers of Fear, we used tessellation to dynamically change the level geometry. At the time, Nanite didn't support World Position Offset, which forced us to come up with another way to implement the effect without tessellation.

A lot of time and resources were spent on adapting existing content to the new features of Unreal Engine 5 and developing new pipelines. In the case of Lumen, we had to pay much more attention to the objects to have the correct and accurate Distance Fields. Another interesting case is Ray Tracing. We had a lot of experience implementing Ray Tracing during the development of Observer: System Redux on Unreal Engine 4. After switching to the new engine, it turned out that Ray Tracing is an integral part of Lumen. Nothing has changed on the content side, but we had to learn a new setup on the project config side.

In retrospect, the project's transition from Unreal Engine 4 to Unreal Engine 5 went smoothly. Most of the time was spent learning new features and adjusting the content.

The original Layers of Fear (2016) dealt with sacrifice, while the sequel dealt with self identity. What will Layers of Fear (2023) delve into?

We actually refer to this game, and every previous title in the series, as a game where you constantly make moral choices. The motive of sacrifice appears in both installments. In Layers of Fear, players choose between family or the pursuit of artistic greatness. Similarly, players have no simple answers to the in-game situations they encounter in Layers of Fear 2. We never tell players what is the correct or incorrect choice to pick. We want players to make their choices themselves --- there will be no exception in Layers of Fear as well. This fear of the unknown, the fear of not knowing where your decisions will lead you to is what we call "hidden horror."
Courtesy of Bloober Team & Anshar Studios
How do the game’s story, setting, character and mechanics play into that theme?

Every character, atmosphere or gameplay is embedded in this theme. Everything has to play together to build the hidden horror vibe.

What horror properties new and old influenced and inspired the design of Layers of Fear?

Our new game, Layers of Fear, takes inspiration from classic masterpieces in the genre like P.T. by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, creating a truly haunting atmosphere within its ever-shifting environment. We're excited to provide an even more immersive spooky experience with revamped gameplay mechanics and other technical advancements for those brave enough to take on the journey.

With The Medium, the team drew some inspiration from Polish dystopian surrealist painter Zdzisław Beksiński. Are there any artists or artwork that you are looking to for inspiration for Layers of Fear?

Layers of Fear is heavily inspired by the world of art, film, theater, and such. In Layers of Fear 1, you will find many iconic, mystery paintings; you just need to look around the mansion. You can also experience the beauty of the architecture and décor of the Victorian Era. The story from Layers of Fear 2 revolves around the art of cinema - from Georges Melies ‘ artwork to the modern cinematography. Layers of Fear will be a beautiful feast for aesthetes and fans of the broader arts.
Courtesy of Bloober Team & Anshar Studios
What can you tell us about the game’s soundtrack? You’ve made some interesting choices in previous titles.

As with the previous games, the soundtrack is composed and reimagined by our irreplaceable Arek Reikowski. The piano plays a huge role in Layers of Fears, and the piano theme will undoubtedly accompany players throughout the game, also reflecting the character of the painter's wife, who is a pianist. Players may expect that many scores in Layers of Fear will be played on a piano.

How will the game make use of Ray Tracing, HDR effects and 4K resolution?

Layers of Fear will support all these effects. The use of hardware Ray Tracing in Layers of Fear will feature high-quality reflections and Global Illumination lighting on PC and consoles. HDR will also be available on every platform, which will allow for a deeper color palette and more detail in the bright and dark parts of the scene. On consoles, 4K resolution is our primary focus. With Temporal Super Resolution, this is even easier to achieve without the need for quality cuts. On PC, in addition to TSR, DLSS and XeSS may also be available, which will significantly improve performance and image quality at 4K resolution.

Lighting plays an important role in horror. Do you have any specific ideas or uses of Lumen in mind you can talk about?

There isn't anything specific that we are doing with Lumen, but it helps us to iterate quicker on the levels, use the light and shadows in a more dynamic way than we did before. We can see most in the levels where we use the flashlight that the players use to guide themselves on the levels.
Courtesy of Bloober Team & Anshar Studios
You call Layers of Fear a psychedelic horror chronicle. Can you elaborate on what will make this game psychedelic?

The mind-bending surreal settings and set pieces will play tricks on players' perceptions. Players will get baffled and will start doubting whether they have been to a certain place before or whether a certain object has moved. 

Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your Layers of Fear’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.

One of the things we added is the flashlight, which is used to interact with the environment and survive encounters. We've had our work cut out for us, as we needed to ensure that it fits with the themes and horror atmosphere we wanted to achieve while still being performant and offering player options. To fit with the themes, we approached it from a story perspective. For the Actor's story, we used a regular flashlight but added an effect to the light that makes it look like a camera projector, fitting with the movie theme. For the Painter's story, it was more difficult since it's set in an earlier time, and a regular flashlight wouldn't fit very well. After some iterations, we arrived at a lamp that uses fire, which makes sense considering that our antagonist is afraid of fire.

Once we had these tools, we worked on adding depth to how the player uses them by ensuring they don't overheat. This required us to convey that information to the player, necessitating changes to the model, animation, and material to show overheating. Finally, we needed to ensure that it works within the game, especially in previously dark areas, and make changes to those levels as needed. Fortunately for us, this process went smoothly since we were using Lumen and the lights were already dynamic. Overall, we spent many months getting it over the line, but the end result provides more options for the player and the dynamic light enhances the horror atmosphere in the game.
Courtesy of Bloober Team & Anshar Studios
How do you think your horror games have evolved over the past decade or so?

With each title, we tick a certain milestone off our list. Each subsequent title is more and more elaborated, adopts more and more advanced visual effects, and gameplay becomes more refined. But one thing remains imperative at Bloober Team and that is the story of games. We are striking a balance between story and gameplay to deliver to players the experience they expect.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We highly encourage old and new players to check out what we have prepared for them. :)

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Where can people find out more about Bloober Team, Anshar Studios and Layers of Fear?

From our social media accounts and our website! :) We are present on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube.

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