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  • Writer's pictureIndy Goodwin

Formless, Flame or Forever? Gender identity struggles in Layers of Fear 2

Much like its predecessor, Layers of Fear 2 has three different endings. Mercifully, you don’t need to grab certain collectibles to differentiate between the endings. No, instead you make key choices at the end of each act which determine your fate. The central task for the game is that the Actor must create and refine a character for an unknown film project, set on a luxurious ocean liner. You can choose to follow the director’s commands to obtain the ending where the actor is revealed to be James, at the height of his success after letting the traumatic events of his past go. Alternatively, the second, and my preferred ending, involves defying the Director at every turn. You symbolically destroy your past, and are revealed to be Lily, the movie posters you have collected throughout the game removing or changing the male figure to hers.

Now this can be interpreted in a few ways, and the way that makes most sense for me at least is to read the game as the protagonist’s struggle with their gender identity.

There are quite a few clues within the game that strengthen this theory. In the first act you are faced with a scene where you try to escape a dark room with a globe in the centre. The director encourages you to find your identity, and one line in particular stands out:

“Do you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?”

This seems to be telling the Actor to push past the roles they may have been forced into by societal pressure. Given this game is set in the era of black-and-white films, gender roles were very regimented. If the Actor showed behaviour that was considered atypical for their assigned gender this would have been punished harshly. Assimilation was never a choice, except for possibly now.

As the Actor builds their character there are changes to their suite on the ship too. The clothes within the Actor’s room change as you progress through the game. From initially being suits and more traditionally masculine outfits, they change to dresses after the second act. In the midst of the Actor’s struggle to discover who they are as well as all of the more obvious signs, the fact that the clothes in the room change too is no accident.

There are also notes written to themselves in this room every time you return. As you navigate the ever-changing ship the Actor’s monologue becomes more confused, more desperate:

“Such an opportunity, such responsibility, to unleash what has been trapped for so long. I can hear it howling, rattling its cage. Dying to get out.”

(thanks to BeautyVersusZombies for the screen, I was too lazy to get mine)

“Who the fuck am I? Her, Him, Her, Him, Her, Him, US? ME!”

This theory becomes even more interesting when you consider the formless man. An unshaped, shambling mass, if this hulking creature catches you the Actor dies. The fact that it is by definition shapeless could be purely an attempt by the developers to invoke fearful geometry. However, a comment by Lily in the Bloody Roots chapter makes it slot into the gender identity interpretation nicely. When finding a doll of the Formless Man, Lily says: “Oh James, it has to take shape in your head first. Otherwise it’ll just stay… formless.” The only way for the Actor to beat the Formless man is to shape it in their head, to choose either male or female.

(I am unsure what trapping it in a coffin - for the Closed Casket achievement - could mean. Perhaps this is just to give the player a bit of a break from the chase scene.)

The use of the formless man as an antagonist shows a lack of a solid gender identity is causing the Actor a lot of pain. When the Actor is caught by the Formless Man, that is seen as a death. Whereas being gender neutral or gender queer is completely normal, the presence of the formless man leads us to believe that this is not where the Actor’s identity truly lies. They are terrified of it, constantly running from it. Their gender identity exists within the binary.

This is also confirmed by the presence of a third ending – Formless – where you do not clearly align yourself with either James or Lily. The Rat Queen (a character who does not otherwise appear save in this section and, perhaps, in the intro cinematic) tells the actor – and by extension you the player – they must begin again, taking you back to the first key choice in Act 2, and once you decide to either redo or repeat your decision, the game ends. The message here is clear: You screwed up. You must choose one or the other. Go do it again and actually make a decision.

While it could be argued that Bloober Team didn’t intend for the game to be read as a gender identity struggle, the evidence is all there and it is rather hard to see it as anything other. As a representation of gender identity struggle the game takes on a fresh new meaning; this is ground that hasn’t really been trodden before. Gender and gender identity are subjects the games industry have not quite been brave enough to explore, which is a great shame. I cannot think of a better tool to allow you to inhabit, however briefly, the shoes of a protagonist who struggles with such questions. This can in turn help foster understanding, and normalise struggling with this piece of your identity. Goodness knows the trans and genderfluid communities could use some more understanding.

Whether you choose James or Lily, to accept your past or to destroy it, Layers of Fear 2 is not what it seems. I hope Bloober Team continue to surprise me.

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