BLAIR WITCH First Look: Franchise Evolves Past Silver Screen
Like most people, I was surprised by the announcement of the upcoming Blair Witch game. Game adaptations of films aren’t rare, but they normally come out as shovelware adjacent to the film’s release. Notoriously low quality and almost always forgotten about outside of comedic listicles, these cynically commercial wastes of plastic have earned their poor reputation. For those not familiar with this particular plague, imagine how hard it is for you to get excited for the fifth installment of a horror franchise. Now stretch that torture over 6-10 hours, and slap on a price tag of $30-$60.
However, there are a few things that the Blair Witch game did to set it apart from the pack. First, the game isn’t releasing anywhere near the most recent film. It’s been a full three years since we saw our last Blair Witch movie, and I can generously say that hype for the franchise isn’t at an all-time high. Secondly, the game is releasing just a few months after the E3 unveiling. This is pretty unheard of, especially for a title with this kind of history behind it (though now that I think of it, this is very similar to what the recent Blair Witch film did.) Last and most importantly, it’s being developed by Bloober Team, a studio behind the superlative Layers of Fear and Observer. Add it all up, and it’s enough to get me at least curious.
That being said, Blair Witch still was fighting an uphill battle with me. I’m not a fan of the franchise. I know some people swear by The Blair Witch Project, but I was 10 when it came out. I didn’t get to see it in theaters, I wasn’t part of the hype, I didn’t learn of it through flyers posted around festivals, I didn’t discover the webpage or any of the other various factors people point to for why I just don’t “get it”. I will never have that authentic original The Blair Witch Project experience. And as a film to watch in your living room with popcorn on the stove and your cat in your lap, it’s not that great. I felt that the most recent Blair Witch was pretty good if a bit narratively loose and unfocused. I watched Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in preparation for the game (don’t ever tell me I don’t earn my keep), and I can confidently say it’s the cinematic equivalent to being forced to listen to your nephew sing along to Kidz Bop on a long car ride.
It’s a lot of set up, but I want to establish why I’m writing this article. I preview a lot of games, and most of the time I don’t give a shit. Preview articles aren’t exactly raking in the big bucks. I’m not a big Blair Witch fan, stoked to hide from the spooky Witch in first person. I’m a horror game lover and just want more good horror games. Blair Witch didn’t wow me because of the name behind it. It wows me because what I played was really damn good.
My hands-on demo was about 40 minutes long, taking place over five different areas of the game. In Blair Witch, you take the role of Ellis, a former cop on the hunt for a missing child. Locations were a bit trimmed down to focus on key mechanics, but I was told the final product would have much more sprawling levels. Having played previous Bloober Team games, I felt I knew what to expect: walking through hallways, opening doors, lots of drawers, all while spooky things abound. All things which are still in peak form in Blair Witch. However, now the spooky ghost rooms are accompanied by a whole slew of new mechanics. Most important of which is Bullet, Ellis’s capable canine companion.
Unlike most horror movie/game dogs, Bullet is far more than a token plot device used to ramp the tension and make you root for the good guy. A trained police dog, Bullet both acts as your guide and guardian. He can show you the way, sniff out clues, and alert you to the presence of potential enemies. From a game design standpoint, it’s a brilliant way to integrate the practical need for objective markers with the non-existent UI. You can also praise or punish Bullet, which will influence how he acts and alter your moral standing in the game. He’s also adorable when you give him treats. Good boy, Bullet.
Aside from the dog (as if you needed more), there are a number of other tools at Ellis’s disposal, each with multiple functions. There’s Ellis’s cell phone, which can be used to make and take calls. A walkie talking blips and bloops, and the frequency can be changed in ways I’m sure will come in handy. It wouldn’t be Blair Witch without a camcorder, but the game takes a unique approach by allowing you to rewatch old tapes and pause them to alter objects in the world. In the demo level, I would rewind footage of a fight to open doors along the path.
A few other mechanics I discovered just by dicking around. Opening the phone, you can find a trove of texts, call history, voicemails, and even a fully working version of Snake. Objects in your inventory can be sniffed by Bullet, which I’m sure does something in the final game. The tools at your disposal don’t just act as single-use keys for various puzzles but pull double-shift as storytelling devices. It’s a treasure trove of mechanics that far exceed your typical walking simulator. There’s just so much here to explore, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.
Of course, none of this would matter if Blair Witch wasn’t scary. From what I saw, the game lives up to the Bloober Team lineage. There was one part in a cave where the lights went out (a cheap trick I know.) Straining my eyes in the dark, I could make out the shape of a police officer with glowing yellow eyes. Sounds pretty typical. The kicker is, he didn’t do anything or attack me. Just a vague shape looming in the shadows, it was more terrifying than any jump-scare.
Then I warped into a spooky house, ripe with opportunities for things to pop out and go, “boo.” But nothing happened. Until… it did. It’s a simple idea, but far too often to games overload the shock and awe. It diminishes the effectiveness as you become immune to the high-pitched shrieks and jack-in-the-box ghosts. Blair Witch was more sparing with the jump-scares, but the few they did have were earned. If the demo is indicative of the final product, then the pacing and mix of puzzles to action is spot-on.
I’m going to stop my recap here since there’s only so much I can say about the demo. Blair Witch looks great. The graphics are a whole tier above Layers of Fear 2. The dog is very sweet. I want to move on to some deeper insight on the plot. While I have my speculations, luckily this won’t just be a rant about how I think the game will end. I actually got a chance to chat with Blair Witch’s Narrative Designer Barbara Kciuk. Here’s what she had to say:
DC: With Blair Witch, you’re adapting a franchise that has gone in several different directions. What films do you mostly draw from, and how was it balancing all of that?
BK: Yes, this was definitely a challenge. You have the first film which was very minimal and vague with its plot, and the third that was far more direct. Then you have the second that pretends the first film isn’t real, which is a whole different beast. Let’s also not forget, the short-film mockumentaries. On top of all of that, what would Blair Witch be without the fans and culture surrounding it? The not knowing, picking through the pieces to try to find the ultimate truth when there might not be one. Ultimately, we took bits and pieces from each to make our own game. Blair Witch is its own story with its own themes and mystery, without having to directly reflect any specific piece of inspiration. In that way, it feels very much at home in this extended universe.
DC: So are you going with the Blair Witch as a literal monster or a metaphor?
BK: It’s both for sure. In Layers of Fear, everything was under the guise of being an illusion, a metaphor for the artist’s shattered mind. In Observer, there was a line between the real world and the virtual. In Blair Witch, this line between real and unreal does not exist. There are actual things happening to you, but they are also a reflection of the character. It’s not “all a dream,” even if the laws of reality don’t always apply.
DC: Previous Bloober Team games have all had a central theme that defined the story. Layers of Fear was about coping with loss and denial, Observer was about escapism in a hopeless world, and Layers of Fear 2 was about the choices we make in impossible situations. What would you say is the theme of Blair Witch.
BK: The downfall of human nature. How your past can lead you down a certain path, and how that path can take you to many different places. As I said in the preview, Blair Witch has a system for judging the choices you make to dictate where Ellis will go. Perhaps this affects the ending, or perhaps it alters his past. With how time works in the Black Hills Forest, maybe they are one in the same.
DC: So how will that factor into gameplay? Will there be “good” or “bad” options?
BK: It’s more subtle than that. We track a number of the player’s actions to dictate how the story will go. Petting Bullet versus punishing him is just part of it. You can’t pet him 100 times to get the good ending. More subtle factors play in, like how close you stay to him or if you listen to his clues. Even when you do make a choice, it’s not always straightforward that you are making one. We didn’t want the player to feel like it all came down to a few different moments where you pick left or right. In a way, you are always being watched and judged. Doesn’t that make it creepier?
DC: Speaking of Bullet, how was it decided to include him in the game?
BK: Who doesn’t want to make the cute dog game? *laughs* No, more seriously, with the open environments we have we needed a way to guide the player without them feeling like their hand was being held. From a storytelling perspective, it also gives you someone to bond with. You’re alone in the woods. Bullet gives you someone to talk to, even if he doesn’t talk back. It makes you care more about what might happen when you feel like Bullet isn’t just a tool, but your friend.
DC: …So does he die?
BK: No comment.
My time with Barbara and Blair Witch was brief, but enlightening. I thought I knew what to expect both from a Blair Witch title and from a Bloober Team game, but Blair Witch has thus far managed to both meet my expectations and exceed them. The plethora of mechanics are a bold departure for a studio best known for walking down hallways. We already know Bloober can tell a damn good horror story, but the myriad of methods they have to deliver that story really make it special. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.
Blair Witch is available on PC and Xbox One August 30th for $29.99. Check back then for our full review!