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- Blair Witch
The Blair Witch Project is one of the most influential films of the past few decades. From its viral marketing to its faux documentary filmmaking style, it blazed a trail that horror movies still pay homage to even now. It’s almost impossible to recreate those same circumstances 20 years later in video game form, but Polish developer Bloober Team isn’t trying to do that with Blair Witch. Instead, the studio is taking the essence of those films and boiling it down into a tense, psychological horror game with a whole lot of promise.
Psychological horror is nothing new for Bloober. The team has spent the last few years cutting its teeth on Observer and both Layers of Fear games; all of which are slightly different takes on the horror genre. But Blair Witch is special because it’s Bloober’s first crack at developing a game within someone else’s universe. And while working in an established IP can have some drawbacks, Barbara Kciuk, writer at Bloober, described how it gave them a foundation to start from in addition to stating that balancing both licensed and original games was the best for the team.
“It requires you to really think about what you are adding to this universe because if you add something that feels unnatural, it will break the immersion,” she explained. “Obviously, you can’t go overboard or do something totally crazy, which keeps you in check. But that is also important because you can focus more on what you really need to convey for your game but it also limits your possibilities. It’s both great fun and different.”
Blair Witch Preview | Not so alone in the dark
Coincidentally enough, those “limiting factors” appear to be right up Bloober’s dark, spooky alley anyway. The game takes places in the infamous Black Hills Forest and is about as creepy and twisted as you’d expect. Trees can take on a life of their own in the moonlight, especially during scripted sequences. Creatures loom in the shadows. And a general unshakeable fog of tension permeates the experience as you traverse the seemingly endless cursed forest.
While the demo was more of an experience of disparate sections stitched together to highlight certain parts of its identity, there was an overarching sense of uneasiness that a game like this should have. The foreboding darkness and the Blair Witch’s ability to throw supernatural events at you made it hard to anticipate what would happen next in both the open forest and the cramped confines of the game’s interior environments. Hopefully, that sense of unpredictability continues to the full, unedited game as anything less would be a waste of the nearly HUD-free screen and discomforting atmosphere.
And while you’ll likely be alone for most of your journey, you won’t be fully alone as your dog Bullet is by your side. You can give him simple commands (stay, seek, reprimand, stay close, and, of course, pet) but he’s not just there to look cute and be ordered around, even though he does a killer job of the former. Bullet acts as some sort of diegetic guiding system within the game as he can point you in the right direction. Since the game understandably wants you to be as immersed as possible, it seems like a clever way to give hints to player without directly telling them. However, Kciuk also explained how he plays a bigger role than just a hint system with a wet nose and shaggy tail and why, after brainstorming for companion ideas, the team wanted to add a dog.
“While you have this companion, you are not able to communicate with him clearly and there is still this separation and with a dog and you have a totally different skillset you can use in the game,” she said. “It’s great because the dog can help you by sniffing things out and he can help solve the puzzles. And you need to work with this creature in order to achieve your goals because he can’t talk or communicate clearly so you have to pay attention to him and anticipate what he wants from you. It’s more involving because it’s cooperation instead of being a master of puppets with him being like ‘You go there, you go there.’ It’s more of you two working together.”
Blair Witch Preview | A light bit of combat
You’ll have to work together in the game’s combat in order to slay the nontraditional monsters. Instead of sprinting straight at you, they dash between trees and try to steadily make their way towards your fleshy body. Their devilishly fast movement makes them hard to spot, but Bullet’s keen nose points you to where they are hiding, letting you use your flashlight beam to fend them off.
These sequences eloquently blend two different types of horror: panicked adrenaline and fear of the unknown. These beasts move so quickly and hide so well that you never get a good look at them and that mystery helps preserve their fear factor; a key part of the first film that the game also intelligently utilizes out of combat as well. Hurriedly tracking them down is a whole separate ordeal as there are no HUD markers to point you in the right direction. Bullet acts as your pointer and you have to focus on him and listen to his barks to come out on top. It doesn’t hold your hand and while some players might find it frustrating to constantly track down a dark-haired dog in a dark forest, it seems like it will be a satisfying reward for those who use headphones and are fully attentive. Combat might sound out of place in a game like this but Kciuk detailed why the team wanted direct conflict instead of running or stealth.
“They are trying to get closer to you and when they are too close, they attack and you can die from it,” she said. “This is an important factor because some of the fans from Layers of Fear expressed that not having a fail state made them feel like there is less at stake. So we decided that this time we will try to do it in such a way that there will be a fail state.”
Blair Witch Preview | It’s rewind time
Layers of Fear’s lack of combat inspired Bloober to add combat to Blair Witch but the legacy of the series played a significant role in its puzzles. The found footage craze that inspired movies like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity was popularized by The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and, given how iconic that series made it, Bloober had to find a way to inject the video into the game. Titles like Outlast and Fatal Frame have messed with cameras before but the studio didn’t want to go down those worn path. It wanted to create its own.
The player can find video cassettes that can be slotted into the camera itself. But instead of being mere hints or playable flashbacks like Resident Evil 7, these tapes reconfigure the game world in real time to reflect the world in the tape as the player scrubs through the footage.
For example, the small VHS-C in the demo showed a man running from the mysterious camera person. As he shuffled and stumbled away from the lens like he was trying to escape Jason Voorhees, the objects he was manipulating in the reel world started affecting the real world in sync with the video. This correlation is the crux of the puzzles as players will have to pay close attention to the video and environment at the same time to see what changes. For example, pausing the tape when the man opened a previously locked door will open that door in the present, allowing the player to proceed. Scouring the environment and tape for overlapping clues in order to progress seems like a simple yet clever puzzle solving mechanic that also pays tribute to the source material.
Blair Witch Preview | Back in the ’90s
It also helps ground the movie in the 1990s. While the newer film attempted to bring the series into the modern day, it feels more true if it is set at a time when smartphones weren’t as prevalent. Ellis does have a phone, but it’s a crappy off-brand Nokia with a similar off-brand version of Snake that you can just pop up and play in the middle of the damned forest. The time period not only is more honest to the first film, but it’s also a good way for the team to tap into its own nostalgia.
“The Blair Witch [film] from 2016 utilized [GPS] in a great way because they used drones and GPS to make you feel lost but this is something we didn’t really want in our game,” Kciuk admitted. “[This period also worked because] we are great fans of the ‘90s. It was our youth. There is a lot of fun to be had from creating something that you love. Creating Blair Witch is great because we love the franchise and recreating things that you remember from the ‘90s is also fun.”
The ‘90s are quite important to a lot of people as is the first Blair Witch movie. While the sequels and following media tie-ins never came close to properly succeeding the original, that seminal debut still left a big enough cultural impact that a new game bearing that name will undoubtedly garner interest. But Blair Witch actually seems poised to make good on some of that promise. Even though the game can look a little stilted at times, its haunting ambiance, thrilling combat, and inventive puzzles appear to be promising ways to gamify the series, granted they hold up as well when played in one unedited sequence as they did in short bursts. Licensed games from a ‘90s film franchise past its prime may not be the most eye-catching proposal, but Bloober might be onto something with its rendition of Blair Witch, granted that it doesn’t get lost in forest along its way to release.