There has been a surge of success and popularity in the horror games genre over the past several years, led by breakout experiences like Outlast, P.T., and Five Nights At Freddy’s, and supported by countless indie horror titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, IMSCARED, and Lone Survivor. We’re at a saturation point where players have just about seen it all when it comes to horror games, which makes them harder and harder to scare.
Innovation and fresh ideas are as important as ever when making a successful horror game these days, and one of the most unique voices in the industry at the moment is Polish studio Bloober Team, whose games are truly terrifying, but in a supremely artful way. Their games Layers of Fear, Observer, and Layers of Fear 2 are as poetic and character-driven as they are frightening and grotesque. These horror-induced, first-person trips through madness will get under your skin before the credits roll in no small part due to their trippy settings and twisting narratives that always reveal dark, disturbing secrets. Bloober Team’s new game, which is set in the Blair Witch universe, is a match made in heaven, considering the team’s experience with psychological horror.
“It’s exciting to work with this legendary horror [franchise],” Bloober narrative designer Barbara Kciuk says. “There is nothing really set in stone in Blair Witch. It’s not like the Blair Witch [looks like] this, and the monsters look like that. There is this tremendous fear that is actually coming from the fear of the [characters] you see. There’s nothing really scary in the movie itself — it’s the overall atmosphere that is so overpowering and scary. It’s hard to capture this magic again, but this is a challenge we really want to take.”
One of the things that makes Bloober well equipped to take on Blair Witch is the team’s ability to instill a sense of disorientation and a skewed perception of reality in their players. In the Layers of Fear games, for example, rooms will appear to be laid out in a certain way at a glance, but look away for a moment and they’ll change from under you. The furniture and walls may appear to have shifted, though you can’t be quite sure. Doors appear and disappear, rooms get smaller or much bigger in the blink of an eye.
“…it’s slightly unnerving,” Kciuk says of these shifts in perception. “It’s like, nothing really scary happened, but you see that something is wrong, and you’re afraid to proceed because things are going to get more wrong. Expecting that something [can go wrong] is often worse than something actually happening.”
This type of subtle, slow-burn psychological horror is precisely in line with The Blair Witch Project, a movie that flipped the horror movie genre on its head by being suggestive as opposed to being graphic. Bloober Team was confident they’d be able to echo this type of storytelling in their version of Blair Witch, though the film and game’s setting of Black Hills forest in Maryland turned out to be one of the project’s biggest creative challenges.
“In our previous titles, we only had tight corridors and small rooms,” Bloober developer Maciej Glomb says. “We had a lot of control over where the player looked. [With Blair Witch], it’s much more different because we have these big levels. Players have much more control over what they’re doing, and we have much less control over where they’re going to look.”
The game takes place in 1996, a couple of years after the events of the original film. You play as a police officer named Ellis, who’s involved in a search for a missing boy. He’s accompanied by his dog, Bullet, and while the duo does encounter other characters in the forest, the majority of the game focuses on the pet-owner relationship.
“We care about our pets, and we really want to protect them while also depending on them,” Kciuk says. “This is why Bullet is interesting story-wise because he makes the player afraid of what can potentially happen to him.”
Those familiar with the movie know that the infamous Blair Witch isn’t exactly an in-your-face type of horror villain, which is reflected in the game’s level design, which doesn’t include a traditional map but rather sees the witch pulling you through the forest with her influence, toying with your mind and changing the environment around you.
“[She’s] more like a presence,” Kciuk says. “You will feel her around you and you will see her influence, but it’s not like you can face her and fight her. It’s more what she can do to manipulate you and what you can do to avoid her. You never really know whether the world around you is weird because it’s all in your head, or if it’s the influence of the witch. You don’t know where your sanity ends and where her influences start.”
With every game, Bloober Team becomes more proficient at the art of psychological horror, but the studio’s work has garnered mixed reactions from fans and critics alike. Some people love their narrative-focused approach, while others find their games too thin in the gameplay department. IGN gave Layers of Fear 2 a 9/10, while PC Gamer gave it a 57/100, for example. But Bloober views this divisiveness among their critics as a great thing — their games aren’t for everyone, and according to Glomb, they like it that way.
“When we were creating [Layers of Fear 2], we kind of knew that it was not a mainstream game,” brand manager Rafal Basaj explains. “We were pretty sure there would be people who enjoyed the game and people who completely wouldn’t understand the game. We were expecting that.”
“It’s much better than if we just got 7/10,” lead designer Bartosz Kaproń adds. “We think we did our job. We’re not making games that you expect [to get] eight or nine out of 10 scores. We always try to tackle tough subjects with our games. These [stories] are pretty subjective.”
Storytelling is at the center of everything Bloober does. Each element of the studio’s games always acts in service of the characters and narrative. Puzzles, for example, are a big gameplay component in all Bloober titles, but they’re never included unless the team decides that they support the story.
“We don’t really want puzzles that bring nothing to the story,” Kciuk says. “If you encounter a chest and you have to figure out [how to unlock it with a puzzle], that just doesn’t make sense, story-wise. We want to really incorporate the story elements into how our puzzles are conveyed. This is an important part of our design thinking.”
“With Layers of Fear 2, we told a lot of the story quite straightforward,” Basaj elaborates. “However, there are tons and tons of things that you can find in the environment if you look for [them]. That’s the philosophy we have at Bloober. To give the storytelling meaning in games, we want the players to actually take part in building that story.”
With Blair Witch, the team is sticking to its core philosophy while also exploring new ways to scare players and introduce new gameplay mechanics. “We’ve read critiques of our games, and they were mainly focused on our games being too easy,” Glomb says. “In Blair Witch, we’ve tried to add more mechanics to make it more of a challenge for players, but also not too much. We’re always focusing on the storytelling, so we don’t want to scare people [off] with the difficulty.”
“We are not Dark Souls!” Kciuk adds with a laugh.
While Bloober Team is focused on evolving as developers and storytellers, the team is also keeping its finger on the pulse of the games industry, particularly its peers making games in the horror genre. They happily cite other games in the genre as points of inspiration (most notably P.T. and Outlast), but also take pride in putting out high-quality games that stand out from the crowd.
“We need to know the trends and what is popular [in the industry], but we need to come up with something new and original,” Kciuk says. “People are not scared by the same thing twice. If you were to release a clone of Slenderman right now, no one would pay attention. We need to be the best and do our best.”
Blair Witch is out on Aug. 30 for Xbox One and PC.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.
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