It’s safe to say that nobody went into E3 2019 expecting Bloober Team, the studio behind modern horror masterpieces such as Layers of Fear and Observer, to reveal a new game based on The Blair Witch Project. While it’s only been three years since a new Blair Witch movie was released, it’s been 20 years since the original Blair Witch film debuted in 1999 and forever changed the horror movie landscape.
It may seem strange that Bloober Team is choosing to revive the franchise now, but according to Blair Witch narrative designer Barbara Kciuk, the origin of this resurrection is really quite simple.
“We had a mutual relationship with Lionsgate, the owners of the [Blair Witch] IP, and they reached out to us when Layers of Fear was still in Early Access,” Kciuk says in an interview with Den of Geek. “We went through their library together, and they have some amazing horror titles to offer, but then we saw Blair Witch, and we were like, ‘Yes, this is the perfect match.’”
The perfect match is a bold claim, but you certainly see where the studio is coming from. After all, Bloober Team is a studio known for intense psychological horror experiences that test the sanity of the player by presenting them with a scenario that rarely affords them the chance to truly understand what is happening. It’s a quality that the team rightfully recognizes it shares with Blair Witch.
“We specialize in this ever-changing reality where you can never be sure what’s right in front of you,” Kciuk says. “That is something very in tune with the Blair Witch universe. [The witch] plays these tricks on you. She’s manipulating your reality. It’s not a foe you can encounter and just fight with. It’s more of a psychological battle.”
Recently, I had the chance to play a brief demo of Blair Witch and experience a few rounds of this psychological battle. The demo began with our protagonist, a former police officer named Ellis, joining the hunt for a boy who has gone missing near the forests of Burkittsville, Maryland. It seems that Ellis may be a little late to the party as he initially only finds a semi-circle of cars on the forest’s outset.
Right from the start, you can see Bloober Team’s trademarks in the game’s DNA. First-person exploration, an ominous atmosphere, and environmental storytelling are all present. Early on, though, you’re introduced to a concept we don’t often see in Bloober Team’s games: a companion in the form of a dog named Bullet. It may seem odd to have a companion in a horror game that emphasizes atmosphere and isolation, but it turns out that Bullet plays an important role in the world-building process.
“We want the player to have a more personal relationship with this world. We want someone for him to care about,” Kciuk says of Bullet’s role in the game. “So the dog is a perfect choice, because, well, he depends on you, and you depend on him.”
It turns out that your dependence on Bullet goes beyond emotions, though. You can also order him to find items, follow scents, and perform other basic (but helpful) commands. Bullet will even help without player commands. For instance, there was a moment in the demo when I found myself running through the woods while a hostile presence closed in on me. After a few failed escape attempts, I was eventually able to work my way out by following Bullet.
Shortly thereafter, Bullet also proved to be an essential part of Blair Witch’s combat system. Yes, there’s combat in Blair Witch, but it isn’t what you may be dreading it is. In the brief sequence I played, I was able to use Bullet’s gestures and audio cues to identify creatures in the woods trying to get the jump on me. From there, I had to hold my flashlight on them until they went away. Kciuk read my mind by citing Alan Wake when discussing this mechanic, but she was quick to note that, unlike in Remedy’s Stephen King tribute masterpiece, players won’t have access to a gun. Of course, who needs a gun when you’ve got a Bullet?
Given that Bullet is clearly the best of boys, I was surprised to find that the command wheel offered the option to scold him. It seemed to me that only a monster worse than the Blair Witch would ever choose to send an ill word Bullet’s way, but it turns out that the relationship between you and Bullet may change as the game progresses.
“How you treat Bullet is up to the player,” Kciuk says. “But it’s not as easy as petting him and petting him and seeing your relationship bar maxed out. It’s more subtle.”
Interestingly, Bullet isn’t the only character in the game the player must manage a relationship with. On one occasion during the demo, I received a call from Ellis’ ex-wife, Jess. Elements of the game’s plot can actually be altered based on how you handle your relationship with Jess but, much like Bullet, Bloober says that your relationship with Jess and the consequences of your actions won’t always be determined by making a choice between “A or B.”
Instead, the direction of the game can be impacted by decisions like ignoring one of Jess’ calls or maybe taking the initiative to call her yourself. While Kciuk stopped short of diving into the full details of how this system works, it sounds like it may be similar to player psychology system seen in games like Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. That is to say that the game may determine the consequences of your actions without explicitly telling you it’s doing so or letting you know what those consequences may be.
Incidentally, that call from Jess came shortly before I experienced one of Blair Witch’s most fascinating mechanics: found footage puzzles. Basically, there are certain points in the game when you’ll find pieces of footage left behind in the world. By watching this footage, it’s actually possible to manipulate parts of the environment. For instance, I found a tape that showcased someone running from an unseen pursuer. By stopping the footage right as they opened the door of the room they hid in, I was able to open that same (previously locked) door.
How, exactly, the protagonist has access to this ability remains something of a mystery, but the idea of looking for answers in found footage clearly originates from the original Blair Witch film.
“In Blair Witch, the found footage is more personal to the viewer because it’s seen through this hand-carried camera,” Kciuk says. “We made a list of what makes Blair Witch great and of what feelings and themes we want to really address in our own take on this universe. We are looking for ways to do it so that the player feels what he felt when watching the movie.”
The idea of recreating the sensation of watching the movie was most evident when I finally entered the fabled house from the Blair Witch at the end of the demo. Yes, it’s in the game, and yes, it’s terrifying. Actually, I intentionally tried to avoid entering the basement as soon as I arrived, though my adventure naturally took me there eventually. I also came face to face with some kind of entity that could have been the witch herself, but it wasn’t made entirely clear. Truth be told, I only saw it for a few seconds before I was swiftly murdered. It turns out the play was to not just stand there staring like an idiot. Go figure.
It wasn’t made entirely clear to me what role the house will play in the final game, but I was interested to hear that this house of horrors will not necessarily adhere to the rules set by the rest of the experience.
“It’s the place where the witch comes in fullest, so it’s a very important part of the game, and we really wanted to make it as unpredictable for the player,” Kciuk says. “We are putting a lot of new mechanics there because we don’t want the player to say ‘Oh, I’m familiar with that. I know what I’m doing.’”
That idea immediately made me recall the original film’s famous campaign of misinformation which ensured some viewers went into the movie not knowing whether it was real or not. While Kciuk notes that it’s “impossible to recreate” that approach, the idea that you can’t trust what you’re seeing is most certainly present in the game.
“Misinformation was important for the movie. We believe that, in here, it’s more about what are you seeing and whether it’s real. Is it something Ellis saw in his past? Or is it something totally new from that the Witch is adding to his reality to break him? So, yes, it is important, but it’s important in a different way.”
Kciuk is, of course, right in her assertion that it’s impossible to recreate the original Blair Witch viewing experience, but that does bring us back to the question of ‘Why Blair Witch?’” Well, feelings of nostalgia aside, it became apparent to me during my all-too-brief time with the game that we really don’t fully know what the Blair Witch universe really is, and that’s kind of a big part of the appeal of this experience. The Blair Witch is synonymous with fear, confusion, and a haunting atmosphere, and those are all things that Bloober Team has certainly incorporated into this game.
By Bloober’s own admission, though, the team is more interested in forging its own legacy and own corner (pun intended) of the Blair Witch universe.
“It’s happening in the same universe as the movie, but we don’t want to recreate what already is,” Kciuk says. “We want to build upon what was established. We want to expand this universe…Obviously, there are some connections with what was before, with the lore, or with the movie, but we want to focus on adding something instead of just repeating what already was.”
To that end, it’s difficult to say what Bloober Team’s Blair Witch will mean to hardcore fans of the original movie. It’s very much its own thing. Yet, for those who remember The Blair Witch Project as an effective horror experience that emphasized tension and atmosphere ahead of obvious scares, you can rest assured that Bloober Team’s Blair Witch will honour that legacy just as it furthers the studio’s own legacy of making excellent horror experiences.
Blair Witch will launch on PC and Xbox One, through Xbox Game Pass, on 30 August.