If you saw the Blair Witch game trailer during E3 2019, you may have had a few questions. Namely, “why now?” It’s been decades since The Blair Witch Project was in its culture heydey, and if there was a time to make a game based on the movie, it was in the ‘90s.
But to the game’s lead writer Barbara Kciuk and development studio Bloober Team, 2019 is perfect. “This year is the 20th anniversary, so if there is a good time to bring it back, it’s now. And we have had a relationship with Lionsgate since our first major game Layers of Fear since it was in Early Access, so we just went through the library of titles [together], and they have some amazing core titles. But then we saw Blair Witch. And yeah we thought about it because, in Blair Witch there’s this part of messing with people’s heads and shifting reality and making you feel lost and vulnerable, and we decided that yes, this is something we do in our games and is something that is very important to the [Blair Witch] universe, so it’s a perfect match.”
Bloober Team has always demonstrably excelled at accommodating and responding to player movements. It’s what drew me to their first game Layers of Fear: often when you turned your head to investigate to a sound or a new sight, the scenery changed once you returned to the original perspective. It was a sleight of hand that brilliantly toyed with the player’s mind, and that kind of individually curated responsive experience is well suited to what Blair Witch is “about.” There are many ways to scare a player in a game, but that reflected, conscious awareness is startling in and of itself. It’s also a way to subvert some of the more worn out horror techniques in games. By combining what personifies the series with what works in a virtual setting, a middle ground emerges. As Kciuk says, the movie was presented as found footage to shorten the distance between the viewer and the characters. “But in games, this distance is shorter, because in the end, you are the person who is there and you are controlling his movements, so the distance is very short…It’s the same feeling, but it’s a different method of achieving that. So this is how we decided we wanted to make our own original story and repeat the overall themes, without repeating everything else, doing this with our own methods, with our own features, but to keep what was important in the franchise.”
In keeping with this vision, Blair Witch makes effective use of some of the most iconic elements of the film. Wandering around in the woods? Check. Camcorder? Check. Scary house? Triple check. What’s impressive is how these are reimagined for a videogame format. Bloober Team has demonstrated a deep awareness of the difficulties not only of making a game tied to a film, but also navigating around the existing fanbase and what it may expect out of a Blair Witch game. “We believe that it’s impossible to just take something that was a movie and transform it into a game one to one. It’s where a lot of movies based on games and games based on movies fail because they try to adapt the source material as it is. And this is an approach that we decided we don’t want to take, we wanted to really think about what is important to us, what was important in the movie and made it great, and we wanted to get this feeling, these feelings, into the game, but not using the same methods, because games and movies are different. Some things work in both and some don’t.”
In Blair Witch, you play as Ellis and his trusty canine sidekick Bullet, who can scout and find anomalies in the surrounding environment. Reading the dog’s body language and movements, the player unearths the presence of nearby monsters, which can be dispelled with a flashlight. Other aspects are exploratory and puzzle-driven, mirroring the “lost in the woods” theme of the original movie while adding variation to the game’s space. The demo begins in an open area outside a forest, where Ellis digs through some effects left by a preceding police force that is looking for a missing young boy in Burkittsville, Maryland. Ellis, a former cop who is also investigating the disappearance, soon enters Black Hills Forest, encountering a sentient wrath that culminates in his discovery of an unsettling old farm. Ellis’ camcorder can be used to unveil secrets and detect supernatural activity, revealing a break from reality invisible to the naked eye, which he uses to his advantage as he navigates the haunted woods. The experience, which feels well balanced between its many facets, is highlighted by fantastic environmental responsiveness and attention to atmosphere. As I played, the hostility of its shifting horrors—crashing trees, visual distortions, and violent hallucinations—turned each setting into an antagonist itself.
While Blair Witch has some light combat aspects, these were kept thin on purpose. A gun, as Kciuk explains, would be disruptive not only to the disempowerment fantasy necessary to the game, but also conflict with the lore. “We want to stick [to] the things that feel natural to this universe.” The flashlight, of course, draws a comparison to Alan Wake, but Blair Witch is deliberately more subdued to fit the material. The camcorder, similarly, has a precedent in horror games—Fatal Frame all but owns the concept. To make it their own, Bloober added a feature that ties the use of the device to puzzle solving. For example, in one area, my progress was hindered by a locked door. Playing back a nearby video cassette showed a man being chased and going through that door. By pausing it on the exact moment he passed through, the door unlocked itself in the present, allowing me to proceed. As I moved through the house, the camcorder also allowed me to detect certain monsters and see supernatural markers hinting at where to go or what to do next. The demo ended after I failed to divert the light from the camcorder and angered a ghost, prompting them to tear me to pieces.
Blair Witch has a surprisingly close release date. The team was able to keep the game under wraps until their E3 announcement, and are winding down before the big debut at the end of this month. Just as impressive as their ability to keep a secret, however, is their commitment to finding the perfect compromise between Blair Witch’s past and present. “[Blair Witch] is our own original take, our own original story. And we wanted to get this mythos as a background and set our story in it. We wanted to add something else, something new to the story. This is…an expansion of the universe. It’s something new, it’s something original, it’s adding some elements, but we always take care to make it feels as natural for this universe as possible.”
Blair Witch debuts on August 30, 2019, on PC and Xbox One.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.