In many ways, adapting the Blair Witch into a horror video game seems like an almost impossible task. The very foundation of The Blair Witch Project is that the protagonists have no control over their situation. They’re lost in a seemingly labyrinthian forest, being pursued by an unseen horror and they’re constantly at each other’s throats. It works so well because of how understated everything is; a lot of people don’t find The Blair Witch Project scary because it’s possibly too subtle, leveraging the bulk of its terror on the imagination of both the doomed documentarians and the audience.
You never actually see what’s chasing them, only ever coming into contact with creepy totems and grisly parcels designed to torment any who encounter them. So how does one even begin to translate something so nuanced into a form that basically requires the audience to both always understand what’s happening and be totally in the dark.
As it turns out, you adapt it into a game that’s both very good but has some painful pitfalls.
A lot of people would give Blair Witch a bad word because of the direction Bloober Team has taken the gameplay, distilling it down into what is, at its core, a walking simulator. Of course, that’s an extreme over-simplification, there is more to do in Blair Witch than just walking through the Black Hills Forest but a substantial amount of time is dedicated to having Ellis and his dog, Bullet, slowly trek through the sticks and branches. Some people are no doubt going to be disappointed by that, yet I’ve always had a soft spot for interactive dramas like that.
I mean, let’s be honest here, The Blair Witch Project is basically just “Walking Simulator: The Movie” so to translate the game as such makes sense in a way. There’s nothing overtly surprising or challenging about the gameplay on show here, but Blair Witch was never meant to be a mechanical masterpiece; it was meant to be a short, concise horror experience that brings to life the iconic forest that tormented the public decades ago and on that front, it succeeds to dramatic effect.
While Ellis and Bullet do eventually grow to be an interesting pair of characters to play as, the Black Hills Forest itself is the scene-stealer in Blair Witch. Bloober Team has already shown their excellent understanding of digital illusionary with rooms and corridors that shift and warp when you’re not looking at them (as evidenced in the Layers of Fear series) so implementing their wizardry into a forest setting only makes for an even more desperate environment.
Pathways begin to look familiar, looping back into the same clearing of dead trees and fallen logs, the sound of sticks aggressively being smashed together always pushing you to turn around. Blair Witch wants to simulate isolation and the encroaching panic of being isolated from the outside and, at least initially, the game revelled in its ability to make me squirm at the sound of every rustled leaf or shifted pebble.
Yet Blair Witch also stumbles towards the half way point of the game, abandoning subtlety for overt horror. It games shape and form to the unseen creatures of the forest and while the creepy, leafy monsters might be enough to scare some, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Besides the fact that they take a simple flash-light beam to destroy, giving the horrors of the forest a face removed any sense of tension I had. I wasn’t constantly wondering what was stalking me in the dark reaches of where my torch couldn’t light up, I knew what was out there and, as my good friend Optimus Prime says, knowing is half the battle.
Yet I do kind of understand why they shifted to giving the forest a more corporeal figure to run from. As I said above, how do you translate a movie that featured a lot of walking around and barely any physical threats into a horror game for a modern audience that wants to that feeling of losing control but also wants more to do than merely walk forward? It’s a tightrope line to walk down, having to sacrifice aspects on either end to make a game that’ll keep players invested for a few hours on end.
Look, I think an ideal Blair Witch game would involve some form of free-movement throughout the forest, maybe even procedurally generated areas to explore but that’s not the product on display here. Instead, Team Bloober went for a linear, focused narrative with some excellent scripted scares and a lot of ambience to sell Blair Witch, but in doing so loses some of the quiet horror that was so important to the movies’ success.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Blair Witch. There were more than instances of tension and suspense to keep me going forward, the character of Ellis becoming more and more fleshed out as the woods play upon his PTSD to transform his most personal terrors into reality. The sound design is exceptional and the implementation of darkness is wonderful, with many chunks of the forest covered in shadow so thick it almost looks like a physical wall denying you the right to see past it.
It’s an incredibly atmospheric game that may not be outright scary but is ongoingly creepy enough to make me draw my blinds at night so I didn’t have to look at my garden while I was playing. Just don’t go into it expecting the organic, free form horror of something like Alien: Isolation. Go into it expecting a shortish, focused, character-driven horror experience that makes good use of the Black Hills Woods.
Well, as good as possible.
Last Updated: September 3, 2019