Widely credited as having popularised the found footage genre, the Blair Witch Project has had a lasting effect on horror films for the last two decades. Aside from a forgettable trilogy of tie-in in 2000, however, the film’s influence has been less direct in gaming terms.
Modern classics like Amnesia: The Dark Descent offered similar first person immersion, but it wasn’t until 2013’s Outlast that really took the found footage style and successfully married it to a thrilling and terrifying game. Bloober Team, the developers best known for Layers of Fear and sci-fi thriller Observer, have now brought Blair Witch to the modern gaming era with their tale inspired by the legends of the series.
First things first, Blair Witch is only loosely connected to the film series. There are no crossover characters, no attempt to depict the original narratives, and aside from the invocation of the Witch herself and some eerie twig decorations, little direct reference. This means that it occupies a similar cultural space to the Cloverfield sequels, being part of a wider imaginative universe rather than a direct adaptation. It’s a wise move, since the added mystery of wondering how the game connects to the myth keeps the player guessing for much of the narrative.
The woods you explore are atmospheric and varied enough to not become monotonous, and other environments have the right sort of dilapidated feel. That being said, the horror aspect is intermittent and the game mostly plays like a linear walking simulator. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the short run time does exacerbate the feeling of it being mostly on rails rather than more active exploration. Indeed, the main part of the game cheats by rearranging the woods to suit the narrative, leaning on a similar trick from Layers of Fear. This has the potential to add to the sense of the forest as an antagonist, but instead feels a little too convenient. Looping paths do mean that you won’t need to get lost for hours but also makes everything seem too much like a linear game rather than a real (or unreal) place.
Your player character, Ellis, is a troubled man with a shadowy past. Flashbacks reveal traumas from his military and police service, whilst you can talk to your (ex)girlfriend throughout using a suitably vintage mobile phone, the game being set in 1996. This goes a long way to setting the historical scene, with its Nokia-esque pixels and even a passable version of Snake to play. Considering the peril I was supposed to be in, the hour I spent nostalgically playing Snake was perhaps a flirtation with Ludonarrative Dissonance but the odd nature of time in Blair Witch meant that there was no real consequence to my distraction.
Aside from your phone, which regularly dips in and out of mobile service, you have a flashlight, a backpack, a radio, and the aforementioned camcorder. All of these have particular uses, but it is the camcorder that is most important for continuing the story.
This is the clearest reference to the shaky cam film, although fortunately a wobbly camcorder is not the main way you view the world. Instead, the camcorder you find is a source of some interesting puzzles with reality-bending solutions. Every so often you’ll find a red labelled videotape, and playing these can be used to manipulate reality. This mechanic is probably the highlight of the game, so it is a shame that these puzzles are relatively infrequent, and that the explanation is so lacking. Whilst too much handholding would have provided its own problems, making the first use clearer would avoid the many confused questions already littering game forums and message boards.
As well as your pockets of goodies, you also have the most visible aspect of Blair Witch – your canine partner, Bullet. Your faithful dog helps you to navigate the woods by sniffing out scent trails and digging up objects, whilst also serving as a companion to Ellis, helping him to work through moments of trauma and losses of sanity. Bullet is mostly well realised, although he can occasionally glitch and get stuck in scenery. I was lucky that this didn’t happen throughout my playtime, but there are numerous reports of others having to reload sections. Fortunately the game autosaves fairly regularly but repeating linear sections due to bugs would quickly get frustrating.
I enjoyed much of my time with Blair Witch, with the storyline of Ellis’ trauma reminding me of the excellent Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. The voice acting is largely of a high standard, and the audio design is very good, particularly through headphones. There is a huge tonal shift towards the climax part of the game however, which I thought worked but many may not. A movement away from the woods that are so central to the Blair Witch style feels like a shift into something closer to Resident Evil. Added to this, the fact that what passes for combat here is lifted straight from Alan Wake and the result is a game that wears its influences perhaps a little too clearly on its sleeve.
The game itself is also very short. I finished at 4 hours and was exploring as much as I could throughout. There are alternative endings but the idea of playing through the same areas again does not fill me with much excitement. It perhaps sums up my overall experience best that the game is both too short and yet I can’t bring myself to go through it again.