Blair Witch: Wooded PT
Updated: Jun 10
Long time readers of my work might remember that I didn’t really like Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear .Please don’t read it unless you really want to. It's not formatted very well. Never the less I had been keeping an eye on them. Namely thanks to titles such as Observer (on my to do list), Layers of Fear 2 (which I don’t have much interest in) and Blair Witch.
Blair Witch caught my eye not because of the hype that surrounded it but rather that it appeared to be a solid (if flawed) adaptation of the Blair Witch licence. I should point out that I loved The Blair Witch Project (1999). I loved how it captured the confusing terror of being lost in the woods. The organic tension building and sense of escalation is perfect. Blair Witch does all of this so well but is held back by some frustrating yet persistent technical flaws.
(Spoilers for both Blair Witch and Silent Hill 2)
Ellis and his faithful friend Bullet arrive at the infamous Black Hills forest in Burkittsville, Maryland to take part in a search for a missing child. However once there Ellis and Bullet find themselves utterly lost within forest, where the line between fantasy and reality blur and twist. Ellis and Bullet are not alone and Ellis’s sanity is tested. I will get into the three specific areas that make the story work.
But some overview, Blair Witch is not a long game. It took me about six hours to finish however little of those hours is wasted due to strong (mostly) consistent pacing. Once you have solved the first puzzle you move onto the next without much fluff. On top of this, the straightforward linier level design succeeds in making you feel utterly lost. But simultaneously sure of where you are going. The story and atmosphere as a result remain strong and effective as a result.
Ellis is at first a somewhat troubled man trying to help out. The traumas of his actions during the Iran–Iraq War have placed a good amount of strain on every aspect of his life. He has lost his girlfriend (Jess) and failed at a few jobs (one as a police offer ended very badly). He simply wants to do something good with his life. This simple motivation of trying to do something good drives Ellis to help find a missing child despite everything. He wants to prove that his life is not a complete failure. There are obvious parallels one can draw between Blair Witch’s Ellis and Silent Hill’s James Sunderland.
Both have committed terrible sins that are exploited by the antagonist (James killed his wife and Ellis his squad and a few civilians). They are both troubled by their past and feel intense guilt (over the process of the game) can either overcome or succumb to their flaws. Ellis in my game became something of a tragic figure. A man who tries so hard to save Peter that loses himself entirely. His story arch is a harrowing downward spiral that is compelling and keeps you edge of your seat until the end.
I have to confess that when the game gave me the opinion to customise Bullet my heart sank. To understand dear readers, you need to know that when a game allows you to customise a character. They are encouraging you to get attached to said character. It appeared to me that this would be the set up for a cheap tug when the dog dies. How delightful it was for me (both from a writing standpoint and resolution) that Bullet does survive.
Thank god that Bloober Team dodged what is often a cheap emotional ploy. I would also like to praise the dynamic between Bullet and Ellis. Bullet simple doglike innocence in the face of terror creates a great contrast of tone. Bullet is Ellis’s constant companion. His good natured loyalty and devotion makes the ending all the more tragic. Bullet is not just a glorified mouse clicker, he has a personality, he is mischievous, playful and mostly obedient.
He was also very protective of his master, often being your only form of warning against the monsters encountered. Bullet and Ellis form the basis of the theme of friendship through adversity. This theme is perfectly shown when Ellis is separated from Bullet and how quickly his sanity crumbles as a result. Bullet was the anchor that kept Ellis in the real world. Bullet was the only friend that never abandoned him. Which makes it all the more tragic when Bullet runs away from his best friend because, he does not recognise Ellis anymore.
The Silent Hill influence
Blair Witch takes a rather interesting take on the Black Hills forest itself. This is the second parallel to Silent Hill. The Black Hills forest and the town draw upon the darker aspects of people visiting and expose their darkest shames and secrets. Ellis keeps experiencing his various failures, seeing the people whom he killed(in the form of the iconic imagines from the Blair Witch project ).
He relives the fatal bombing that killed his squad, the woman he killed over and over again. The difference being that Silent Hill is(debatably) helping its visitors become better people in its own twisted way. The Black Hills forest (and the Blair Witch who controls the woods), use Ellis’s guilt to torment him. To break him. The bad ending sees him break. The good ending sees him leave the forest a new man.
The intent of is different but the outcome can be the same. On top of that we have Bloober Team’s continued attempt to adapt PT’s gameplay loops. Unlike, say Layers of Fear, which was just PT’s hallway copied and done in a boring way. Here however, the loop fits more into the setting and theme. Not just because the loop was an important story part of the Blair Witch Project. But also fits the sinister dream like logic of the game. Ellis is being kept in the forest and be tormented by his failures (much like James Sunderland) again, and again and again.
Hello again PT
Much like PT, where the protagonist is forced to travel down the same hallway, reliving his crime again and again. Bloober Team uses the trapping of past great games to craft something that is both disorientating but always engaging. The seemingly endless loop perfectly captures the sense of pure helplessness Ellis experiences. How small you are to the vastness of the witch’s power and the endless forest. Unlike Layers of Fear which replicates the empty shell of PT, Blair Witch uses PT as inspiration for its own game.
Blair Witch is at its core a somewhat standard first-person-survival-horror-game-on-steam. You have to keep walking through the spooky scary environment, solving puzzles and trying getting around monsters. It’s typical Amnesia, Outlast or almost every Steam bottom feeder. However, Blair Witch tries to mix up a reliable but otherwise tried formula by adding mechanics from other games. The results can often good but rather underwhelming at times.
Bullet is one of the more distinctive aspects of Blair Witch. Ellis’s dog is important both from a story and a gameplay perspective. It’s not an entirely original mechanic; Rule of Rose has a similar character who shares a similar role in the story and gameplay (Jennifer and her dog Brown).
However Bullet’s behaviour and involvement is integral to the game’s puzzles and progression. You can give Bullet items to sniff, he will then show you where to go. It keeps the pacing up and engages the player with Bullet. It’s simple but works perfectly well. This mechanic also adds to the escalation of sakes. You start out giving Bullet Peter’s hat and end with guiding you to something horrific. You also have to watch his behaviour as well. Bullet will become scared of the various stick figures that you have to destroy in order to calm him down.
When monsters are near you have to pay attention to where Bullet is barking/ growling. It is the only way to know where the monsters are for the majority of the game. Gameplay reflects the theme of friendship through the various uses Bullet offers. It works perfectly fine. There is a degree of skill required to keep an eye on where Bullet is positioned/ insuring the torch is positioned right. I enjoy it as the risk of failure is clear and ever present. Sadly Bullet’s seek ability is rarely used after the first act. He kind of devolves into an alarm system when the monsters appear and little else. Before disappearing from the story all together in the final act. A little disappointing as it Bloober Team could have taken more advantage of Bullet.
The fog area
There is one portion of the game that I want to talk about in detail the fog level. At a certain point in the game a heavy fog descends on the forest. You are completely bind as a result. You have to rely on the night vision sensor on the camera and Bullets behaviour to get out. It is terrifying. It is explosively terrifying. Everything from the music strings to the creek of trees to the uncertainly where the monsters are and your distance to them is executed perfectly.
I am reminded of the Blindness Shard trial from Hellblade (another example of doing this sort of tension really well). Blair Witch from that point on ramps up the tension and never let’s go. I seriously considered giving this game a Hall of Fame entry because of this. The fog section rivals Hellblade in its ability to convey tension.
You know Alan Wake’s combat? You know, where you have to shine a torch at the shadowy woodsmen until they are vulnerable to bullets. Blair Witch does something similar where at (whenever monsters show up) you have to focus your torch at their direction. Doing so damages them, eventually the light kills them. As combat goes, it’s very basic. Maybe a little too basic, as there is little in terms of actual skill.
All you have to do is point it in the right direction and that is it. The atmosphere does help; it turns what might have been a mundane distraction into something harrowing. A nice idea that serves the game rather well but...one cannot help but escape that more could have been done with it. Like maybe having the ability to switch if off to get around monsters might have been nice, or strengthening the beam to kill off monsters faster. The torch’s role as a mechanic remains rather static sadly.
The video tapes
I am not...sure about this mechanic. On one hand it’s an interesting marriage between the IP’s found footage heritage and the dream logic of Blair Witch (the game). However I cannot escape the feeling that its presence is rather weak. There for the sake of acknowledgement of the Blair Witch project. It feels oddly out of place in Blair Witch. I am not sure if it’s just me (in all likelihood it properly is) but when I think Blair Witch I don’t of magic cameras that alter reality.
Even as mechanic its not particularly deep. You watch the video until you spot the important element (a door opening, a ball dropping for Bullet to sniff etc). You then stop the video and the thing needed to continue is there. It’s an underwhelming mechanic that works but has no ambition or curve in difficulty. It’s a static mechanic.
Graphics and art style:
Blair Witch successfully captures the haunting quality of the woods at night time. The starting tutorial of the game is bright and colourful with streaming sunlight. The Black Hill forest almost seems welcoming and friendly. Bloober team did an excellent job with lighting to control and convey atmosphere without musical cues. The graphics themselves are solid if somewhat lacklustre fidelity. But Bloober Team makes up for it with solid lighting and clever use of fog and other visual tricks.
Sadly, Blair Witch did not always perform well. The visual pop in is atrocious. While it is not a problem when visibility is limited, it is most certainly a problem in better lit environments. I saw trees; grass and other shrubbery appear before my very eyes.
Its incredibly distracting and at times almost laughable, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been a good idea to have the forests bathed in a light mist to limit the render issues. There were some minor frame rate issues and the occasional freeze. They are infrequent but never the less distracting when they occur.
As I write this conclusion, I have been debating if I could put this in the Hall of Fame. I am reminded of the quandary Outlast and ABZU put me into. They are great experiences, fantastic in their execution and an absolute joy to play (Outlast being more a horrible experience in the best way possible). But each of them are let down by a flaw that I cannot really forgive or ignore. ( Outlast’s stupid ending or ABZU’s controls ).
On one hand the third act is utterly fantastic from an atmosphere and storytelling perspective. But the popping and the slightly undercooked mechanics make me doubt the legitimacy of the claim. I don’t think I will give Blair Witch a place in the Hall of Fame. I want to, but I don’t think it would be completely right. The Hall of Fame is a special place for games that truly deserve it. As much as I feel it should be there, are flaws that are not infrequent or minimal enough to be forgiven.
Happy New Year!
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2020/06/10- Edit: Fixed some gramma problems