Blair Witch follows the mythology of the 90s hit found footage horror film, The Blair Witch Project, although as it tells a relatively self-contained story, I don’t think its necessary to be familiar with the movie to enjoy the game (it does however probably help some). In the fictional world of Blair Witch, the residents of Barkittsville, Maryland hold onto legends that warn of murders, mysterious disappearances, and supernatural forces that inhabit the surrounding Black Hills Forest. All of these legends seem to loop back to the Blair Witch, a piece of local folklore that has existed since colonial times.
Taking place seemingly some time after the events of the original film (but before the 2016 sequel), Blair Witch focuses on the story of Ellis Lynch, a police officer still suffering from the psychological trauma incurred during his time serving in Iraq (or maybe Afghanistan, I don’t think the game specifically says). After a local boy goes missing and the police suspect that the youth has run away into the forest, Ellis shows up late to the search party with his emotional support dog, Bullet. With the other searchers already deep into the forest, Ellis sets off onto his own path with the aid of Bullet and his keen sense of smell. As sun sets, Ellis unsurprisingly finds himself lost and entrapped in the supernatural nightmare of the forest.
Blair Witch is primarily an exploration adventure game. Ellis, lost in the forest, soon discovers that the missing boy didn’t run away, but was kidnapped by a dangerous assailant who resides in the woods. To catch the killer, Ellis must follow clues through the forest, solve puzzles to overcome barriers gating progress, and occasionally contend with hostile entities that stalk the forest. It’s an extremely story heavy game but does make a reasonable use of conventional gameplay elements.
The woods themselves are a genuine masterwork of atmosphere and mood. There’s something about a deep, primordial forest, especially at night, that stokes a special kind of primal apprehension. Forests are wide open, leaving one vulnerable to threats from all directions, yet closed enough to reduce visibility to what may be lurking in the surroundings and to block out light from the moon and the sun. And then there is the labyrinthine nature of the thing. Man can get swallowed up, lost and never to return from the gulf of their enormity. The greatest factor favoring the survival of modern man is his connection to civilization, and deep within the obscurity of the forest he is cut off, unreachable and unfindable by the outside world that has been warped to uniquely suit his survival.
For a long, long time, video game forests kind of sucked. Technology was just too limited to create something in which the player could truly feel lost. In most cases, the player realized they were obviously on a very clear path with dense trees rising up around them to act as invisible walls that prevented the player from wandering off the intended path. Things started to get better around the time of the Xbox 360. Alan Wake is one of my favorite action horror games because it did a really good job of capturing the all-engulfing foreboding of the woods at night. Probably the first game to truly create the sensation in my mind. And now I think Blair Witch does probably an even better job. You truly feel lost, alone, and helpless in this game, even when you are really on the track the the designers intended.
However, the fearsome awe of the natural is only one aspect of this game’s horror mechanics. Unsurprisingly, there is a heavy dose of the supernatural. Reality is fluid within the forest, seemingly guided by the incomprehensible eldritch machinations of the mysterious Blair Witch, a force that clearly pervades the game although rarely ever referenced directly. Specters, hallucinations, shadow entities, and the unseen predation of the kidnapper himself stalk and strike at Ellis. While the tense atmosphere of the forest is excellent, the supernatural terrors form more of the core of the game’s straightforward scares. And they work mostly fine as such.
What I consider to be a bit of letdown is how overt the supernatural elements are. As a horror movie, The Blair Witch Project was notoriously subtle about the influence of the supernatural. Until the very end, every supposedly supernatural event had an element of “plausible deniability” to it. What I mean by that is that the bizarre events happening around the main characters could be explained by supernatural forces, but the audience could just as easily accept more grounded and “realistic” explanations for what was happening. Since the original film, the sequels and this game have really done away with the “plausible deniability” aspect that catapulted the franchise to popularity and instead have focused on more explicitly supernatural occurrences largely to the dismay of fans of the original.
Possibly, I think the designers may have wanted to give an element of this “plausible deniability” to the game through Ellis’ trauma-induced hallucinations. We are told very early in the story that Ellis is suffering mental trauma from his time in service, and there are frequent flashbacks to a generically Middle Eastern setting throughout the game. From a certain perspective, once could see the otherworldly transpirations as a result of Ellis’ increasingly unstable mental state. This creates a confusing layered reality of the real world, Ellis’ illusions, and the supernaturally twisted reality created by the witch. To be honest, the war trauma angle is something that I didn’t particularly care for. Beyond its implications about mental health, these jumps to the Middle East just take the player away from the place that I think really shines in the game which is of course the densely atmospheric forest.
One good element that the mental trauma plot thread brings to the game is Bullet, Ellis’ emotional support dog that accompanies him through the ordeal in the forest. Ellis can issue commands and interact with Bullet in a way that encourages the dog to help with puzzle solving and fending off the spectral creatures that inhabit the forest. There are very rudimentary combat encounters wherein the pair are occasionally ambushed by invisible creatures that Ellis needs to kill with his flashlight, and the player must keep Bullet close by and pay attention to the direction the dog is barking to uncover where these invisible enemies are hiding. This game could have been a very straightforward “walking simulator” where the player just explores the forest while spooky stuff happens around them, but I think the challenge provided by the rudimentary combat and puzzles does create some sense of player agency and thus betters immersion in the game’s setting and atmosphere.
Horror tends to fall apart when it becomes excessive. If a game is throwing scares at a player every few seconds, then the player eventually just becomes numb and the game loses its edge (see Dead Space 3 as possibly the most egregious offender of this phenomenon). The trick, from what I can tell, is to balance segments of foreboding and ominous atmosphere that builds tension with segments of direct threat where the player is in a heightened state of alarm. Horror comes from oscillating through a cycle of gradually increasing tension which culminates in a state true of danger and duress wherein the player is explicitly threatened. After the danger has passed, then there must be a cool off period where the tension is released and the player can then begin the aforementioned emotional buildup anew.
The scariest horror games tend to be those that are very good at this cycle. But where a lot of them fall apart is in the climax, where they tend to go overboard in trying to create an experience that tops everything before it, and the result is something that feels more like a big spectacle than something truly dreadful. I felt like Blair Witch definitely suffered from this problem. The final stretch of the game is fairly overbearing with reality constantly warping into new demented configurations around the character as he’s drawn toward the final confrontation with the kidnapper. I guess I could see how individual pieces of this story segment could be scary on their own, but when they are all just piled together like they were, it just loses its edge and I felt like I was ready for all the spooky stuff to get out of the way so I could see the game’s final conclusion.
The game’s ending is utterly predictable. I’m not going to spoil it or anything, but I think most people will figure out how the story resolves very early on. In addition to the “standard” ending, which could probably be considered the bad ending, there is also a slightly more positive good ending. The game tells you from the very beginning that it is judging your actions and the outcome will be affected by your choices. I got the bad ending and after looking up what is necessary to get the good ending, I’m not sure it’s at all possible to intuit how to get the good ending on your first playthrough. There is a long list of actions that must be completed for the good ending, and I’m not sure the reward is really worth the effort. The ending is kind of lame, so I think that to enjoy this game one must focus on the journey rather than the destination.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed Blair Witch. It is a very good horror game, even if it has a handful of stumbles. It’s got great atmosphere, some great puzzles and challenges, and some very spooky scenarios, even if the main character is kind of annoying and the climax of the game falls apart. It’s also a gorgeous game and really makes its haunted wilderness come to life with excellent lighting, detail, and fidelity. I played on PC and for a long while I thought it was hideous. I would compare what I was seeing on my screen to the screenshots on Steam, and I was certain they had posted doctored screenshots. About 70% of the way through the game, I started fiddling around with the settings and realized that I had something turned on that was greatly degrading the image (HDR). After fixing that setting, I was blown away by how great it looked. The joys of PC gaming and all that! I’m really regretful that I didn’t play through the whole game with those improved settings.