Games The Visual

Review: The “Blair Witch” Video Game Strikes Out

Many different modes of storytelling have attempted to utilize the story and lore of the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, from cinematic sequels to a trilogy of so-so PC games back in 2000. The 2019 video game Blair Witch is a fresh attempt at reinterpreting the franchise —  but does it retain the craft and feel of the original movie? Unfortunately, no, although it does employ a wide range of techniques that are found heavily within subsequent films. In fact, the amount of call and response between the 2019 video game and the series’ second film, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) is hard to ignore — and ultimately does a disservice to the video game’s already weak narrative. 

The Blair Witch Project, the root of this franchise’s success and creation, has a fairly simple formula. Three protagonists go out into the woods to film a documentary about a superstitious town that believes in an entity called the Blair Witch. A sense of uneasiness and fear gradually build as the main characters realize they are lost and being pursued. The narrative’s simplicity stems from a very clear and distinct plotline, in addition to the directors’ ingenious decision to have the actors themselves act as cameramen. These straightforward techniques and careful planning are what make the original film so great, offering the audience direct, seemingly unedited thoughts and feelings between the characters. Their believable reactions and building insanity are what make this film so terrifying.

The ultimate success of this simplicity is also what sets the creative bar so high. What the 2019 Blair Witch video game fails to capture is a clear narrative. It is far more jumbled and complex, mixing in a variety of flashbacks and scenes from the past and probable future, and completely ignores the basics of what can make a humble story into an utter masterpiece.      Narrative clarity is key, but the formula Blair Witch fixates on is very nearly copied and pasted from Book of Shadows — which, as some Blair Witch fans may disclose, is not a typical fan favorite when people bring up the franchise. The randomness of scenes, unfocused plot, and  uninspired writing have been pulled from this movie sequel and dumped almost carelessly into the video game’s framework, infecting this franchise’s modern resurrection with clichés and muddiness that, ultimately, do not capture the horror and drama-charged simplicity of the original 1999 film.

The surprising intersections between Blair Witch and Book of Shadows

The video game begins with the main protagonist, Ellis Lynch, and his dog, Bullet, in a car — a clear connection to the group driving sequence after the title reveal in Book of Shadows. The year is 1996, two years after the events of the original film, and within these first few minutes of cutscene, we are privy to a sweeping camera view of the lush environment and the soon-to-be-very-familiar sounds of a dog yawning. In both the video game and Book of Shadows, we learn exposition via a news source. Ellis — a former police officer, war veteran, and the videogame’s only playable character — hears about the disappearance of 9-year-old Peter Shannon from a news station on his car radio, whereas Book of Shadows rushes to flood the viewer’s screen with clips from TV shows and news reporters talking about the hype and legendary success of The Blair Witch Project. This technique has its uses. It allows the viewer to garner information without having any of the protagonists outright say it, skimming the line of “show, don’t tell.” Book of Shadows also makes use of shifting perspectives and camera angles throughout its intro, offering interviews with residents from Burkittsville. The video game tries to simulate this documentary style, twisting it enough so it feels more interactive and personal, since the player is viewing things from the more cinematic third-person and then shifting into the Ellis’s first-person perspective.      

As the game begins, we have a conversation with Sheriff Lanning, the chief of police, where we learn that Ellis has “health issues.” Ellis promises he won’t “screw this up. Not this time” — meaning he has screwed up before. This is where the narrative integrity of the video game falls apart. The developers even have the player call Bullet over and state within a static screen, “Stay close to him. Prolonged loneliness can affect your mental state.” Why are all these things so detrimental? Because Bloober Team has told you that Ellis is most likely dealing with mental illness and potentially is an unreliable narrator — so why should you believe anything you see?

The use of mental illness has become a crutch that horror writers use to immediately force a distortion of reality. This is one of the primary reasons why Book of Shadows was such a bust. The characters themselves were established as fanatical caricatures and unreliable narrators early on, immediately derailing a good chunk of credibility to the story. For example, a little past the three-minute mark in the film, we are introduced to the first major flashback showing one of the main characters, Jeff, foaming at the mouth, wearing a hospital gown on a table surrounded by three doctors. This is how the director and writers attempt to signify to the audience that Jeff can’t be trusted. Here, the viewer might be wondering, “Now, what does this have to do with the Blair Witch?” Not much, since the director and writers ultimately decided to do away with a good portion of the original mythology. It’s a bit disenchanting, because although the hero with mental illness has worked well enough in some video games in the past  — such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010), Soma (2015), and even Bloober Team’s original Layers of Fear (2016) — it does not work here. This concept is old news. It’s a boring, now hackneyed technique that no longer holds any kind of innovation because as soon as creators figured out they could use an unreliable narrator to add some more “depth,” they went overboard. That was what the writers of Book of Shadows did for their untidy sequel, and exactly what Bloober Team has done with Blair Witch.     

The core character problem in Blair Witch comes from not only the overused horror trope of mental illness, but also a lack of authenticity. In the horror form especially, there needs to be something that is grounded and believable, and that is (hopefully) the protagonist themselves. How else are the players supposed to be invested in a world that promises thrills and chills? By portraying Ellis as an unreliable narrator from the beginning, Bloober Team defines his worth through his mental illness. In the 1999 film, main characters Heather, Josh, and Mike are believable because they gradually lose their bearings on reality. This measured dissolution of sanity could have been adapted and implemented in the 2019 video game, had Bloober Team taken the time.                                      

Why Bullet is a missed opportunity

The most refreshing concept Bloober Team has gifted the horror community is something that’s interactive, four-legged, and furry — and used somewhat underwhelmingly. Bullet, Ellis’s most trusted companion, is the primary reason we are whisked away into the mysterious woods presented within all three Blair Witch movies: the Black Hills Forest. Bullet was one of the most advertised features Bloober Team waved around during interviews and trailers, essentially promoting the fact that, yes, you can pet the dog. In the launch trailer on YouTube, a quote from IGN is prominently displayed: “You will want to protect this dog with your life.” In a September 2019 issue of Game Informer, Barbara Kciuk (a writer for Bloober Team) says, “You can’t just pet Bullet and he will forever be your friend. It’s not that easy. But yeah, interacting with him is a very important part of the game.” The canine ally is meant to guide the player, offering a sense of love and comfort throughout the muddled plot, should the player feel so inclined to feed and praise him — but unfortunately, Bullet is an unsuccessful narrative device. 

It’s worth noting that Bullet is an intriguing mechanic that has not been used in any of the movies. Aside from the constant walking and hallucinating, a noticeable chunk of the gameplay is spent keeping Bullet close by Ellis’s side. He’ll tell the player if there’s danger, or if something just isn’t right. This canine’s concerns, however, are limited. He is not bothered by Ellis’s phone conversations, and he isn’t aware of Ellis’s hallucinations and PTSD. He does things most dogs would do, which is sniff around and wander off, occasionally coming back to check on his owner if he isn’t called or persuaded otherwise. But, since this is a video game, Bullet will wait a few paces ahead if the player is too far behind, panting good-naturedly before taking off again. Playing a character who is so reliant on an animal companion for minute-by-minute stability is not reassuring. It creates distrust between the audience and the game, building upon the distrust already established by Ellis as an unreliable narrator. At times, it really feels like this is Bullet’s adventure and we are merely tagging along. 

At one point, Ellis runs into a rocky passage inside the base and roots of a very large tree, following Bullet on blind faith (as usual), and saying, “I hope you know where you’re going, boy.” At this point, Bullet’s purpose is to introduce the next “spooky” element in the game: the Blair Witch’s voice. The player has certainly had their fill of Ellis’s random visions and flashbacks, but it doesn’t help break the tedium for long — particularly since we have seen this disembodied voice technique in many horror movies and videogames before. The forest sequences with Ellis and Bullet feature plenty of lulls and wandering, which gives the player time to question the amount of space being given to this part of the narrative. Bloober Team may have been attempting to recreate a feeling of empty space and uncertainty from the original film’s documentary format, but it falls short because it simply lacks the action and story progression to make Bullet — and Ellis’s motivations — mean anything.          

Ultimately, Bullet has very little effect on the overall plot and conclusion. This is exceptionally disappointing because, for as much as you can coddle Bullet, he is fundamentally useless when it comes to the ending, which leaves yet another missed opportunity by the developer. Why have this dog be so important and not even use the core mechanics that have been interspersed throughout the game? Why not have Bullet help Ellis win a victory, order Bullet to attack, or even bring over an object of great power? It appears that the developer only included this canine ally for promotional purposes, and to tap into people’s more sensitive sides. The inclusion of a lovable furball is one of the easiest ways to get viewers invested in a story, and that’s not okay — not if the developer’s aim was to make a good, scary, and story-based video game, which was supposedly Bloober Team’s main goal. 

Poor timing and endless repetition

Blair Witch was supposed to be a “big name” title because it uses a benchmark franchise’s mythos. But all of the fetch quests, little sidetrack ventures, and the eventual reveal of a mysterious man named Carver really seem like tools to help run up the meter, pushing us closer to the alarmingly short four to five hour timestamp — which, particularly by AAA standards, is abysmal. Although there is no definitive answer for playtime, AAA titles in the video game industry usually run between 15 to 20 hours (or more). Ten to 15 hours is a good length for a horror game with a larger budget; even the indie games Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Soma have average playtimes of nine or more hours. But even though Blair Witch has a comparatively short length, everything feels as though it has been drawn out and dragged through the conceptual mud (or whatever that brown slop on Carver’s face actually is). 

Video games, much like film, have an unspoken contract between the creator and their audience that says, “Trust me and follow along — you’ll like where this goes.” Unfortunately, so much of the game has been doused with Ellis’s hallucinations that it seems like Bloober Team has forgotten about the actual interactive aspect of this tale they are trying to tell. After all, this is supposed to be an engaging and enjoyable video game — but gathering items for the signature stickman symbol that has become iconic for the Blair Witch series is not most players’ idea of fun. In particular, Carver’s segment of the game is a missed opportunity for actual fear-building and tension. Instead of allowing the player to learn the hard way how to properly navigate this portion of the game, Carver is bent on hand-holding. With his very specific and detailed instructions, the player should clear this segment of the game with little to no trouble. 

In the original 1999 film, repetition was used as a way to make the story act as a narrative spiral. The story begins with the journey into the Burkittsville Woods, and certain landmarks purposely appear again, which heightens the tension and the fact that Heather, Mike, and Josh are completely lost. However, the video game’s use of repetition quickly makes things feel bland. The movie caps out at about an hour and 20 minutes, but the video game staggers between four and five hours, which is far too long to keep up the interest in this kind of technique. The player may even think that all of their gameplay, and all of their time and effort, has been reduced to a pointless endeavor. The most meta moment (intentional or not) is when Ellis finds himself back at the original campsite toward the end of the game. After he loses Bullet to Carver and the Blair Witch, he says, “No … not this place again.” The player very likely feels the same.           

Toward the end of the game, Ellis watches a video of Carver shoving Peter Shannon down toward a basement. Blair Witch fans will recognize the location — it’s Rustin Parr’s house, the one that was made famous in the original 1999 film and served as the climax not only in The Blair Witch Project but also in the third film, Blair Witch. This is the most effective way Bloober Team decided to use material from the other movies. Rather than leaning on the disarrayed scenes and flip-flopping perspectives in the climax of Book of Shadows, setting the video game’s climax in a slightly grander version of Rustin Parr’s house works because it brings very welcome texture to the game. Multiple doors, winding hallways, and different rooms effectively capture the player’s attention —  but the finale quickly gets bogged down with the same tactics that have been dragging the narrative since the beginning. It’s repetitive, in the most extreme sense.

Aside from a few decent jump-scares and using the camera to navigate while not looking directly at any of the monsters, there’s not much to be gained within this level. The now-dreary, uninteresting flashbacks, time paradoxes, voices, and distorted visions try to break up the monotony, but they are only semi-successful because we quickly return to the ceaseless marching through similar rooms. With Bullet out of the picture at this point in the game, it is hard to find much that is truly different and mentally stimulating until the final confrontation with Carver (and even that is highly debatable). When Ellis finally reaches the basement, which was the original objective, he announces it, saying, “This is it — the basement. I’m finally here.” (Just in case the player forgot, because it has been a very long while, and Bloober Team knows this.) Ellis then exits the Rustin Parr house via a hatch in the ground, one that is featured and a great source of anxiety in the 2016 film. 

The video game offers up to five different endings — which are really only two endings, but with slightly different reactions from Bullet, plus a “secret ending.” If the player chooses to cooperate with the sinister voices in Ellis’s head, harm the forest monsters in various levels, and pick up or break whatever odd garbage and stick-bags are laying around, the “bad ending” is nigh. This is not unusual, as most players will have obtained a variation of the “Take His Face” ending — the narrative path Bloober Team had always intended. This is the ending where Ellis essentially turns evil and has no hope for redemption. However, if the player takes painstaking care to not leave Bullet behind, does not touch any of the voodoo garbage or stick-bags, refuses to cooperate with the voices, and does not kill any enemies, another ending can be obtained. This is what some people may call a “good ending,” but really, it’s only slightly better. The “Break the Cycle” ending is where Ellis maintains his broken identity and dies. Carver kills him, but Ellis has refused to propagate a perceived cycle of evil, and therefore comes out a winner in the eyes of the developers and Bullet — if the player was very nice to him. 

Almost everyone loves a good horror story. It is very easy for creators to lean heavily on the “mentally ill narrator” trope, but it is far harder and much more horrific to witness an average person fall prey to senseless and uncontrollable bouts of the supernatural — or the darker side of humanity. All of the images and mechanics present in the 2019 videogame are essentially the start of some really good ideas that are never fully followed through. Had Bloober Team been more tactful in their approach to this Blair Witch revamp, it just might have worked. If they had Bullet actually matter to the story, not just the gameplay; if Ellis wasn’t just a caricature, but someone we could actually identify with and care about; and if the developer had callbacks to key items and moments from the films, but did not overtly copy scenes and techniques, this would have been a good game.

Blair Witch falls into the category of “forgettable attempts” — but that doesn’t mean the video game horror scene is dead. Independent titles from smaller companies have cropped up this year, catching some viewers by surprise with original storylines and legitimate scares. Notable new titles include Yuppie Psycho (April 2019), an indie horror game with a good storyline, pixel graphics, and intense strategy which offers the player a sense of panic, as well as Kindergarten 2 (July 2019), an indie horror sequel to the original Kindergarten (2017), which mixes gore, humor, multiple endings, and intertwining storylines. But as far as the video game world is concerned, the Blair Witch series might have struck out for the last time.

S. N. Valadez is currently the Assistant Fiction Editor for the interdisciplinary journal Anastamos. She is a second-year dual-degree M.A./M.F.A student at Chapman University, and received her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside. She has traveled the world, from teaching English in Japan to doing field research in Scotland. She hopes to publish many short stories and novels throughout the course of her writing career.