Platforms: Xbox One, PC
The Blair Witch Project snuck into cinemas 20 years ago, launched off the back of one of the first viral marketing campaigns (billing its central premise as a real-world myth, despite being borne of the imagination of creators Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez), terrifying audiences, and kick-starting a wave of copycat ‘found footage’ movies. It’s almost fitting then that, two decades on, this video game spinoff arrives with similarly little fanfare and proves to be just as great a slice of horror.
Set in the mid-90s, you’ll step into the role of Ellis, a former cop dealing with his own demons, as he joins a search effort for a boy missing in the Black Hills forest. Befitting the period, one of the main items you’re equipped with is a not-quite-Nokia phone – complete with its own fully playable version of classic game Snake – and which helps build backstory through texts and phonecalls with other characters, expanding on the relationships informing the narrative.
And there’s a lot of narrative. Initially, Blair Witch feels like a spookier take on Firewatch, delving into Ellis’ past traumas while exploring the woods for various objectives, all the while having conversations with disembodied voices via phone or walkie talkie. As the more supernatural elements come into play, developer Bloober Team begins to play with Ellis’ subjective reality – introducing objects that shouldn’t exist, or setting impossible, barely-seen creatures on the player. Sanity is a major theme, and one that’s constantly being tested.
It’s never quite as scary as its inspiration, but it’s still more than capable of eliciting the odd scream.
The clearest connection to the film, beyond the shared location, is the use of video cassettes. Riffing on the found footage genre, Ellis will collect tapes on occasion, playable in a camcorder. Here though, what happens in the tapes doesn’t just add another layer of story, it can warp reality. Rewinding or fast-forwarding to the right point can cause items on the tape to materialise next to Ellis, for instance, while others can open or close paths. They add a nice element of puzzle solving to the game, in an appropriately unsettling fashion.
The best thing about Blair Witch though is Bullet, your loyal German Shepherd, and a Very Good Boy. Part early warning system, growling at threats you can’t quite perceive, part helper who brings clues to your attention, and part guide dog who keeps you on the right path through the woods as best he can, Bullet is your best ally in the game. The AI governing his actions can be a bit off at times, and you’ll have to call him back to you more often than you’d like, but there’s no surviving the forest without him.
True to the film, there’s a constant sense of unease while playing Blair Witch – exacerbated by brilliantly eerie sound design and the fact that it’s all too easy to get lost in the forest, even when it’s dappled by golden sunlight in the waking hours. It’s never quite as scary as its inspiration, perhaps because many of the mechanics used here have been experienced in other horror games, but it’s still more than capable of eliciting the odd scream, while delivering a surprisingly emotional and considered story that’s ultimately about trauma and isolation. And yes, you can pet the dog.