How Blair Witch found new ways to scare the crap out of you
“This year is the 20th anniversary. So, we decided, yes, Blair Witch is back,” says Barbara Kciuk, the lead narrative designer who crafted the story behind the horror franchise’s upcoming videogame.
With a cryptic teaser, showcased at this year’s E3 convention in June, the camera zoomed out to reveal a familiar, ever-ominous symbol burned into the digitally rendered forest floor: the twanas. Some call it the “stick men” or “stick charms.” Whatever the name, everyone knows their meaning. It marks the presence of the Blair Witch.
Two decades after the release of the 1999 film that became a game-changing genre classic, developers at Blooper Team and publishers at Lionsgate Games brought an early demo of the game to New York City in early August to show why they resurrected the bringer of nightmares once again — mainly because this witch just won’t die — and showcase a different kind of horror, one that leans into the first-person perspective of an interactive, choice-driven PC/console game.
In this Blair Witch, an original narrative composed by Kciuk and her team at Blooper, players step into the shoes of Ellis, a former police officer. The year is 1996 and the setting is the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland. Ellis joins a search party into the shadowy terrain to help find a missing boy. He arrives with his dog, Bullet, a bit late and must catch up with the group. You can probably guess how events transpire from there.
Daniel Engelhardt, Lionsgate’s senior vice president of interactive ventures and games, has been planning this next gaming move since director Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch came out in movie theaters in 2016. A huge fan of Layers of Fear, Blooper’s previous dealings in the psychological horror space, Engelhardt met Peter Babieno, the developer’s CEO, for coffee to discuss a collaboration.
“The conversation just pretty quickly focused in on Blair Witch,” Engelhardt tells EW. “First off, he’s a big fan, the team over at Blooper are big fans of the property, but also there are so many elements that we thought players would want to see in a Blair Witch game that tapped into so much of what Blooper does really well — in particular, psychological horror.”
When Blooper was handed the keys to the Blair Witch vault, the reaction was, “Whoa, what do we do?”
“We believe that one of the problems with games based on movies or movies based on games is that people are just trying to get what was great about the source material and copy to another medium. And that doesn’t work,” Kciuk explains. “There are different features that make those mediums great. So, what we wanted to create is in equal part a psychological experience and a Blooper Team game.”
Bullet, Ellis’ dog companion, was a big part of that. The canine becomes a lifeline for the player, since he’s not as susceptible to the witch’s mind games. A command wheel allows players to direct Bullet to scout, fetch, and dig for items you may not be able to find on your own. As you enter the woods and the illusions of the Blair Witch take hold, he’ll be your only hope for survival.
In one blood-bumping sequence, set in the dead of night, a growl from Bullet tips you off to the witch’s monsters lurking just beyond your line of sight through the trees. Shining a flashlight on their grotesque forms will force them to flee and if you don’t keep an eye on where Bullet is directing you next, you’ll be just as lost as the missing boy.
“Bullet was really hard to create to be good,” Kciuk says. “There are some dog companions in videogames, so we thought they’ll be great to draw inspiration on. And then we noticed that in reality, no. Most dog companions are just this NPC [non-player character] who attacks the nearest foe or you just point somewhere and he does something. We really needed something more sophisticated. We really wanted to create this companion that, while you can give him little commands, he also has a mind of his own. It was very hard to balance his playfulness and his usefulness.”
Engelhardt plays coy on whether this game fits in with the canon of the franchise. He just says it’s “an original narrative, but we definitely wanted to make sure [there were] some of those iconic elements you would expect to see in a Blair Witch game.” Found footage, being a staple of Blair Witch, was a must. But, here, it works differently.
According to Kciuk, “Found footage will reflect what you see in reality, and what happens in the found footage will also change the states of objects in reality.”
Illustrated by the demo, Ellis searches for clues in a lonely sawmill in a clearing in the woods. He finds a tape that can be viewed in his camcorder, showing a fight between a man and whoever is recording the video. Retracing the man’s steps into the cabin, Ellis sees him walking through a door. It’s locked in the real world, but pausing the tape at the moment the door opens in the video will also unlock the door in the present.
This camcorder element allowed the developers to play on Ellis’ own demons. “Exploring his past is a really big deal in this game,” Kciuk confirms. Though she would prefer to keep most of those secrets under wraps for now, she does tease, “What he sees, he’s not really entirely sure if he sees that because it’s just his memories or if there’s some evil forces playing with him. In a way, it makes him less susceptible to it all because he has his own demons and they are just coming back to him.”
The result: Blair Witch is not a game you can mindlessly play through. It requires your constant attention or risk missing a life-saving clue. The camera, for one, “sometimes shows you something that maybe isn’t visible in the real world,” Kciuk notes. And that brings us to…
Players will return to the Blair Witch house, and its previous depictions on film will tip you off to what awaits inside the game.
It’s a maze, one that plays on what you think is real. In the demo, Bullet was nowhere to be found. (Does the dog die in the end? No one’s saying.) So, the camera is a crucial asset. Looking through its lens as you peek around sharp corners will reveal written messages on walls, illuminate your path, and highlight threats that might be standing just at the end of the hall.
Kciuk explains how important it was for them to remain faithful to this aspect of the movies: “The whole interior design is really reminiscent of what you saw in the movie. It was all very chaotic. Running around, you were losing track of where you were and what the characters were doing. This is something that can work in movies, and it just doesn’t translate to other mediums because, in the end, you have to have more control [in a game] and to understand your situation much better in order to traverse such an environment.”
The goal was to make the players feel less confident “in their own skills, in their own knowledge.”
“There’s always something new waiting just outside the next door,” she says, “and that’s exactly what we wanted in the Blair Witch house.”
Blair Witch will be available to play in full on PC and Xbox Game Pass on Aug. 30.