Blair Witch is a horror game that really feels like getting lost in the woods

Blair Witch screenshot

There are lots of video games based on the illusion of choice, full of spaces designed to invisibly nudge players toward a goal. Blair Witch, a game set in the same world as iconic horror film The Blair Witch Project, makes the illusion explicit — then promises you ways to exploit it. It’s a fitting, fascinating, yet often self-defeating idea. I want to play Blair Witch over and over. I also never want to see it again.

Blair Witch was released last week by the Polish studio Bloober Team, best known for cyberpunk detective game Observer and the Layers of Fear series. It’s set in Maryland’s Burkittsville Woods (home to the eponymous Blair Witch) in 1996, shortly after the disappearance of three hapless campers in the original film. In Blair Witch, a child has gone missing in the woods. Your protagonist Ellis has joined the search party with his dog Bullet, although nobody wants him there — for reasons that are both highly enigmatic and eminently understandable, since as Polygon’s Cass Marshall has noted, Ellis is a real jerk.

In one sense, the game gives players a surprising array of mechanics. Bullet is a major gameplay system as well as a very good boy: he’ll seek out important items, follow scent trails, and respond if you pet or reprimand him. There are flashlight-based combat sections that work surprisingly well — they’re like twitch-reflex hidden object games, as you try to follow the movement of shadowy creatures and shine a light to ward them off. You can call people (primarily your ex-wife and, weirdly enough, a pizza parlor) on a cellphone, but only at specific points where you have a signal. You can even play little video games on the phone.

And The Blair Witch Project’s found-footage tradition survives in the form of supernatural camcorder puzzles. You can find tapes around the forest and scrub through them to change the state of the world — a closed door might open at a certain point in a video, for example, or a child’s toy might be dropped on the ground. It’s a clever idea that’s used in versatile ways, and it’s later joined by surprisingly decent camera-based stealth sequences.

But Blair Witch also emphasizes that you’re helplessly lost in this forest. Its levels don’t offer any illusion of purpose or coherence. They’re eerie, circular arenas governed by uncanny dream logic. You wander from one to another by solving a simple puzzle; finding an object that sends Bullet dashing through a previously inaccessible gap; or walking along some hallucinatory woodland Möbius strip until the Blair Witch decides you’ve suffered enough.

It’s very effectively disorienting, mirroring Ellis’ building confusion and panic. And it encourages a kind of learned helplessness in which you’ll do almost anything the game asks you to do — even if it’s optional — in hopes that it will move you forward. Then, as you learn more about the forest and the Blair Witch, the game turns this tendency against you, suggesting that you’ve voluntarily doomed yourself.

At least… I think that’s what it does. It’s hard for me to tell how many of Blair Witch’s mechanics actually matter, since their effects aren’t clear after one playthrough. The game repeatedly warns you that it’s watching your actions, including how you treat Bullet, and that it will adapt accordingly. A few moments look like choice points, including one genuinely heartstring-tugging sequence. But I restarted Blair Witch almost the moment I finished it, determined to change an abrupt and unsatisfying fate that I wasn’t quite sure how I’d chosen. And I just couldn’t make it through again.

Blair Witch isn’t a very long game — I finished it in around five hours — and it seems designed to be played multiple times. Its first act holds up to this well, but I found myself dreading the last section, which is a slog of surrealist corridors interspersed with unnecessary exposition. As other reviews have noted, the game was also nerve-wrackingly buggy when I played it, forcing me to restart from a stingy fixed-checkpoint system after getting stuck in bushes or paralyzed midway through animations.

Blair Witch’s story isn’t bad, but it was barely compelling enough to pull me through once, let alone twice. (Ellis’ life has been a grueling cavalcade of bloody, guilt-inducing screwups, and the Blair Witch is ready to drag him — and you — through all of them.) There’s one great exception: I filled a crucial gap in the plot by receiving an enigmatic text message about a padlock in the game that I could no longer access, then remembering the combination on a second playthrough. Again, though, I’m not sure if I was supposed to play the game this way — or if I just missed something my first time around.

These choices are the real enigma in Blair Witch. I don’t care that much about what happened to Ellis before he came to the forest; I care about what could happen to him inside it, and the role that I could play. And the game came so close to pulling me toward an answer — only to leave me lost in its maze.

[“source=theverge”]