Doesn't matter if you like the Blair Witch Project or even if you've seen it - you know what it is. There was a time you couldn't escape it. The image of the girl, face half out of frame, beanie on, camera angled up her nose, crying and alone in the dark, was everywhere. People even thought the film was real, bought into the marketing hoax. There had been nothing like it before. A budget film with camcorder footage, behaving differently, scaring differently. I will never forget that ending sequence (I don't want to spoil it even now), it's one of the scariest things I've seen in a film. Blair Witch was a cultural phenomenon.
Mind you, know what's even scarier? Buckle up: the Blair Witch Project is 20 years old this October. Aaargh run for the hills!
But it makes 2019 a very good year for a Blair Witch video game, and as if by magic, one is on its way, announced at E3 on Microsoft's stage and made by Layers of Fear and Observer developer Bloober.
It's a thrilling fit on paper. Bloober goes exactly for the kind of psychological horror Blair Witch is all about, and Layers of Fear and Observer are both deliciously bizarre and psychedelic, always turning sideways, rearranging what you perceive to be real - a formula which should work wonders in a Blair Witch forest.
But this time there are big expectations. Will Bloober interpret Blair Witch the way people want? There wasn't a lot to go on from E3, and our team there had no time to talk, so I called Bloober yesterday - now back at home in Krakow, Poland - to find out more. Answers come from writer Basia Kciuk and team developer Maciej Głomb.
Everyone of a certain age seems to have a memory of Blair Witch-
Basia Kciuk: The first movie was released 20 years ago!
Basia Kciuk: People still remember it. It's amazing because they just see the symbol, the totem, and they know what it's about.
When did your project begin and how did it come about? I heard it has been in development for two years.
Was it an idea you had? Did you know [IP owner] Lionsgate? How did it come about?
Maciej Głomb: It was both. After Observer, we were searching for another project, an interesting IP, and at the same time Lionsgate was looking for a game company who can transition this Blair Witch cinematic universe to video games.
It turned out we actually knew each other from before - our companies - so we talked a lot and it organically happened.
Basia Kciuk: With this upcoming anniversary it was a chance someone needed to take, and we decided it would be us.
Theoretically it's a great fit, because the things you do in Layers and Observer...
Basia Kciuk: That was exactly one of our reasons, although I must admit, this time it's a little harder because in a corridor it's easy to predict what the player will be looking at, while in a forest, which is an open space, it's much more complicated. It was a great challenge for us but we believe we were up to it.
To clarify: is it the Observer team making Blair Witch?
Maciej Głomb: After Observer, we split into three smaller teams to work on a few different projects.
Basia Kciuk: One [team] was doing Layers of Fear 2 - and a lot of those people now came to our project - and there is a third team, which we can't really talk about.
So when you originally sat around thinking about what a Blair Witch game could be, what did you come up with? What is a Blair Witch game to you?
Basia Kciuk: It's a complicated question because Blair Witch is a lot of things.
So far, we focus more on the psychological layer of the story. With the original Blair Witch, there wasn't so much of this psychological element. We observed how the characters are reacting but the film didn't dwell on backstory. We got a great chance from Lionsgate to tell our own story. We both wanted this entrapment in a forest, this feeling of being alone, of being surrounded by something greater than you, something you can't really fight with, and we wanted this psychological layer of the story.
For us, this project mixes a legend - a great movie everyone knows - and what we do best, what we are proud of in our own games.
I had mixed feelings about your trailer. The Blair Witch Project, to me, was a film where not much seemed to actually happen-
[They laugh but I haven't finished my point yet!]
It was a film about fear, and by cleverly not showing very much, it let your imagination do the work. I worry, going by your trailer, you are showing too much. There are what appear to be monsters - or, in other words, an evil you can see, whereas in The Blair Witch Project, fear came from an evil you could not see.
Basia Kciuk: There are two layers. There's this layer where, yes, there are monsters, there is combat, but also the witch. And the witch is something we define as not a creature. It's not a singular entity you can meet. It's not something you can fight. It's this overpowering force that has this unlimited power over the forest and you never know what she will do and how she will approach you. She will just change the world around you to make you feel her presence.
I believe this representation of the witch as a force is very close to the original Blair Witch cinematic universe. It's how the movies portrayed her. We never really know what is happening, if she is there, if she exists at all. It's just the world around you is so weird, and there are things you can't really explain, but you need to go through it.
The only explanation you have is either you are going crazy or there's a witch.
Maciej Głomb: Games aren't like movies. You need to grab players' attention and keep it for a few hours, not 90 minutes, so you need to pace the game in a way this attention doesn't go away. We need a few tense sequences - escape or combat sequences - but they are not something that overshadows the whole experience.
Basia Kciuk: It's not our main focus. Of course we strive to do it as well as possible but in the end, the Blair Witch is the main star.
Does Lionsgate have guidelines around what the Blair Witch is or should be?
Basia Kciuk: Their idea of Blair Witch was pretty consistent with what we wanted to show, so yeah, they had guidelines, they had some inside stories, let's say, but they also gave us a lot of freedom. It's not like, 'Oh, the Blair Witch can do this, this and this.' No. It's like, 'Blair Witch is this concept for us - work with it.'
What were those inside stories they had, those concepts?
Basia Kciuk: They're kind of spoilery.
I don't like to spoil things so say no more.
You mentioned combat earlier. I've seen interviews where you talked about it being like Alan Wake. How does it work?
Maciej Głomb: It's similar in the way you also have a flashlight, but in Alan Wake you have a flashlight and conventional weapons. You don't have that here because it was not really fitting to the universe; you don't really see anyone running with a shotgun around the Blair Witch forest. So your only weapon is a flashlight. It's more of a way for you to get rid of the monsters, to escape them. You don't really kill them, you fend them off.
Where else have you been drawing inspiration from? I got a big whack of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter while watching the trailer.
Basia Kciuk: There was a lot. Every game that features walking in a forest is a great inspiration. There are not so many high profile games about forests. There's a lot of indie games, like Slender Man, but although Slender Man was great for a moment, it's hard to draw inspiration [presumably for a longer experience]. We draw a lot of mechanical ideas and solutions from other games.
One we really liked, although it's not a horror game, was Firewatch. It was a great adventure in a forest while being, technically, alone - you can talk with another person but otherwise you are alone out there. Although it was not scary, it was more of a mystery, it was great to look at the mechanisms, to look at the how the story unfolds, the pacing.
Maciej Głomb: We were looking at Outlast, too, Silent Hills. We were also trying to capture this unique feeling of playing with the camcorder, which is what Outlast does really well. Obviously we also got inspiration from movies like Blair Witch!
Basia Kciuk: That was our biggest inspiration, let's be honest!
Maciej Głomb: Yeah, but also Rec and Paranormal Activity.
You know, I was just in an apartment, albeit in Portugal and not Spain, which looked so much like the one in Rec, and had a similar elevator! I mentioned it to the people I was with and no one had any idea what I was talking about (not for the first time, believe me).
Maciej Głomb: Get me out of here!
Exactly - that's what they said every time I started talking! Hang on...
Speaking of the camcorder: I read that it manipulates time. We see the camcorder a bit in the trailer, although it's not clear what's going on. Can you explain how it works?
Maciej Głomb: An easy example is, for example, you will find lost footage during gameplay and when you play it in your camcorder, you will see different events that happened or will happen. Basically, by fast-forwarding or rewinding the tape, you have the ability to impact the environment around you. In this way, for example, you can make a fallen tree stand up and create a new passage for you.
I don't really want to get too much into that because every tape is pretty closely tied to the story.
Basia Kciuk: Spoilers! But yeah, basically those are puzzles while also being a tool for us to convey what happened in the forest.
Another key feature in the game is the main character Ellis' dog. Where did the idea of having a dog come from?
Basia Kciuk: We wanted to have the feeling of being alone, of not having anyone to help you in the forest, while also [having something to care about]. The Blair Witch always starts with a group of teenagers and the characters care about each other. We decided to totally skip the other characters - we are not giving Ellis any friends, any partners - so we will give him a dog.
The dog is a dependable creature but at the same time, he's not really on the same level as you, so you can't count on him to get you out of the forest. You need to cooperate, you need to care for it, he can help you but you need to help him. You are not totally alone but you are still helpless - you don't have this pack or team and 'we will fight the forest' [bravado].
I read that if something bad happens to the dog, it affects your character and gameplay.
Basia Kciuk: It's very story-related so we really don't want to dwell too much on it. The dog is both a story-important character and a tool to improve the gameplay. Telling you too much about how he mechanically works, how he mechanically impacts the gameplay, can be spoilery so those questions we would like to avoid.
Maciej Głomb: He will help you move around the forest because you will find out, pretty soon, he's less susceptible to the curse, the witch's impact, so that's why you need to cooperate with him, because he will sometimes see more than you do. Also, he's a dog, so his senses are keener than yours.
And you can pet the dog. Does that do anything or does it just make people feel better?
Basia Kciuk: How you treat the dog will affect the game. We don't really want to go into details.
The setting for the game is 1996, two years after the events of the original film. Is there any kind of overlap? More to the point: why are people still going into the forest?!
Basia Kciuk: [Laughs.] A kid goes missing - they need to find it or at least try!
Yes, the game is set in the Blair Witch universe so obviously there will be some overlap. The events will be recalled, the characters recalled, but we really want to underline this is our own original take on what can happen. What already happened won't be our main focus - we are focusing on a new story.
I imagine you've watched the original film a few times now.
Basia Kciuk: A thousand times now! As a writer, it's like, 'I remember there was this one line when they said something very specific and I need to find it!' And I have no idea where it was so I watch the whole movie all over again. I did it a lot.
Is the newer Blair Witch film worth watching?
Basia Kciuk: It's not like you need to in order to understand the game but yeah, definitely - new Blair Witch is pretty cool.
Maciej Głomb: If you enjoy the universe - why not?
Basia Kciuk: There are some new details you will probably be interested in.
Finally, Blair Witch is coming to PC and Xbox One on 30th August, but will it come to other platforms too?
Maciej Głomb: For now, we are focusing on Xbox and PC but we will discuss the other platforms in the future.
Does that include Switch?
Basia Kciuk: We don't have a comment at this point.
Maciej Głomb: You can look at our other games like Layers of Fear and Observer. The Switch version wasn't released at the start but it came out finally, so it might be a similar situation here. But, still, we don't really know what's going to happen.