The Blair Witch Project (1999) doesn’t need an introduction these days; it was a cultural phenomenon. It will still stir up conversation, nowadays not so much about whether or not it is real, but more about what it felt like to watch it for the first time thinking it was real. Most horror fans have a Blair Witch story, or at least something to say about it, positive or not.
It is one of those films that works perfectly as a standalone film, one that I can say with full confidence never needed any of the extra content we were given. So when I discovered there was an entire series of video games made in the early 2000s, my morbid curiosity got the better of me and I just had to learn more.
Each game in this epic trilogy of games focuses on a different element of Blair Witch lore touched upon in the movie; Rustin Parr, Coffin Rock, and Elly Kedward. These plot points are the main pieces of lore featured in the movie. The fictional folklore that was created was extremely vague, which is great for anyone who needs to expand the narrative to fit into three entire games. With this in mind—although they definitely could expand and add to the lore—should they have done it?
Volume I: Rustin Parr is the most engaging in terms of narrative and gameplay, but it’s clear from the start how far removed from the film they really are. Playing as Elspeth Holliday, a research scientist who works for a secret government organisation called “Spookhouse,” whose employees include a vampire. After completing a training level in HQ, Elspeth is given a mission to investigate supernatural goings-on in the town of Burkittsville after serial child killer Rustin Parr is convinced he was possessed by a witch.
So, how do you bring the tension, atmosphere and terror of The Blair Witch Project into a video game, especially one that has an organization called “Spookhouse” in it?
You simply don’t. Well, at least not in the style of horror game that the developer, Terminal Reality, went for. It was not surprising that the classic Resident Evil series template was followed. It was, and arguably still is, one of the most successful horror game franchises of all time, but transferring these mechanics into a game based on The Blair Witch Project was an interesting choice.
There is probably one moment in the entire game I thought was slightly creepy (during a cutscene), but overall it’s a very repetitive jaunt through the woods with the occasional bizarre enemy. I still haven’t quite gotten over the addition of demon zombie hounds and the stick figures that were oh so creepy in the film that were clumsily transformed into a bumbling creature to shoot in the game. There were some interesting moments where Elspeth is transported into another realm where she explores the house with the infamous basement, actually seeing the ending of the film through a weird time-travel ghost cutscene.
Although these moments are kind of fun as a fan of the film, I couldn’t help but think that this would have worked as a standalone game with no connection to The Blair Witch Project. Elspeth is an engaging character to play as, and the idea of a woman in the 1940s working for a secret government organisation tasked with investigating paranormal goings-on is genuinely awesome; however, the way this is shoe-horned into the Blair Witch narrative is incredibly peculiar.
Perhaps the most baffling addition to the Blair Witch lore is the heavily stereotyped Native American character, Ascaya Gigagei, who has a mystical aura and is extremely knowledgeable about supernatural occurrences. First of all, he can live in the woods without much bother and, secondly, he proceeds to inform you that there is no such thing as a witch and the evil force in the woods is a demon/devil called Hecaitomix. I can only think this entire plot point of the game came from the tiny bit of dialogue in the film where Mike says the rock formations “look like an Indian burial ground,” but even then it’s clutching at straws a little bit.
This heavy supernatural theme continues in Volume II: The Legend of Coffin Rock. Set during the aftermath of the American Civil War, you play as a Union soldier called Lazarus. After getting lost in the woods with his men, he is saved by a young girl and nursed back to health by her grandmother. When he wakes up, the girl has gone missing and you are tasked with finding her.
There was at least an attempt at capturing the atmosphere of the movie in the second installment, and it is genuinely successful in parts. In Lazarus’ flashbacks, you see him and his men enduring the same trauma we saw in the film, getting lost in the woods and his men being picked off one by one with no hope of survival.
However, this is dispelled when the possessions begin and the game shows a very lacklustre depiction of the horrific events at Coffin Rock. In the movie, the story of Coffin Rock is so chilling because we don’t know the specifics of what happened to the search party that was found tied together and disembowelled on the rock. Now, herein lies my biggest gripe with this trilogy; the origins of the woods’ apparent supernatural powers doesn’t need explaining. The ambiguity is what makes the film so good, and these games just keep unravelling it in the most ridiculous ways, and it only gets worse with the third installment.
Volume III: The Elly Kedward Tale is what you could call the “origin story” of the Blair Witch tale, and is the worst and most ridiculous entry in the entire trilogy. You play as an ex-priest turned witch hunter who is hired to find missing children after the body of a woman executed for witchcraft goes missing. The same mechanics as the previous entries are employed again and it all feels very familiar: run through woods, talk to some people, run through woods some more, shoot some demons, etc. The game consists of you finding children tied to posts, who you rescue, and culminates in you entering into the realm of the demons with the help of a familiar face from the first game, Gigagei. After fighting lots of demons in this “hell realm,” you eventually encounter the big bad Hecaitomix, who turns out to be a very unsatisfying, not at all scary monster.
What I will say about these games is that they all have certain elements that are interesting. The idea that the “Blair Witch” and the woods have been messing with people for generations is a really engaging concept. But the trilogy takes it too far, stripping away what made the film so terrifying and creating something so far removed from the source that it might as well have a completely different name.
Skip forward to 2016; a new Blair Witch Project movie has been released, simply called Blair Witch. This film is genuinely entertaining and scary in parts. It expands on the original narrative in interesting ways, using its bigger budget to really play with the idea that the forest actually changes. However, the ambiguity of the first film is completely erased as this film goes all in with the supernatural explanation to the strange goings-on, even giving us a glimpse of the “witch,” who looks uncannily like the girl at the end of the Spanish found-footage movie [REC].
Perhaps taking inspiration from the Blair Witch video game trilogy, Lionsgate Games decided to take a crack at their very own video game addition to the franchise, made by Polish developers Bloober Team, simply named, like the 2016 movie, Blair Witch.
This game is clearly intended to tie in with the most recent movie; the general atmosphere and narrative choices really exemplify this. The game is entirely first-person, which connects with the found-footage element of the films, and thankfully there are no demon dogs or giant stick figures to shoot. The mechanics are also a lot more inventive and compliment the narrative. For instance, your canine companion is extremely useful in finding your way to safety and discovering items. Videotape puzzles that alter the world are also a great mechanic that again ties into the world of the most recent film brilliantly.
The 2000s trilogy of games magnificently failed at providing an accurate video game experience that would feel like The Blair Witch Project that by the end of the trilogy it barely even feels like you are in the same universe as the film—until one of the characters mentions Coffin Rock or Elly Kedward. It was perhaps one of the most jarring gaming experiences I have had; not because they were older games, but because of the creative choices that were made.
Blair Witch is probably the closest that gaming will get to capturing the essence of The Blair Witch Project, and even then it felt so much more tied to the recent sequel rather than the original movie. This brings me to my initial statement that The Blair Witch Project is one of those pieces of media that defies sequels and game spin-offs because it was so unique; it was such a phenomenon because no one had really seen anything like it.
It is a film that is so subtle in how it gets under your skin; it isn’t a horror movie filled with jump scares and elaborate monsters, it is a slow burn. It has moments of terror that can stick with you for years. But the main issue in terms of developing it into a video game is that it isn’t very visual; a lot of the scares come from sound.
Video games are such a visual medium, but they also require the player’s attention to be kept in a different way than movies. It is no wonder that when trying to develop it into a horror game akin to Resident Evil, it didn’t work. There aren’t any physical enemies in The Blair Witch Project to shoot at; it is entirely psychological, and I think the 2019 game was a great effort at giving us a better interactive Blair Witch experience, even if it was tied too tightly to the most recent film.
We still haven’t had a video game that managed to capture the terror of the original film, but I still have hope. There are so many different mechanics and techniques used in games that can work wonderfully in that universe. Games like Gone Home and P.T don’t have an ounce of combat but work incredibly well at creating atmosphere and tension that would be perfect for a Blair Witch Project game. But for now, I’ll just go and wait in a corner…