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It’s around the fifth time I pass the same campsite by the same spooky tree with the same ominous markings that I start to wonder if the game is fucking with me, or if this is just run-of-the-abandoned-saw-mill bad level design. Maybe it’s both. When it was announced that they were making a video game based on The Blair Witch Project, I joked on Twitter that a truly faithful one would just be hours of you wandering aimlessly through a nondescript forest, maybe with a single button that allowed you to scream at your useless travel-mates, and a confusing map that you’re forced to chuck into the stream on level three. A year later, joke’s on me. For such a linear game, Bloober Team’s Blair Witch really does amount to a lot of walking in circles, having no damn idea where you’re going or what you’re supposed to be doing. Feature or bug, a part of me has to abstractly admire the fidelity to the source material, while another, more sensible part wonders what masochistic impulse would drive me, or anyone, to play a game that’s this deliberately or accidentally tedious. You can’t even throw your map away in a fit of petulant frustration, because you never get one!
In Blair Witch, you assume control of Ellis, a former police officer with a Troubled Past who goes looking for a little boy who’s disappeared in the Black Hills forest of Burkittsville, Maryland, just like the three intrepid, doomed documentarians of the movie. You have a radio, and a flashlight, and a loyal companion: Bullet, your pet Belgian Malinois. That this first-person survival horror game doubles as a dog-owner simulator is about the most novel thing about it, though Bullet’s actual utility is somewhat limited: He’ll sniff out some of the items and clues and doohickies you’re tasked with collecting, hence cutting down on the frankly wearying amount of time you spend squinting into the digital dirt, and also point his snout at the film’s half-assed enemy threat, shimmering light-based phantoms that you (easily) kill by shining your flashlight at them. You control Bullet with a menu of commands, which includes a “reprimand” option I can never bring myself to select, even when he’s rolling around randomly in a pile of leaves during our urgent search for a missing child. (I usually just toggle to “pet.” I should not own a dog.)
Again, a little perverse respect must be paid: They’ve made a Blair Witch game that’s every bit as fun as actually being lost in the woods. When not slogging through fetch quests, the player consults a digital camcorder that, in addition to progressing the investigation, also allows Ellis to supernaturally alter his environment, removing obstacles in his path and materializing objects out of thin air. Oh, how I despised this technological anomaly, and how frequently Ellis is forced to consult it! During one exasperating stretch, you trudge through fog so thick that you can’t see five feet in front of you, and have to use the tiny screen within the screen to follow a lightly marked white trail on the ground, bumping into trees and clumsily repositioning the camera. At a certain point, I start to envy Heather, Josh, and Mike, who could at least die in peace without having to solve a bunch of crappy puzzles first.
All of this would be forgivable if the game was scary. But like all Blair Witch sequels, it fundamentally misunderstands the power of that seminal found-footage experiment. This version fancies itself a psychological thriller: The landscape keeps warping through hallucinations that transport Ellis, a combat veteran, back to the battlefield, besetting him with manifestations of his unresolved guilt. Look, I love Silent Hill 2 as much as the next survival horror geek, but it has to shoulder some of the blame for a game that turns the Blair Witch into a pushy therapist, forcing you to confront your demons—and not one but two traumatic episodes from your backstory—by running in circles inside a dilapidated old house. The Blair Witch, as originally conceived by the original movie, didn’t give a hot damn about anyone’s personal issues. She was an agent of pure dread: a personification of our fear of the dark and of nature and of getting hopelessly lost far from the safety of civilization. This Blair Witch may recreate some of the patience-testing illogic of a forest that seems to loop back in on itself, but it’s actually too rational to ever get under your skin. The movie cast an unforgettable spell because it never felt like a normal movie. The game is always just a game. A really annoying one, at that.