Saturday Crapshoot: The Blair Witch Project
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week... if you go down to the woods today, you'd better go armed to the teeth? Hmm. Wait. Somehow, that doesn't quite sound right...
Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project is unquestionably the pinnacle of horror movies in which nothing actually happens. Like trees? Seinfeld? Serial killers? Then this is the film for you. It'd be a great nap movie too, if not for all the shouting. Upon release, it raised many questions, notably "Wait, people actually think this is a true story?" and "If they all died, are those zombies on the talk-show circuit?" and "Didn't they consider just following the river until they made it out and could go buy pie?"
But for some, another, more important question beckoned. "How can we cash in on this?"
This is the story of how they failed.
To give the Blair Witch games some credit, probably for the last time, they're based on an interesting idea. Nope, not a bunch of morons stumbling around in the woods and being startled by rocks and twigs. A massive cross-company production, where three different developers would offer their own take on the movie's back-story, albeit in one engine - a survival horror one built for Terminal Reality's Nocturne. Terminal Reality took the first game, subtitled Rustin Parr, with Human Head Studios picking up the baton for the second, The Legend of Coffin Rock, and Ritual Entertainment bringing everything to a close in The Elly Kedward Tale. All three were released in just under a month or so, around the same time as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 - which remains the dumbest sequel since Highlander 2, and the stupidest thing to allow into your eyes that isn't actually a nail soaked in battery acid.
Pick a flaw in the survival horror genre, and the Blair Witch games have it. Clumsy integration between characters and backgrounds? Check. Animation that acts about as well as... well, anyone in Book of Shadows? Check. The kind of combat usually inflicted as a punishment, only with the pretence that it's all part of the experience? You better believe that's a check. Now cut the length of the game in about four, for three games that you'd have had to buy at closer to full price than they deserved, and fill it full of the kind of nonsense that makes sinister stick-men in the woods seem vaguely threatening. The series was swiftly ignored, to the point that even Blair Witch fans barely acknowledge their existence.
To see why, you need look no further than Rustin Parr. Nocturne, Terminal Reality's first wander through these forests, was an interesting if flawed game about a team of monster hunters called Spookhouse, travelling the world to face vampires, Cthulhu style monsters, a version of Al Capone with a bit of a Frankenstein leaning, and a sequel hook that never actually went anywhere because Terminal Reality discovered that atmospheric film-noir monster hunting wasn't particularly commercial, and instead opted to do the exact same premise, only with a female lead, the name 'Bloodrayne' and a couple of... cough... major concessions to the plot. Shocking nobody, such pandering worked considerably better.
Not that there weren't already signs that they were looking to move in this direction anyway...
Rustin Parr was Terminal Reality's attempt at cross-over fiction, with the Spookhouse - specifically an agent called Elspeth "Doc" Holliday - being sent to the town of Burkittsville to investigate the Blair Witch legend. That may not seem a bad idea, but... well... Spookhouse is a seriously dumb organisation, and hardly something that helps boost the original movie's focus on reality and mystery. The opening scene involves a fake-out involving Holliday being told to report for her execution, before it gets instantly revealed that this is just her boss' idea of a joke, with her co-workers consisting of a hysterically stereotypical Chinaman, a military guy with a chin that can be used to hammer whole planets, a guy in a big Nick Fury style eye-patch, and the star of the previous game, The Stranger, with his double-guns, JC Denton voice and fedora hat. It's made no less silly by the fact that Holliday has to keep calling him that, setting the scene with clunky exchanges like "Oh, Stranger, you're so paranoid..."
The mandatory training involves fighting actual zombies, which the characters unsurprisingly shrug off as being nothing special, and experiments with assorted firearms you'll have access to. Because when you think of The Blair Witch Project, you think of zombies and guns, right? Nothing says dark, spooky, mysterious horror like an experienced monster hunter tooling up at an agency devoted to that kind of investigation, before being dispatched to track down the Witch and shoot her tits off with a rifle.
None of this works. At all. It's like having Mulder and Scully show up in a Hitman game because they've heard rumours of a cloned assassin, Lara Croft advising Indy, or Itagaki announcing a new opportunity to see the girls of Dead Or Alive like you've never seen them before... in Hamlet!
Had Nocturne actually been a beloved series instead of an underperforming one-shot, this might have been an interesting twist. Instead, it's almost creepily parasitical - not to mention cheaply done, up to and including the fact that most of the game itself thinks it's still Nocturne, from the name of the application window to a few of the error messages, and the inability of the characters to hit their marks during cut-scenes. There's a lot of cut-scenes of people sitting on top of chairs and walking around in big circles instead of having a conversation, and anyone in a flappy coat has yet to be told that they're not meant to flap all the time. It makes them look like they're producing their own wind. Parp.
Rustin Parr is still the best of the three games though, being split into multiple days of investigation and nights of running through the woods and really angering the local spirits by breaking its stickmen apart and playing a sinister round of Poohsticks with them. Its attempts to fill in the backstory are the most notable part of it though. Remember how The Blair Witch Project had mystery on its side? Here, not so much. Monsters are up-front, combat strictly professional (and with no real metaphorical element a la Silent Hill 2), surprises non-existent, and most bizarrely, the witch herself is mostly irrelevant. Instead, the dark force in the heart of the woods is a demon called Hecaitomix, who has a tendency to suck crappy game protagonists into a spiritual/demon realm and then get beaten up by them. At one point, he even gets his slobbery arse handed to him by a man wielding a flaming pugel stick.
Our villain, everyone! Talk about a new low for demonkind...
The second two games each have someone new going up against ol' Heckofacomic. The Legend of Coffin Rock features a wounded amnesiac soldier called Lazarus, and if you can't figure out his big twist, feel ashamed. It's a pitifully short game, based on a bit of the series lore - a bit of rock where five men searching for a missing girl called Robin Weaver were found tied together, disembowelled and with carvings all over their bodies. The game version involves that search, Lazarus' hunt for his identity, and the increasing realisation that absolutely nobody seems to give a damn. Not because the plot says so, mind. No, because the Blair Witch games have some of the most apathetic voice acting in the history of all gaming, to the point that if you can stay awake during the exposition, it's probably only because you went to get a sandwich. Any tension is long gone by the time you get to the end boss - and the fact that there is an end-boss says a lot about these games - which looks like an angry fish with legs.
Avatars of terror shouldn't look like they'd go well with mushy peas. I'm just saying.
The third game, The Elly Kedward Tale, doesn't quite so happily set sail on a course of 'due shit', though it's no easier to take seriously. This time, Helganomics' opponent is a witch-finder called Jonathan Prye, who arrives in town just in time to find everyone leaving. They're terrified that they've been cursed by Kedward - the Blair Witch - who turned out not to be a very good sport about being shackled to a wheelbarrow and left to freeze to death, and are taking it out on another suspected witch in town. There's more action than in the previous games, though only in a technical sense, but by this point it's become clear that the series is little more than fan-fiction with an official license, so who cares?
Nobody. That's who. Google the word 'Hecaitomix' for proof, and remember that The Blair Witch Project has spawned more piffle about the true meaning of a bunch of empty woods where nothing interesting happens than Avatar and Return of the Jedi combined. There are Western made Silent Hill sequels that earned more love than this. Even Homecoming! And that one was... yes. Moving swiftly on!
Fans of either horror or The Blair Witch Project... read that as you will... can obviously not so much skip these games as jump-rope over them. But what if you're in the mood for something weird and scary? Consider this a suggestion to check out Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth - a bad game in many ways, but one that does several very clever things with atmosphere and tension building.
Unlike the Blair Witch games, it puts you into a hostile adventuring environment where nothing is necessarily as it seems... except for the bit about you being in a town of monster-people and not on a sugar binge at the Sweet Factory... and has some genuinely tense, frightening moments. It's spectacularly buggy, ropey as all hell, and the odds of you actually finishing it aren't worth betting the £6 it currently costs on Steam. But! It's probably worth that £6 just for a scene in a hotel near the start, and a very different take on survival horror from the norm. Awesome? No. But definitely memorable.
Happy Halloween. May your trick or treat be free of caltrops.