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Blair Witch - title

In my review of Blair Witch yesterday, I mentioned that "there's a genuinely clever video game construct that re-contextualizes much of the game and has an interesting point, but which gets buried under all this convoluted plot spaghetti.". It was hard for me to explain that without going into very explicit and severe spoilers. I could have just put it all in a collapsible "spoiler" section, but I decided to split it out into a separate blog post so that I could publish the review more promptly, keep it more concise, and also give myself more time and space to explain my thoughts on this game's ending(s).

This post will be explicitly about the overall story of Blair Witch and the final couple hours of gameplay. It will be nothing but major spoilers ahead! So consider yourself warned if you haven't played the game yet.

Major spoilers follow for Blair Witch game.

Too many plot threads obfuscated the ludic thread

OK, so there's a lot to unpack here.

From the start of the game, we know that Ellis did something in his police career that he regrets and wants to set right. By the end of the end of the game, you find out that his crime was shooting and killing an unarmed teenager (but Bloober chose not to make him a black teen for some reason, even though police brutality against the black community is the actual, specific issue at hand in real life). He goes into the woods looking for the missing brother of that victim in an attempt to redeem himself.

Ellis suffers PTSD from his time in the military and as a police officer.

But then there's also this through-line about conflict with his ex-girlfriend, Jess. The game really seems to want us to think that Ellis may have killed Jess. The relationship went south because Ellis was suffering from post-traumatic stress from his time in the army fighting in the Middle East, and he would lash out at Jess. The flashbacks obscure Jess' face, and we keep seeing flashes of the face of a woman either dying or waking up from a nightmare. We're lead to believe that this woman is Jess.

Ellis also seems to have pre-existing mental health issues that strained his romantic relationship.

But then the game also goes deeper by making it so that Ellis also harbors guilt for having gotten his army squadmates killed by leading them into an ambush. And then the game throws curveballs that Ellis may have already had mental health issues before joining the army. So someone with a mental health problem took two different jobs that required him to handle weapons, and this didn't throw up any red flags with anybody? Oh, and a last-minute note suggests that he also is harboring some kind of repressed childhood trauma about the forest itself, which never gets explained.

Oh, and Carver may in fact be Ellis' future self.

At the very end of the game, it turns out that the face of a dying woman we keep seeing is not in fact Jess', but rather a pregnant Muslim woman who Ellis kills while trying to escape the ambush. That just comes out of nowhere, and the entire "dead ex-wife" thing is a complete red herring.

And if all that weren't enough, the time and space-bending properties of the cam-corder suggest throughout most of the game that Carver may in fact be a version of Ellis from the future. So Ellis may retroactively be the kidnapper and killer all along?

All this in a four-or-six-hour game. And the fact that it's just too much happening says nothing about how unfortunately pessimistic and nihilistic the game is regarding mental health.

The clever ludic twist

None of these are the actual twist of the game. Except maybe for the dead Muslim woman. The real twist is that the game (and by extension, the Blair Witch) has been trying to manipulate you all along. Unless you figured out how to get a "good" ending (which is mostly relegated to repeat playthroughs), then the game (and the witch) succeeded at conditioning you to follow her commands. This is a really cool idea that is understated by the game, and probably sadly missed by many players.

Personally, I think Bloober should have probably picked one or two of these plot ideas, dropped the others, and shortened the final level accordingly. For example, had they chosen to stick with the "I lead my army buddies into an ambush" backstory, then they could have written the entire game around the idea of "I was just following orders". Maybe he was ordered to lead his men into the ambush, even though he did not feel that it was safe. Instead of Pete being the younger brother of the kid Ellis shot when he was a cop, they could drop the cop sub-plot, and Pete could have been the younger brother (or son) of one of Ellis' squadmates who died in the ambush. The sheriff could be another former squadmate from the war, and maybe he had to reject Ellis' application for the police force because he knew the PTSD made Ellis unstable. Now, we don't even need the disgraced cop sub-plot, but we don't lose any of the narrative beats.

And heck, did a game that was almost entirely about post-traumatic stress disorder even need to include the secret guilt? Let alone three different secret guilts? Couldn't the PTSD from the war have been enough?

Then, the game could play on the player's sense of agency and responsibility when it comes time for the player to chose to follow or reject the commands given to you by Carver and/or the Blair Witch. The whole game would be tightly themed around this idea of personal responsibility when under orders.

The military and Blair Witch threads could have been united with the theme of following orders.

All that time you spend wandering the looping paths in the woods, looking for anything that will end the loop, conditions you to do whatever is necessary to progress the game. Being told how to defeat the monsters, and then being forced to protect yourself from them, conditions you to shine your light at monsters. Being told by Carver how to avoid the monsters later in the game conditions you to follow Carver's instructions. And so forth. This game conditions you to act outside of your own interests, simply because you are told what to do.

That idea of being conditioned to blindly follow the orders of the Blair Witch is one of the game's most clever ludic concepts. You're telling the dog what to do. Carver is telling you what to do. The witch (assuming a witch even exists) is telling Carver what to do. Everybody is just following someone else's orders. This ludic theme is tightly integrated into gameplay. The problem is that the narrative themes muddy the ludic point.

As an aside, this is also the game's best realization of the the concepts of the Blair Witch IP: it's meta nature. The Blair Witch didn't only manipulate Ellis; she manipulated me.

However, this point was diminished, as my friends and I walked out of the game not even realizing that we could have done anything differently -- let alone what those things were. The game was successful at conditioning us. We just didn't realize it. And unfortunately, none of us were really able to think much about how successfully the game had played us because we were too busy trying to make sense of all the disparate plot threads.

The final level kind of dragged because it had to wrap up so many loose plot threads.

Bloober keeps jumping between the disgraced cop angle, the disgraced soldier angle, the strained romance angle, and the mental illness angle, and never really seems to bring it all together. So when you get to the final level, it just kind of goes on for way too long because it has to bounce between all these disparate plot threads. Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of good content in that final level. It's probably the best set piece in the game. It just overstays its welcome a tiny bit.

Part of that might be because I recently played through Bloober's Layers of Fear a month ago, and that game was two or three hours of the same stuff. So I may be a bit burnt out. Also, Layers of Fear did it all better anyway.

A buggy ending?

It also didn't help that the final couple hours of Blair Witch were riddled with bugs. The dog froze on several occasions, forcing us to exit and re-load the game in order to progress. Ellis also had trouble fitting through the doorways of the house at the end. I kept getting stuck on doorways and had to either duck or turn sideways and shimmy through. There were a lot of doors in these tiny hallways and rooms, and it got annoying real quick.

We got a bad ending, not because we mistreated Bullet, but because we didn't know we could run from monsters.

Oh, and even though we went out of our way to try to treat Bullet well, we still got the bad ending for him. We crushed all the stick figures that he was so afraid of. We kept Bullet close to us. We petted him frequently and gave him all three of the dog treats. Most importantly, we carried him through the entire ravine. And we never once reprimanded him, because he never did anything deserving of a reprimand. Despite having done all of that, we still got a bad ending. Unsure of what we did wrong, we looked it up online. Apparently, by standing our ground and fighting the monsters in the woods (because we didn't realize there was an alternative), we were "putting the dog in danger" (I guess?). This was enough to overrule all the other "good" things that we were doing, and earned us the bad ending.

Apparently, the "good" endings are supposed to be reserved almost exclusively for New Game + playthroughs. Kind of a cheeky move by Bloober, but whatever...

Most players probably aren't going to get into this bunker until a repeat playthrough,
and won't know how to trigger the "good" endings.

Comments (1) -

12/03/2021 20:39:32 #

Pretty insightful review. I don’t think they were ever trying to hint at him killing his wife, but otherwise I get your points. The multiple narrative threads never really bothered me. I honestly really enjoyed this game. It gives me more hope of Blooper doing a Silent Hill game right than The Medium did (which was fine, but not great). Your comment of how the teenager he shot should have been black was completely unneeded though. The game isn’t trying to have commentary on police brutality, and including it would have muddled the narrative even more. It just seemed like a very unneeded comment that was thrown in just for the sake of it. Besides that, and some other points I didn’t really agree with, I do think this is a good review that brings up points I hadn’t really thought about before.

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