Feature Article

Bullet The Dog Helps Blair Witch Retain Its Tense Atmosphere

Blair Witch's very good boy is a useful sidekick.

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Blair Witch draws strong parallels to Outlast, another first-person horror experience primarily viewed through the lens of a video camera. But Blair Witch has one glaringly obvious difference in its design--and it's something that differentiates it from developer Bloober Team's previous horror games as well: a dog.

"Traditionally, a Blair Witch movie involves a group of students or a group of teenagers just going into the woods and then...dying one after the other," Bloober Team writer Basia Kciuk said in an interview with GameSpot. "But in Blair Witch, we wanted to give the player someone to connect with over the course of the game, someone to care about." It's rare for a horror game to give you companions. A friendly presence can provide a support system and act as a crutch that eases the dread a setting is trying to create, or prove to be an annoyance that needs to be cared for. In Blair Witch, your dog--Bullet--is neither of those.

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Blair Witch is an unsettling game that takes place in the franchise's chilling Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Bullet does provide a nice security blanket with his presence and playful barks. But he's also a guide that ensures you're moving forward instead of remaining stuck in one place or aimlessly wandering around in search of clues about how to proceed. You can command Bullet to seek things out, but he'll also bring back items that both further flesh out the history of the woods you're exploring and remind you of just how creepy the setting is. Though it at first appears random, his misadventures almost always seem to take place in the general direction you're supposed to go--ensuring you're never stuck for too long in any one place.

Bullet feels like an essential component to solving the game's puzzles and surviving the monstrous entities you encounter. For example, during one of Blair Witch's video camera puzzles--fascinating riddles in which you need to rewind, fast-forward, and pause tapes in order to influence your reality and change the environment--Bullet pointed us in the direction of the tape we needed to proceed. And given how dark the woods are in Blair Witch, Bullet's keen senses are essential for figuring out what's real and what's an illusion. "[The witch] is more like this overpowering, otherworldly force that reshapes reality," Kciuk said. "The creatures that attack you in the game are just one of her aspects. They aren't her. That's not her taking physical shape. In the game, the witch just uses everything she has against you and this includes reshaping your reality, your environment, and your mind. Sometimes that means creating monsters that hunt you."

One of the more prominent issues for horror games like Outlast II and Bloober Team's Observer is that their open settings occasionally create moments where you have no idea what you're supposed to do or where you're supposed to go next. Eventually, the monotony of aimlessly wandering around the same area begins to strip away the tension that was built through the creepiness of the setting. In our time with Blair Witch, we moved forward at a steady pace through five parts of the five to six-hour game, and a sense of dread was maintained throughout each one. Four of those five chapters were fairly open, with points where you could freely explore a space, but Bullet was there to encourage us to keep going in the right direction.

Bullet, as an animal, also opens Blair Witch up to mechanics that aren't normally included in first-person survival horror games. Bullet can sniff out and growl in the direction of supernatural threats that you can't see, for example. You don't quite realize how useful he is until the game takes him away from you, and during those brief instances where he's gone, threats you were once comfortable handling become horrifying in new ways.

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"Originally, we were thinking about adding another human being, but in the end, adding another human would be just giving you another set of hands," Kciuk said. "Because, obviously, humans can do what humans do. But dogs have totally different skill sets. So, in the end, it gives you a lot more mechanics. Also, if you have another human, it would be an equal relationship, while here, you have a relationship where sometimes one of you is more useful than the other. Bullet can find things for you but he can't solve puzzles, for example. So you really need to cooperate and communicate with each other to fully utilize your partnership's potential."

This need to rely on Bullet helps build a level of trust between you and your canine companion, one that you get to shape throughout the game. After Bullet does anything, you can choose to praise or scold him. "It's not as easy as just petting him all the time and ensuring everything works out," Kciuk warned. "It's much more subtle, it's a much more complicated system. Just petting him won't do the trick." If you praise Bullet every time he goes off on his own, for instance, he'll do it more often and that might lead him into getting into trouble.

Bloober Team didn't want Bullet's inclusion to transform Blair Witch into a difficult escort mission though--and from what we've seen, the studio seems to have succeeded in steering clear of that outcome. How you treat Bullet merely shapes your relationship throughout the game, so you don't have to worry about making the wrong choice and getting your dog killed. "An annoying partnership is exactly what we wanted to avoid," Kciuk said. "You don't need to always take care of Bullet. For the most part, he's safe, and he won't always be following you. He's more like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. She was very helpful, she was there for you, she had her own personality and was a great character. You cared about her but she didn't require your protection all the time. She was there to help you."

Blair Witch is scheduled to release for Xbox One and PC on August 30. The game was first announced at E3 2019 during the Xbox press conference, where it was revealed to be a part of the same canon as the Blair Witch movies. Blair Witch will be available via Xbox Game Pass on day one.

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