Blair Witch studio talks bringing the epic horror experience to Xbox One

Microsoft's E3 2019 press conference was host to a surprise horror unveiling, with Bloober Team providing the first glimpse of its upcoming Blair Witch video game. Previously famed for Layers of Fear and Observer, the studio has mastered transcending the familiar horror tropes, pursuing an experience driven by player mentality.

Blair Witch retains much of Bloober's underlying identity, bringing its genre-defining gameplay with the world of the Blair Witch Project. Fusing intense psychological horror with the series' signature found-footage themes, the game is shaping up as a sleek movie-to-game transition. Headed to Xbox One and PC on August 30, alongside a day-one Xbox Game Pass arrival, we sat down with Bloober Team to discuss the journey so far.

From the big screen, to the living room

Windows Central Xbox Editor, Matt Brown: The reveal of a new Blair Witch game came as a surprise at the Xbox E3 press conference back in June. How did a Blair Witch title come together between Bloober and Lionsgate?

Bloober Team Team Developer, Maciej Glomb: [As] far as I know, it all began when Layers of Fear was in early access on Steam. I feel that Lionsgate really liked what we did with Layers of Fear. As we knew each other before, they thought we could do a good job creating a Blair Witch game. We started this cooperation and, for us, it's the first time that we make someone else's IP. We always did our own things, so it's different. But at the same time, Lionsgate gave us a lot of freedom in what we want to create [and] what we want to portray.

Windows Central: Bloober Team is among the pioneers of horror games now. We saw Observer lean on several tropes first established in Layers of Fear. Is there anything from your existing Bloober DNA that you looked to bring forward?

Maciej Glomb: I think that we took a lot of lessons from other people's games, in a way Layers of Fear was our first big title. For the first psychological horror we did, it was great. But at the same time, people were saying that, you cannot fight, there are no encounter sequences, or that are too many jump scares.

[...] We wanted to develop it further into the Blair Witch game, so that's why we added encounters. That's where we get to play with some new mechanics, like Bullet mechanics, for example. Bullet is the first AI that we ever did in our company. We made it completely from scratch and it was really challenging to do it. Also, the camcorder is a really, really special item, in a way that a lot of puzzles revolve around it. I think that we take a lot of lessons and inspiration from our previous titles. And we want to develop further, get them to new heights.

Windows Central: Was it challenging to balance Blair Witch source material, while still offering your own spin on the universe?

Maciej Glomb: Yeah, as you probably know, the movies are more survival-like. The characters are not that well developed, because [it's] not what the movie about it, right? The movie is about this feeling of being lost in the forest, total dread, and death, this horrifying feeling. And in our games, Observer, Layers of Fear, we always want to focus on the main character, as we did with Dan Lazarski in Observer or the painter in Layers of Fear. From the beginning, we knew that we don't want to make a big cast of characters, like five or six as in the movies. We wanted to focus on Ellis, on his past, on his psyche, and so on.

We also wanted to achieve a feeling of isolation in the forest, so that's why we didn't want to give any other human companions. But we also wanted to give the player someone he needs to take care of. We found the Bullet is the perfect fit, because it's a dog, it's not like a traditional companion. But at the same time, you have a close bond with him.

Windows Central: It's impressive how the Blair Witch game addresses the "found footage" traits of the films. Was it sizeable undertaking to retain this with real-time horror gameplay?

Maciej Glomb: Yeah, in our first iteration, the camcorder was only used as a tool to know about past events. You found tapes and you could see events that transpired before. It works well in the movie, but it doesn't really work in a game. Players need to have some to do basically, you need to immerse them. You don't want to be watching videos.

We wanted to revolve something around the camcorder. That's when we invented this mechanic, fast-forwarding, rewinding tapes, wanting to change your environment. I think that also merges with what we did on our previous games in a way, we always excelled at ever-changing environments. Also, it's fun because it gives you this feeling of achieving something, some people call it this 'aha' moment. That's something that maybe our games lacked in the past.

Windows Central: You're also utilizing larger open areas this time around. How does this change from your more confined experiences of the past?

Maciej Glomb: [When] we've got all these small rooms and corridors, you can hide the changing environment pretty well. This time, when you want to achieve this feeling of looping across levels, you can't really make it where players will see the transition. So it's really hard because there's an open space around you. Every tree, every little bush, or ways [through] the forest need to change in a way that you won't see it. It was hard, because in corridors, in small rooms, you can really drag people's attention into a certain place.

Windows Central: Where in the existing Blair Witch franchise did you draw inspiration from?

Maciej Glomb: I think we took inspiration from all of it. We took the whole lore, put it in one big bin, and tried to pick out the pieces. We also took inspiration from various different found footage movies, such as Paranormal Activity.

Windows Central: Did you look back at the original trilogy of games from the early 2000s too?

Maciej Glomb: Yeah, these games are different from ours, they're third-person if I remember correctly? So yes and no. We mostly focus on first-person games, like we took a lot of inspiration from Outlast, because of, obviously, the camcorder. We also took a lot of inspiration from Firewatch, for example. It's not a horror game, but it's a heavily story-driven game.

Windows Central: You're also taking some risks. Games and movies have traditionally had a complicated relationship, sometimes losing an identity in translation. Did you have anything in mind to avoid common missteps with Blair Witch?

Maciej Glomb: I think that, for sure, we didn't want to stretch the game too much. Because I think that, horror [games] are great when they are this really compact experience. They're not to stretch out because firstly, the jump scares can get repetitive. Secondly, the atmosphere is almost always really heavy, really tough. So the players also can get frustrated or exhausted through the atmosphere. Of course, we can't make an hour and a half game, like the movie. We wanted to make it not too short but not too long, so it's a really good experience for two evenings for you.

Windows Central: How did the Xbox console debut for this game come together?

Maciej Glomb: I'm not too sure if I'm honest because I wasn't there talking about the details. I think what we really wanted to aim [for] is that Xbox doesn't have that [many] story-driven games? It is much less than, for example, PS4? So we wanted to hit that target. We're right now focusing on Xbox and PC. But we're not saying that we won't release the game on other platforms.

Windows Central: What do you feel Xbox Game Pass means for Blair Witch?

Maciej Glomb: I think it's also great for us as a company and as a brand because obviously, Microsoft wants to promote the game on Game Pass. So that also gives us a huge opportunity to be present in the community. [...] Two years ago, during the E3, Microsoft had this 60-second reel with all the indie games. We had, like, one and a half seconds for Observer, and [we went from] these seconds, two years ago, to make a full trailer.

Windows Central: Xbox Project xCloud game streaming will also soon be a key aspect of Microsoft's gaming efforts. What do you think it means for your games, and the horror genre?

Maciej Glomb: I'm not sure. Because I feel that horror games are best experienced in a dark room when you're alone with headphones on. And I imagine you have a situation where you ride the bus to play Layers of Fear, Resident Evil, or something else. It doesn't really click with me but, who knows?

Enter the woods this August

From our initial hands-on with Blair Witch ahead of launch, the upcoming horror adaption has emerged as a distinctly Bloober Team experience. That's far from a burden, with the Polish team a praised and proven horror authority across its two Layers of Fear installments and the cyberpunk twist of Observer. Melding its deep-rooted formula of player disorientation and atmospheric tension with the indie film classic, Blair Witch could be a promising revival of the illustrious universe.

Blair Witch is slated to hit Xbox One and PC on August 30, alongside an Xbox Game Pass day-one debut. In the meantime, the game is now available for preorder, priced at $30.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.