There are more perspectives than you might think on the ‘scary’ aspects of horror games among those that play them. Of course there are those for whom the mounting suspense and jump scares, and the cathartic thrill they provide, are the whole point. But there are others who find such things get in the way of the genre’s often gripping, smartly executed narratives. I used to be in the latter camp until I found a way to cope with playing Resident Evil 4.
The fourth entry in Capcom’s genre-defining horror series takes you to a nameless rural village in Spain, in search of the President’s daughter Ashley Graham. The remains of the grey town are smothered in dense fog and the decapitated remains of its unlucky farmers. The eerie atmosphere is enthralling, though for me it proved too much – and in an effort to defy it, I would play the game in broad daylight to an external soundtrack of Blink-182. ‘Feeling This’ I was not, but I would, soon enough.
My coping mechanisms allowed me to ease myself into the game at my own pace. Eventually I found myself deep within its ominous castle, feeling no need to brighten its gloomy environs with my real-life ones – it was pitch black outside, with nary a fizzy pop-punk power chord to be heard.
Since then, I’ve come to love the atmosphere of a good horror game. As I play through Blair Witch, however, I reflect on my initial terror of Resident Evil 4, and consider that Blair Witch’s dog, Bullet, could provide newcomers to the genre with some necessary momentary respite.
Blair Witch takes you to the real village of Burkittsville, Maryland circa 1994, and puts you in the shoes of Ellis, a former policeman and war veteran. It’s quickly apparent that he has suffered some trauma – though he finds the concern of his friends and colleagues frustrating rather than comforting. Ellis is keen to show he can still be useful and effective, and wants to help track down a boy who has gone missing in the notorious Black Hills Forest. After a wrong turn leads him astray, Ellis must finally confront his past as the woods thicken with supernatural terror.
Right by your side during all of this is Ellis’ dog, Bullet, in whom he takes great comfort. Should Bullet stray too far, your screen will go fuzzy, Ellis’ heart will race, his breathing will sharpen. You can’t spend five minutes on social media these days without being deluged by memes illustrating the soothing effects of animals, and fittingly one of the most important ways you can interact with Bullet is by calling him over and stroking him behind the ears. As the suspense and terror escalate, the simple act of petting your dog can offer you and Ellis a moment’s distraction from what’s lurking in the distance. You can also order the brave German Shepherd to stay close to you, if it makes you feel more at ease.
That’s not to say that Bullet is merely there to offer something cute to fuss over for a few seconds. Your loyal companion also sniffs out clues and will lead you in the right direction to move the game forward. A large part of Blair Witch is spent wandering around looking for items to further the plot, so Bullet can come in handy if you’re ever at a loose end, or have just lost patience.
Other creatures also inhabit these woods, and will try their best to creep up on you and ‘pet’ you in their own way (that is, kill you). They move swiftly, and the only way to scare them off is to shine a torch in their direction. Bullet also comes to your rescue here, as he’ll bark to alert you when they’re close, and will even face the direction from which they’re approaching – giving an in-game cue to help you survive the night.
Your pupper pal needs some looking after, however, and you’ll soon have to wean yourself off his help in order to train him properly. Petting him will encourage his behaviour in that given moment, while scolding him has the opposite effect. If he’s running too far ahead, and you call him back to pet him, he’ll continue to run off. As I come to understand this, I make sure he knows not to stray too far, for fear that something lurking in the woods will evade him and surprise me.
There’s plenty more of Maryland’s forests for me to explore, and more of Ellis’s past for me to uncover. As this is a horror story, I fully expect Bullet to go missing at some point as the game seeks to tear my canine comfort blanket from under me. When that happens, though, I think I’ll be ready for it – ready to go and get my best boy back, anyway. And for anyone else who’s been curious about horror games but not felt ready to leap into the dark, Bullet is the reason Blair Witch is a great place to start. He’s an in-game ray of sunshine and blast of Blink-182.