Spoilers for Blair Witch ahead!
I finished Blair Witch this past weekend, playing the way I played the whole game: with my real life chihuahua mix snuggled up to me, in my lap or cuddled up to my chest. Drake didn’t care much about the game, aside from Bullet's—the in-game dog—occasional barks or my own jumps at particularly harrowing moments. But it was very appropriate to have a doggy companion beside me while I played, because inside the game, the doggy companion is the best part.
That’s great, because leaning so hard on a companion character could’ve gone very wrong for developer Bloober Team. You rely on Bullet for a huge chunk of the game: He is your trusty companion, your guide, your protector. In the normal adventure sections, you search for clues and have Bullet sniff evidence and “seek” the next path. He leads you from walking in circles to finally making progress. Combat relies on him entirely, since Bullet can sense the malicious apparitions in the woods long before you can, so watching and listening for the direction he barks in (and shining your flashlight that way) is the only means to survive. You rely on Bullet, and the game is really built around him.
Thankfully, it works. A few minor bugs aside (and mainly, these were just funny/goofy animation bugs), Bullet was much more reliable than my real-life pup. He dutifully sought clues, found things on cue, and protected my ass throughout the 8-hour adventure. I made sure to pet him at every opportunity (there’s a button to pet and a command to scold, and I have no idea what kind of monster would ever use the latter). His usefulness and overall trustworthiness helps to build a bond between the player and the dog.
Not to mention, Bullet is cute. He’s sweet. He does all the good doggy animations you’d expect, rolling in the leaves, snuffling around on the ground, smiling and barking happily when you call for his attention. When you do pet him, the animations are appropriately adorable. He loves having his ears ruffled and his face pet. And the simple fact that he is always with you—as you get lost in the terrifying woods, as the witch and the apparitions and a possible murderer stalk you in the night—it’s going to be ok. You might get out, because Bullet is here, and he loves you. The bond works aesthetically as well as mechanically.
Which is why, in the last quarter of the game, Blair Witch threatened to rip my heart out of my chest and feed it to the witch.
Bullet gets hurt, badly. It’s unclear exactly what happens (as is the case for a few things by the end of the game), but he can’t walk. He cries. Your character picks him up and cradles him, and you walk, slowly (Bullet is a big boy), in a horrifying, P.T.-like death loop in a depressing canyon. Bullet whines and cries in pain in your ear, while your character tries to soothe him.
Bullet cries, you get slower, and the loop continues. Ellis, the main character, begins to despair. All while your buddy, your companion, your very good boy, sounds hurt—and possibly dying—in your ear.
I cradled my own little dog in my arms while I played. “It’s ok Drake,” I told him, and… Drake was fine. A little confused as to why I was starting to well up. But this sequence is maybe the most upsetting I can remember in a game. Yes, I’m affected by a lot of things, I get sad, I well up sometimes in games that hit me right there. But this, cradling my doggy companion as he cried out in pain, for several long, awful minutes. This may be the most.
Just telling my partner about it, she shuddered and said she’d never be able to play the game.
The game’s ending reveals that Bullet survived somehow and got out of the woods ok, in the most GI Joe jumping out of the plane fashion. I think this is mainly so no one goes full John Wick on the devs.
It’s not for nothing though, it’s not animal pain for fun.
This sequence could’ve easily been manipulative as hell. Generally, most people don’t like the sound of an animal in pain (especially one that has been both cute and helpful). But, it does make sense in the context of the narrative. Ellis is a veteran who has fucked up more than once—in his job as a soldier, and again, in his job as a small town cop. Is it new narrative territory, or especially sensitively explored? No. Much of the PTSD angle is ham-fisted, but it does set up a core quandary, and the reason Ellis is here in the woods in the first place. He wants to show that he can be compassionate, to show that he is capable of caring, or doing something other than harm.
Hurting Bullet, and making him carry his best (maybe only?) friend is the witch/evil force in this world making him face his worst fears. It’s unclear if Ellis actually caused harm to the dog in some way, or if the witch did, or if he can no longer tell the difference at this point. And in the game’s worst ending (the one I got!), Ellis succumbs to violence in an even more intense way, taking up the mantle of a killer in the Black Hills forest. A failure at being a human being.
Blair Witch says that this version of Ellis doesn’t deserve Bullet’s undying love. And this gut-wrenching sequence is a test for him and for the player. There are other endings, other ways for Ellis to pass or fail the fundamental test. But I don’t think there’s any other way to play through this portion.
I snuggled Drake extra tight that evening.