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Burn The Witch

1st Person Horror 1st Person Horror

A Game about Breaking Up

Engine: Unreal Engine 5
Genre: Horror
Target Platform: Windows PC
Target Audience: Independent Game Players

Burn The Witch is a first-person body-cam horror game that throws the player into the deep end of a haunted island in the second quarter of 2004.

Tasked with hunting down a Succubus by the Paranormal Investigation Bureau, the experience tasks the player with tracking down four key items across a contained sandbox which is traversable via a blend of vehicular and on-foot gameplay.

After these four items are discovered and collected, the player will be able to summon the target and turn in their mission. However, along the journey and notably the crux of the player’s state of affairs, the game will demand a reassessment of the narrative in order to solve the final puzzle and conclude the harrowing adventure.

Concept & Pitch

During our ideation period at Idiom Creations, we kicked around the idea of exploring the horror genre with a compelling narrative hook.

This led me to draft a pitch deck which featured concepts such as a first-person body-cam, first-person shooting and driving..

We took these ideas further, which then eventually landed us with exploration, combat and puzzle solving as our central gameplay pillars. .

These were conventional action horror principles, which gave us room to iterate on these existing ideas with our own aesthetic and spin..

We still wanted the game to have a message and leave the player thinking about their experience.

With our core pillar set in place, we felt that it was natural to find a story in the mechanics. After brainstorming, this then led me to pitch a story proposal to the team: the entire game would be in service to letting go of a traumatic separation with a past lover. The idea had ways to connect level events and puzzles to the five stages of getting over a break-up.

From a second-to-second lens, this metaphor carries over onto how the player uses the car, the "Witch", to progress along the game. We had purposefully made every interaction with The Witch meaningful, and made the player feel dependent on the car itself.

This was shown through only allowing the player to pick up ammo from the back of the car, and to only view objective markers while in the driver’s seat. The necessity of the player needing to use the vehicle in order to make traversal much easier between key locations of our sandbox also fuelled this metaphor. With this dependency in mind, we would hold that card close to our chest until the end level event that takes place after the following:

The anger stage would find the player in an enclosed environment - yet awarded with the shotgun, "Sol Invictus", and low-health enemies in their path. This allowed us to let the player feel confident and blow off steam, giving them a sense of adrenaline which juxtaposed the other level events.

The depression stage would take place in a maze, allowing the player to feel paranoid about their place in the environment with every corner posing a threat that was never there. They would then catch the "light at the end of the tunnel" and find their way out, relieved, after picking up a game progressing item.

The bargaining stage would introduce a new non-player character called "The Reaper" and would ask the player to find items in the area in order to receive something back in return. Wrong items would punish the player with enemies spawning in the area, yet the right item would grant the player a key item needed to progress.

The denial stage would introduce an enemy type that would only attack if the player were to look away, "denying" its existence. This was then thrown into a level with dark corners, which would create a dynamic of the player needing to focus both on the enemy as well as their path to the end of the puzzle.

The final stage, acceptance, was designed to make the player rethink their entire journey.

Bringing the game full circle, the player finds out that after summoning the final boss, The Succubus, they cannot deal damage. Through audio and visual cues, as well as clues planted firmly into the intro to the game, the player will have to deduce that they will have to “burn the Witch” - they would have to drive the car over the campfire in order to progress the game. This meant that the player would have to sacrifice the one last gift bestowed on our player character, Caleb, by his ex-partner, Chelsea. Having these systems locked in place, and having various play-testers respond positively on both a game and narrative level, we felt that we had achieved our goal in bringing these two threads to a satisfying knot, crystalising the experience and leaving the player in deep thought.

Narrative & Game Design

Camera, Control & Character

We needed a consistent “framing” of the experience to unify the systems of driving, on-foot exploration and combat together to create a consistent immersive world.

The choice of a body-cam aesthetic had allowed for an intimate experience required to tell an intimate story. We then let this element bleed over to driving - resulting in the choice for having a dash-cam perspective for gameplay in The Witch, a choice that had resonated fairly with testers and players alike.

With camera choices set in stone, I then opted to have the player not feel too nauseated with the shaky cam effects in the game. This meant that in gameplay, the camera would not feel overly cumbersome, but have just enough of an effect to allow room for the sensitivity of the player character.

I then disabled the wobbling in pivotal moments such as aiming down sights and the wind-up animation for melee-ing.

For control, I followed the tradition of several first-person shooters, but decided to let the player accelerate with W while driving the Witch. Although it seemed like a small choice, it was critical in merging the gameplay between Caleb and the vehicle. control Caleb and The Witch using controller support that offered various degrees of rumbling depending on specific player action. Although our shipped game is only accessible through keyboard and mouse, I do not feel that learning more about gamepad implementation on Unreal Engine 5 was a waste of time, and plan on utilising it in future projects.

We looked into how often players would be leaving the vehicle and take on puzzles or explore certain areas of the map, and discovering that switching between the two systems was frequent. Thematically, we also wanted The Witch to feel like its own living breathing character. With these things in mind, the choice to make vehicle controls similar to on-foot controls felt very appropriate.

Another method needed for consistency and immersion were post processing effects to help “sell” the found footage angle of the game. The post processing was an iterative process, as I learned how to set up these systems as we went along throughout development. Our final rendition for our post processing was the most favoured internally and through feedback in playtest sessions.

Originally, we had designed our game with controller support in mind. Cancelled near the end of development, I had gone far enough to have the player

In our original design documents, a “Beastiary” was conceived in order to help the player understand the context of their situation should they require the need to. We didn’t want to hold the player’s hand, however we also wanted to avoid ignoring a player’s desire to further immerse themselves in the world of Burn The Witch.

As I also handed the user-interface of the game, this let me design and develop a “Beastiary” system and write for locations, characters, tools, enemies and excerpts of lore put into the “The Case” section of the log system.

This also allowed room for placing clues into the story as well as deeper perspectives to what Caleb is experiencing. For example, our Personnel section has an archive/recycling bin folder, which Chelsea’s character profile rests in - showing that Caleb had put it there himself prior to the game’s start, allowing players to fuel the idea that Caleb’s state of mind is in deep grief.

Another example of this is the optional briefing logs the player could read. The briefing features redacted statements in a conversation between Caleb and his handler, Vic Garcia. The redacted statements showcase a more informal and sensitive side of the conversation, and even implies that taking The Witch, a painful reminder of Caleb’s past relationship, seems to be a risky move.

With seeds of narrative blended into necessary gameplay information, playtesters found themselves more grounded in the world of Burn The Witch, which then further enhanced gameplay and even the reading of environmental storytelling.

Although not part of the original design document, Caleb would end up having text monologue appear at certain parts of the map. This was due to player’s in test sessions wanting more of a helping hand at certain parts of the story.

At first, as a writer and designer, I was conflicted. We felt that the story should be read in between the mechanics. However we also wanted players to experience this narrative in a unique way. This angle let me guide the player from a narrative angle, with a system that would fall in-line with the aesthetics of the game more neatly.

I designed a typewriting effect with every key incrementally added after one another, with a random keystroke sound to add authenticity. As a small studio, it was near impossible to find voice talent with a game on restricted budgets, and we felt that this method was unique and creative as narratively, Caleb would be writing his experience down in his log as he went along.

I then went ahead and wrote lines of monologue from the start of the playable experience to the very end. The result of this design was firmly approved by testers soon after, and we ended up with a stronger narrative as a result.

User Interface & Sound

Collaborated With:

Steven Huzzey - Level Design and Marketing
Jack Roostey - Programming
Jasmine Brasil Santos - Composer

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