By John Walker on November 18th, 2008 at 11:48 am.
This is an ode to a strange, huddled creature. A crying, singing, tangle of ragged limbs and ferocious eyes. Terrifyingly deadly, and yet so distressingly vulnerable. Left 4 Dead’s Witch is unparalleled for me amongst all of gaming’s enemies, more frightening and fascinating than any before. She is pure fear.
I feel little more is necessary to demonstrate this than to recount a typical encounter. It inevitably works something like this:
The four of you are in the middle of a fray. Perhaps walking down a railway track in the open air. The game has chosen to spring hordes of Infected on you from three sides, and you stand together, huddled, protecting each other from the constant waves of crazed undead. The music is swelling to accompany the onslaught, and concentration on any one aspect is constantly torn away by the surprise pouncing of a Hunter, or one of your team being drawn away by the tongue of a Smoker. It’s intense, and you think about nothing other than simply surviving, hoping for a pause and time to recover. But then someone says, their voice slightly halted, “Can anyone hear a Witch?”
You strain to listen, trying to pick out someone other than the cacophony of music and screams and frothing gurgles of zombie attackers. And somewhere amongst it all, just about, you can perhaps hear the tail of that terrible song.
It changes the mood immediately. Before it was simply a case of shoot everything that wasn’t a teammate. Suddenly bullets can no longer go stray. Cars alarms cannot be triggered. Explosions cannot be caused. Somewhere near you is a Witch, and you’ve no idea where. Panic begins.
As the battle begins to wane, the song becomes more clear. And then the sobbing is heard. In the relative calm you can begin to work out whereabouts she might be, her aimless wail coming from a specific place. She’s somewhere down the tracks, sitting beside a derailed container, her back toward you. She’s staring down the tracks you need to follow. Rocking and staring.
The order is inevitably shouted by one player. “Switch off your torch!” One person who has yet to spot where she sits ignores it, swinging the beam around wildly. The other three scream together, “TURN OFF YOUR TORCH!” Then a plan is formulated.
“Okay, look. If we go behind the container, we don’t need to go anywhere near her. We can stick to the far left of the tracks and just keep going. No one hesitate, no one turn around.”
Then the scene plays out in two ways.
1) Everyone backs up, moves to the left, and hurries past the container, past the Witch, and far farther down the track than she could ever see, before relaxing, her song finally too distant to be heard.
2) Someone in your group says it will be easier just to kill her. There’s no changing their mind, and you’re forced to stick together. To carry on would be to leave them to die alone, and you need them with you. So you relent, and two people agree to offer back up, while a third stays back to pick off any oncoming Infected. With their shotgun they sneak up behind the Witch. It ends two ways.
a) They fire a series of rounds directly into her back. She screams, flails out, but collapses dead. This is rarely true.
b) In a moment of fear, the would-be attacker hesitates for a split second. It’s too long. The Witch springs up from her haunches, whirling around with her claw-hands immediately sunk into the player’s flesh, as everyone begins frantically emptying their ammo into her. She screeches and tears, lashing and lashing and lashing, until the player is dead. The others finish her off, and stare at the two dead bodies lying on the floor as the next wave of Infected pour in.
The Witch is to be avoided. That’s incredible alone. Who designs a character for gamers to never go near? Who spends the time to create the most terrifying creature imaginable, and doesn’t impose it on players? Well, clearly Valve. The temptation to have her be aggravated from great distances, to force her to attack when encountered, must have been there. But then she’d have lost her power. Her power comes from just sitting there. It’s that benign, ragged, vulnerable form. It’s the combination of singing and crying. Oh God, the singing and crying.
I asked Valve’s Chet Faliszek about this. He told me,
“It has been odd to make a character that we wanted to look scary, threatening and cool; but that you should avoid looking at. I think this is where her audio becomes so important. Once you know her voice, that moaning and wailing build her up more than even seeing her. Hearing players in the demo whisper when they hear the witch but don’t yet see here let’s us know it must be working.”
Crying is so evocative. It’s a familiar tactic in horror. A sound of fear and innocence perverted. It’s a distress signal, and our response should be to look for who is in trouble. To help them. BioShock teaches us to help the crying children. Life teaches us that. Our biology instructs us to do it. And here we’re reeling in fear at the sound. We back away from it, reroute to avoid it. It’s already just wrong.
Then that song. A far more simple reaction: it’s a fearful melody, attacking with its minor key. Haunting, and floating, and too near. Hiding it behind the ruckus, making it something we have to strain to pick out, trains us to constantly worry it might be there right now and we’ve yet to notice it. It becomes a tune we can start to imagine, picking out a note from the white noise and filling in the gaps with our imagination. It can be heard outside of the game, in any muffled noise.
Thief 3’s zombie guards within The Cradle had previously been the gaming enemy of which I was most scared. Their fractured walk, contorted masks, and gross parody of a mental patient was a horrible sight. I remember my reaction to them: just running. They were too terrible to do anything else. A flash bomb might keep them off you, but that would mean looking right at them as they stumbled toward you, and my visceral response was too powerful to contend with that. Out of revulsion I would spin the mouse and run through the barred rooms, any attempts at subtlety and sneaking in shadows abandoned.
The Witch holds the same power. She is an enemy I have no intention of fighting. But she scares me more by simply sitting still. The Cradle’s inhabitants made their threat apparent. The Witch sits and stares, her brown/gold eyes piercing. That look, when I’m trying to find her, and I stumble upon the room in which she’s sat, and her head turns toward me and I see those eyes… it’s just ridiculous panic. I have to get a hold of myself and remember how to operate a mouse before I can pull myself away from the glare.
She casts no spells. She possesses no apparent magic powers. She does not cackle, and she certainly does not wear a pointed hat. No cats surround her. She throws no runes. She shuffles no bones. But she is a Witch. The most terrifying form imaginable. For God’s sake, turn off your flashlight, stop firing toward those cars, and just walk past. And whatever you do, don’t turn around to look.