The Season Of The Witch

By John Walker on November 18th, 2008 at 11:48 am.

It's quite hard to find a grab of the Witch on my hard drive that doesn't have Alec being attacked by her.

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?”

Valve's screenshot, not mine.

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.”

BAMBAMBAMBAM!

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.

Getting deliberately attacked for screenshots is funny.

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.

Poor lady.

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.

Eek.

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.

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149 Comments »

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  1. Ian says:

    And yet… I always find myself moving closer, just to have a better look at her.

    It seldom ends well.

  2. Mark-P says:

    She’s a great monster, and her music que is awesome.
    Unfortunately, since the game respawns players after a short period and she only seemed to kill one player before scampering (hilariously) off, her impact is rather lessened.
    She wasn’t too frightening in the demo on expert, especially compared to ‘Oh S**t – TANK! RUN!’. Is she more of a danger in the full version?

  3. cullnean says:

    random dude

    “wft dont be a gay ill kil it lol”

    rest of team

    “We can do it with 3? cant we?”

  4. Ian says:

    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.

    Dead right. I was just saying about this in one of the Fallout threads. I was in one of the maintenance sections underground in a train station when I hear a baby crying. I spot a pram and my first reaction was to wonder what kind of monster could leave a baby in such an environment. Of course I ran around to the open end of the pram and saw no baby, but got a face full of bomb and out came the stimpacks. I was impressed that the game had lured me into that without making me even think about what I was doing.

    But yeah….

    The witch is horrible. Even in normal mode I’d pull up short of the witch, though luckily I’ve yet to catch the brunt of her wrath, with me not having disturbed her. Yet.

    The worst was when my group were running through the train station and you get to the part where (I think) you can ONLY go through the carriage. Regardless, that’s the way we were going and there she is. On the carriage floor, unavoidable. Sobbing quietly to herself.

  5. Ginger Yellow says:

    “BioShock teaches us to help the crying children”

    That or kill them and harvest their precious, precious Adam.

  6. jay says:

    great article

  7. mister slim says:

    It’s an interesting co-opting of our survival instincts that something in a videogame, which we know on an intellectual level cannot hurt us, can still trigger such a strong automatic reaction.

    Anyway, yeah, that cry freaks me out.

  8. Kan3da says:

    Just finished the first campaign with friends. This if definately my game of the year. Just getting ready to tackle the second one. We still got one slot free so if any of you guys wants to join add me: E.E. Kan3da. Im in the group. Were all about the teamplay and got a dedicated server. Having a witch and a tank at the same time just gave us 3 heart attacks. Back to the slaughter. Oh and if you thought expert is easy. Think again. We decided to enjoy the campaigns in advanced first.

  9. Lu-Tze says:

    Witch in front of the Safe Room door = Director hates me.

  10. tackle says:

    Yet I still fear the tank more.

    The witch can be killed with strategy and tactics.
    So can the tank, but you need so much more of it, and even more so you need luck. And a molotov.

  11. The Colonel says:

    This game seems to be much much better if one approaches it with a bit of imagination and treats it as if you were really attempting to survive a zombie infestation. It is sadly too easy to play it as any other FPS, especially an online FPS and then the game loses all of its edge and horror. I found the witch to be a magnificent idea and truely inspired me to fear the first time I encountered her, but as Mark-P pointed out, even on Expert there isn’t really enough of an incentive to avoid her completely. Hopefully the higher difficulties will be more challenging in the real game. It would be nice to see melee attacks never kill a zombie on the higher dif levels. The frantic panic of bitchslapping zombies with the butt of your gun while you shove cartridges into your shotgun is unsurpassed, until you have reloaded your gun and discover that the hoarde you were apparently only just holding off is all dead on the floor around you because your melee is pretty much as effective as a bullet. There are sections of the game which are in fact easier to do with melee rather than guns, bosses aside. These aside, the game is going to be amazing by the looks of it.

  12. Feet says:

    I must say the witch has a greater psychological impact on me than any other zombie in L4D, what with the stolen glances towards the huddled shape in the half-light of a corner, and the reaction to the music and distant weeping.

    However, since I know she’s usually reasonably easily avoidable (unless the bastard Director sticks her infront of a doorway you need to go through), I find I have a far greater SHIT FUCKING RUUUUN reaction to the appearance of the Tank which can kill everyone.

    Also the Witch will tend to kill the one person who startled it and then scarper without attacking anyone else, even if you chase it.

    Tank > Witch for inducing genuine fear for me.

  13. phil says:

    The first leadhead in Bioshock, the one crying over a pram which contains her blood stained revolver and the silent plaster covered splicers pretending to be manniquins in the flooded hanger, are pretty unsettling. The scissorman in Clocktower deserves an honorable mention too.

  14. phuzz says:

    In the demo the witch kept ending up next to the minigun, except one time when she was upstairs in front of the safe house door. I decided that I could probably lob a moltov over my friends heads, onto the witch and still have time to run away laughing as she tore into them.
    Nope.
    I was on the floor having chunks ripped out of me in seconds, and funnily my mates didn’t want to help much…
    I can imagine she’s even more scary in badly lit sections.

  15. toni says:

    rps seems too easily impressed by one of the most UN-scary and most EASY opponents of this game. during a fight avoid it, when having time and she sits in the way: shoot her.
    I played L4d on expert and the only 2 really hard things are: zombie waves together with at least 3 special zombies AND the tank. the witch is just like a boobytrap you already know to avoid and gets boring quick.

  16. Tei says:

    Thats not totally new.

    There was a mod for Quake1 with a character like that. The mod is terrible obscure, because only a few Inside3D players got it and played it.

    The mod was like that:

    A dark room. A small figure (strange daisy shape?) looking somewhere. You go near that figure, If you disturbe it, he or she looks at you cryiing loudly and killing you.

    “Not to be disturbed monster” is a freaking cool monster, and is colllosally right on a coop game. Is a genius to reinvent that monster, and is a genius to reinvent that monster for a coop game.

  17. Meat Circus says:

    John is a big girl’s blouse.

    The worst thing about Witches is the creepy music. On Normal they’re really not especially hard work to down.

    Perhaps they’re a *little* tougher on higher difficulties.

  18. Neuromante says:

    There’s a problem with that monster.
    It’s not the concept, wich it’s just awesome, but the same gameplay. Of course, a witch near an “action” zone must be feared and avoided, of course when she appears everybody gets scared, and of course the ambientation -music, lights, etc- it’s just awesome for that feared moment, but if you have a hunting rifle and enough space between she and you, there are no major problem. Also, if your team members are fine on health and nobody does nothing stupid, the Witch it’s dead meat in few seconds with the other weapons.
    She eats a lot of bullets, but ammunnition doesn’t looks like a major problem with the “all-ammo-you-can-get-free” tables, she can kill you with a touch, but she don’t relly “kill” you, just left you in the floor, shooting the pistols.

    I agree with those who say “Tank > Witch”, just because a Tank involves a REAL danger, a BIG -literally- problem for your team, and the fact that you have to deal with it.
    The witch makes better ambientation -and I prefeer it to the killing zombiefest that it’s left 4 dead-, but the tank makes you say “Oh shit, tank, shit, shit, shit, shit”.

  19. karthik says:

    Playing the demo online wasn’t exactly conducive to witch-avoidance.

    I would either get coupled with Korean players who don’t speak English, or folks who would take the time to type “witch lol”, shine their flashlights at it and run away, leaving me as their sacrifice. L4D was my first multiplayer game in a long time; griefing ruined the experience. What does one do when one does not know three other sane, sportive non-jerks who own the game?

    Even in the rare sessions where some semblance of team work existed, the Tank was a much more panic inducing foe than the wailing booby trap. Heck, a Tank once tore through the safe-room door, causing mass hysteria.

  20. Ian says:

    The tank is scary in as much as it’s the most likely to splatter your entire team and things get brilliantly hectic when you’re trying to stop it from doing so. But it doesn’t weird me out or bother me in the way that the witch does at times. After all, it’s not like other FPSes haven’t ever had nigh-invulnerable damage sponges.

    I would say the tank is better gameplay was because it’s obviously more of a challenge, but a well-placed witch can entirely change the mood of a scene for me.

    Of course all this could change once I get my greasy paws on the full game. :)

  21. Catastrophe says:

    Anyone yet came across a Tank player? I’m at work so haven’t got to play the full version yet and was wondering how effective a Tank player are.

    Infact, I’d generally like to know how Versus matches play-out.

  22. Ian says:

    @ Catastrophe: Me too. I expect RPS will write something about it in the near future.

  23. Dinger says:

    The tank doesn’t change how you go about playing the game; it changes the game (on the full version, do all the other zombies still disappear when the tank shows up?). Your team gives up a lot of ground in defending, or it dies.

    The witch isn’t hard to “defeat” — if everything’s calm and nobody’s an idiot, nobody’s going to die. But things have a habit of not staying calm. The best way of surviving the witch — no flashlights, no explosions, no firing wildly — also happens to be the worst way to survive a zombie rush. And when you’ve got a ton of common infected charging you, the last thing you want is that thing screaming through the pack, causing out-of-body experiences.

  24. kert says:

    Ok, so how does it stack up against playing System Shock 2 alone in the dark hall ?

  25. Meat Circus says:

    @kert:

    Less jibbly-jibbly, more hummus.

  26. Meat Circus says:

    @John:

    Since you only get to play the Tank randomly and itermittently, I think they were asking “has anyone been accosted by a human-controlled tank yet, and were they shit?”

    Which seems a fair enough question.

  27. Magic says:

    Im with the general Tank > Witch.
    The difference is, fighting a Witch is a game of not loosing the control, fighting the Tank on the other hand is all about get in control.
    The average Team can kill a Tank without problems if they manage to get in control. And a witch can be avoided. Sometimes.

    So concluding from that a tank is harder to kill because it is a defensive situation whereas a witch is a offensive situation.

    Hm… I may not be that important whatsoever. The Director is the enemy I fear.

  28. Hermit says:

    @karthik
    Join the PCG steam chat. There’s a bunch of us who are (relatively) sportive, non-jerks who own the game. We’ve got 3 or 4 private servers up and running too, so no randoms.

    Can’t help you on the sane part, I’m afraid.

  29. Meat Circus says:

    The AI director is like GLaDOS only less lovable. And with no way to kill the psychotic fuck.

  30. Paul Moloney says:

    “but if you have a hunting rifle…”

    I’ve never picked up the rifle as it seems to me that L4D is not a game condusive to standing off at a distance, sniping. Can this actually be done??

    I’m a shotgun man meself.

    P.

  31. Heliocentric says:

    Eyes email inbox for amazon dispatch.

    I’ve yet to play this on anything even resembeling a gaming pc, hope its pretty.

  32. Dante says:

    “Heck, a Tank once tore through the safe-room door, causing mass hysteria.”

    That. Is. Brilliant.

  33. Dante says:

    @ Paul

    I’ve used the rifle a bit in the demo, firing from the hip is reasonably effective against a crowd of zombies. It strikes me as being something with a lot of use in a well disciplined team, with one man using it to pick off special zombies from a distance while the rest of the team unload on anything close.

  34. Flint says:

    Paul: the rifle’s not really a sniper weapon though you can use it for that. It shoots as fast as you can click the mouse and being nicely powerful, it’s a pretty good way to keep yourself alive.

  35. Malagate says:

    Hmm, whilst the scoped rifle can be used in that way, to use it like that is a waste when you could be using the M16 or the auto-shotty.

    Everytime I’ve seen the team take up up scoped rifles they’ve ended in tragedy, and indeed the one time I picked one up it was only bad news for my team mates. I remember the moaning about newbies with shotguns in a previous RPS thread, to me the scoped rifle is the true anti-newbie weapon.

    Certainly something that potentially could work brilliantly within a well co-ordinated team, in most random mis-mashes of players it’s nigh on suicidal, as to use the scope you’ll really need covering fire for anything that flanks and to not use it with the scope you may as well be taking the M16.

  36. Nameykins says:

    The hunting rifle also seems to kill all regular zombies with one hit anywhere, unscoped. A good twitch-aiming player can probably kill more zombies with it than any other weapon. (Or at least in the demo, haven’t yet bought the release version.)

  37. Kieron Gillen says:

    The Sniper-rifle is basically the rail-gun.

    KG

  38. Ian says:

    @ John (W): I won’t lie, I’d forgotten that for that you’d been playing with all the levels, etc. But I was also interested in the answer to the tank question.

  39. Pags says:

    Witches are pure comedy when you set them on fire. If having a screaming sack o’ bones with a terrible manicure flapping it’s hands wildly at you isn’t enough, having that sack o’ bones come at you engulfed in flames will do it for you.

  40. solomun says:

    Eh, it’s just a landmine in excellently designed clothing. Scary at first but I’ve killed half a dozen in the demo now. Knowledge conquers fear.

  41. StormTec says:

    Random asides, as it doesn’t seem like everyone’s aware:

    The witch kills instantly on expert mode. That is kills, as opposed to downs. That is regardless of your health/death strike status.

    The sniper rifle is one-hit kill on normal zombies (seems to do high damage per shot, I guess?). It also has a high penetration factor, i.e. it shoots through walls (or at least some of them), from what I can tell. This also counts for zombies. I killed at least 3 zombies in a line (they were bunched up inside the train, running down the car towards me) with a single shot. Now tell me the M16 is better =P

  42. Pags says:

    I also let a witch into the safe room once. I damn near busted a lung laughing, watching her bump into walls and flailing wildly while we all rushed around the table trying to get away.

  43. Magic Toast says:

    “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”.

    So very true. Great article

  44. Ginger Yellow says:

    “There are sections of the game which are in fact easier to do with melee rather than guns, bosses aside”

    To be fair, this is canon. According to the Zombie Survival Guide, the single best anti-zombie weapon is a trench spike, followed closely by a monk’s spade.

  45. John Walker says:

    Being the Tank is tremendous fun. It’s a special treat when the message appears on screen. The delivery is fairly simple. Beat on the Survivors until they take you down. I think anything more subtle undoes the amount of damage you can deliver, which is what it’s all about.

    But they’re still a Tank, so the tactics to defeat them are much the same. Shoot until they fall.

  46. Ian says:

    I take it you can still punch out pillars and such as the AI ones do (or I think I saw a tank do so in the demo)? Not that it would spoil the fun of smacking people right in their stupid puny heads, but if there was stuff you can destroy to add to the effect as you thunder towards them. :D

  47. Saul says:

    I played a tank tonight. It was kind of awkward, the first time, but it was satisfying when I laid out a survivor. Even more when I picked up a huge hunk of rock and hurled it.

  48. Dave says:

    The tank may be more dangerous than the witch, but not more scary. You can beat the witch if prepared, though it is smarter to just avoid her and not use up your resources. But you are never prepared for the tank.

    The witch just adds that bit of emotion to the game. I wonder what she is mourning; is it a child, her own condition, the entire tragedy of the zombie apocalypse, or is it just crocodile tears meant to unsettle you or lure you in?

  49. muscrat says:

    ….and its articles like this that make RPS AWESOME ;)