Games

'Witch Hunt': The Elegance of Orchestrating Chaos

Recently stumbling onto the tower defense game, Witch Hunt, feels to me like stumbling back into the arcade era.

Stumbling onto Witch Hunt over at NewGrounds felt like stumbling back into the arcade era. Though I felt the sense that I was playing something from that era almost immediately, it was initially difficult for me to put a finger on why.

Witch Hunt is at its core a tower defense game, a genre of video game that I associate with the last ten years or so, not the video games of the 1980s. Instead, I see the tower defense game as appearing with the arrival of Flash games and iOS as a gaming platform. The tower defense game typically asks the player to be responsible for creating defenses against an encroaching horde of “creeps.” An army of creatures will advance to destroy a central base, and your job is to manage the battlefield by strategically placing towers of various sorts (some may fire quickly and do a bit of damage, some may fire slowly but cause a great deal of damage, some might simply slow the oncoming creeps, etc.) to stop them. Destroying creeps provides money that allows you to purchase more towers or to upgrade towers. Your business is as a field commander managing the economics of a battle.

Yet, Witch Hunt is on one level a boiled down version of tower defense. There is only one tower in the game and one thing to defend, yourself, standing on top of that tower. This is a game in which you never move. You, as the witch, stand atop a crystal tower on the left side of the screen. Creeps of various sorts, goblins, zombies, minotaurs, and dragons appear on the right, and you have to stop them from reaching you and doing damage to your tower. You can shoot them, and, well, that's all you can do.

You do have three ways of shooting them, though. You can throw fireballs, fire shards of ice, or strike them with lightning bolts. At the most basic level, fire does damage to creeps, ice does a little damage to creeps, but it slows them, lightning does a lot of damage to creeps, but it is inaccurate.

There is an additional layer to the game as it does acknowledge the economic management that is usually a a central part of the genre, but unlike most tower defense games, in which managing your resources quickly is the main activity (you have to lay out and upgrade defenses in a tower defense game as the creeps approach and invade, using the money you make from destroying them to quickly build new and better towers as quickly as possible to stem the tide), the economics of the game occur between levels, in which you can upgrade some of your basic stats (casting speed, hit points, and the like). In most tower defense games, the game does the shooting for you. You, on the other hand, as a player, manage resources rapidly and little else. In Witch Hunt, you manage your resources outside of the action, then you shoot and manage different defense options on the fly by merely swapping types of damage as you shoot, like more damage at the expense of speed, more speed at the expense of damage, and crowd control options, by essentially acting as one tower that represents “every tower” in a tower defense game. Basically, your one tower is every kind of tower, since you can toggle between which spell type -- fire, ice, or lightning -- seems best at the moment as the creeps come at you.

Additionally, spells can be upgraded and then customized between levels or between waves in order to tweak what kind of defensive power they offer. You can add a stun to your lightning bolt or make it more precise, but doing so is going to cost you the opportunity to do more damage or effect a larger area with each strike or vice versa.

All of which sounds quite complex (and indeed there are even more layers of complexity in the customization system in which additional effects and abilities can be added to each of the three types of damage, like summoning elemental helpers to fight with you or to repair your tower, or raining fiery death everywhere on the battlefield for a short time, or maybe slowing time on the battlefield briefly to give yourself some breathing room. However, despite all of this, Witch Hunt still boils down to one simple activity, you shoot, shoot, and shoot some more.

And it is this simplification of action that I think is what takes me back to the arcade when I play this game. When I think of the action of early arcade games, they always boil down to very, very few actions. Pac-Man can move and eat. Mario can move and jump. The Rambo-clones of Contra can move, shoot, and jump. In Robotron, you can move in four directions and shoot in four directions. And yet, all of these games feature fast and frantic gameplay, focusing on quick decision making under chaotic circumstances.

In Witch Hunt, there isn't even two or three actions available. You do not even have the option to move. You can only shoot. You can only take one single, arcade-like action.

Nevertheless, as the game ramps up in difficulty (and it really, really does -- initially feeling easy as you toss a few fireballs at a few oncoming gnomes, before finding yourself in levels in which hordes of spiders, goblins, minotaurs, and dragons advance on you, firing arrows, fireballs, and locking onto you with homing missiles), it begins to resemble the arcade not merely in simplicity, but in its complete commitment to complicating that simplicity with utter pandemonium. What seems like a simple enough action, shooting from a fixed position, is made intensely and frantically complex as you decide if you need to do a ton of damage or slow things down with crowd control or if you need to switch damage types because some of the creatures on the field are now immune to the damage type that you are using.

Witch Hunt is a symphony of chaos, and when you master the art of swapping out damage types on the fly, you do feel like a conductor standing in one place, above it all, taking one simple action, waving your baton in order to provoke a host of varied effects from a variety of instruments at your disposal.

The game can seem completely insane to look at, as penguins kicking frozen soccer balls and dragons breathing fire and goblins firing missiles as they hover in on jetpacks all converge in one maelstrom on your position. Nevertheless, the game feels surprisingly elegant to play because its one possible action seems so very, very basic. Shoot, shoot, shoot, reconsider how you're shooting, then shoot some more.

Like the early arcade, Witch Hunt combines the simplicity of mastering one simple reflexive act with complete chaos and the speed of making decisions within the most complicated and chaotic environment possible. It's kind of beautiful.

Witch Hunt is available to play for free here on NewGrounds.com.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.