‘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.