Whenever I think of Bloober Team, I can’t help but remember the disastrous launch of Basement Crawl. Perhaps its seared into my mind because I had to review it and then deal with the fallout afterwards. So I’m always amazed when Bloober gets attached to yet another promising project. Theirs is a story of hope from a floundering developer to one that managed to emerge from that darkness despite overwhelming odds. Bloober Team’s story begins about five years prior to Basement Crawl though, and continues right up to E3 2019 and beyond.
Founded in late 2008, Bloober Team spent most of the next five years or making small profile games. Most of these titles received poor reviews or generally didn’t land on anyone’s radar, being tiny mobile/portable titles and a few tiny PSN releases late in the PS3’s life. Most of these games aren’t even worth mentioning by name as Bloober played around with finding its footing, exploring genres like puzzle, music, action, strategy, simulation, and even a MOBA. Looking at Bloober’s early work, it’s clear that the company didn’t exactly know what they wanted to be yet.
Basement Crawl was the first game that really started to garner attention for Bloober, a Bomberman-style action game that was set to be one of the earliest titles on the PS4. Trailers made it look mysteriously enticing. It was some kind of survival-horror competitive game, featuring creepy characters like a binky-sucking clown on a unicycle, a little girl holding a teddy bear with a knife, and a wheelchair-bound mannequin. The online-only game was criticized for its bare bones content offering, chaotic nature, and lack of polish, particularly for a game that had already received delays.
This could have spelled the end for Bloober Team, but they decided to hunker down and figure things out. Instead of moving on to their next project, they set about rebuilding Basement Crawl as an entirely new game called Brawl. Offered free to anyone who purchased Basement Crawl, Brawl was much better received. A single-player campaign for each character acts as a tutorial of sorts, leading players into the real meat of the game, multiplayer battles. The visuals were overhauled and given a new stylish flair. It has tons of modes to engage with, which keep things interesting for more than 15 minutes. It was a huge surprise coming off of Basement Crawl’s miserable launch, but it wasn’t the only surprise Bloober Team had up its sleeve.
The Many Layers of Bloober
Apparently, delving into the sadistic and twisted characters of Basement Crawl and Brawl gave Bloober an itch to explore psychological horror games. In a complete left turn from everything the studio had developed in the past, it began work on Layers of Fear, a first-person psychological horror game that explored an artist’s descent into madness. Although it may not have blown critics away, it was received far better than the games the studio had been releasing for the six years prior to Layers of Fear.
Layers of Fear may still have been a little rough around the edges, but Bloober Team was starting to find its footing. Inspired by Hideo Kojima’s now defunct P.T. experience, Bloober embraced that weird reality-warping terror. The kind that messes with your mind and your emotional state. The studio realized they had a real talent with psychological horror. After peeling back the layers through years of mediocre experiences, they discovered something that they were quite good at.
Bloober’s next game was Observer (often stylized as >observer_, and not to be confused with Observation). Once again, critics liked it for the most part. While there were some mixed opinions, the attitude was generally positive, praising the characters, world, and visuals. You see, Bloober Team understood that what they were great at was creating atmosphere. They were good at telling a story. They were good at piquing the inquiring minds of players. There’s a sickening kind of curiosity to know what lies just around the next corner or through that door while also balancing the dark terrors of what proceeding down that path might reveal.
Observer was also when they discovered how binaural audio could be used to enhance the experience and engage the player directly through sound. Binaural audio is sound recorded using special microphones that mimic the human head and how sound travels into the ear. Wear headphones when you listen to binaural audio, and you’ll get sounds that seem like they are more real than traditionally recorded audio effects. Here’s an example of binaural audio if you want to take a listen.
Instead of a scattershot approach to game development, Bloober Team was building off of each of its past releases. Basement Crawl’s failure led to the development of Brawl, which brought them to the psychological horror of Layers of Fear, which prompted the uneasy feelings presented in Observer. Lessons learned with Observer, like the binaural audio, got pulled forward to the studio’s next title.
Returning to the game that had started them down the psychological horror path, Bloober Team’s next (and most recent) project was Layers of Fear 2. While not a direct sequel to the story of the artist in the original (the DLC handled that by telling the story of the artist’s daughter), it followed the same formula of unraveling layers of madness in a creative type with a dark past. This time, we follow an actor aboard a massive passenger ship, which makes for some creepy environments. Instead of the art theme, Layers of Fear 2 focuses on a film theme, and pays homage to a number of great films in both big and small ways. It uses binaural audio to great effect, making you feel like you are inside the actor’s head, inside the ship, and inside his madness.
Layers of Fear 2 was met with mixed to positive reception. Some reviewers loved it and how Bloober continued to build on ideas that they had crafted in the original. Others weren’t happy with some of the rote feeling horror game mechanics that took away from the psychological fear and the overly ambiguous story that left players more confused than uneasy. Either way, Bloober was building, learning, and moving forward. This wasn’t the same studio that it was nearly a decade before. Bloober Team had found its identity and its footing in creating horror and unease for its players, for crafting experience where curiosity overrides the fear of what’s around the next corner. They make worlds, narratives, and characters that compel intrigue while twisting up your insides.
That’s not the end for Bloober Team either. At E3 2019, it was revealed that the studio is working on a game based on popular found footage horror property Blair Witch, and what better studio that that which has started to paint its own identity in the same kinds of feelings the original Blair Witch film gave us all when we first saw it? Unfortunately for those of us here on the PlayStation side of things, Blair Witch is a PC and Xbox exclusive for now, but we’re still excited for the studio that’s come so far since it launched PS4-exclusive flop Basement Crawl. They’ve landed some big names in the past, with Rutger Hauer starring on Observer, and Candyman’s Tony Todd providing voice over work for Layers of Fear 2. To get an entire big name property to work with is a big win for Bloober Team.
Bloober’s also got a third team (after Layers of Fear 2 and Blair Witch), working on an unannounced title that the studio isn’t quite ready to talk about yet. Will it continue the psychological horror focus of the company? We’ll know in due time, but the evidence right now says that Bloober’s identity has taken root in creating an atmosphere of tension and unease. If you’ve been a fan of the studio’s previous work, you’ll want to keep paying attention to what’s coming up next. Blair Witch has a release date of August 30, 2019, and we probably won’t have to wait too long after that to find out what new terrors Bloober Team has up its sleeve.