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Future Noir Adventuring with Blade Runner

With the Blade Runner 2049 film expanding on the 1982 original, we thought it would be fitting to look back at Westwood Studio’s epic 1997 sci-fi adventure classic along with input from the company’s co-founder Louis Castle. It was back in 2009 when I covered Blade Runner for issue 3 of Retroaction magazine and also discussed the game’s development with Louis Castle (co-founder of Westwood Studios). For this special occasion, I thought I would bridge the two pieces together…

It’s dusk as we move towards the cityscape up ahead. A vast plain of industrialized, menacing shapes loom on the horizon. Venting stacks pierce the skyline and belch out flames five hundred feet into the sky. A spinner (car/air vehicle hybrid) flies towards the camera and beyond. The view then cuts into a city where a video advertisement on the side of a large skyscraper displays various kinds of products. A spinner flies by and weaves tightly through the spaces between the towering skyscrapers as we zoom into a dark, gloomy street. It’s peace and quiet as the camera moves slowly in on Runciter’s Animal shop…

That sequence described above could easily be mistaken for being from the film itself, but it is in fact just a small segment taken from the game’s fabulous opening sequence which beautifully sets the tone for what is to follow.

Blade Runner the computer game is a point and click adventure that features an original story set in the film’s universe and same timeframe. When the game begins, Deckard (the film’s protagonist) has already been sent off on his own assignment and the player will come across references of his activities throughout the game, though they will never really cross paths. The player assumes the role of Ray McCoy, a rookie Blade Runner, who is given his first serious crime case to solve by his commanding officer, Lt. Guzza. According to Louis Castle (co-founder of Westwood Studios), ditching Deckard and bringing in a new lead character “was a creative decision.” One done to “build a story within a story so that we could have the player be in control of their own destiny. Very few games that require players to ‘play the film’ end up having the kind of emotional punch you get from the original work.”

Playing as McCoy, the player is given the task of solving the case of animal murder, which is considered a monstrous crime in the future when all animals are almost extinct. The player will investigate a number of crime scenes using various techniques (searching for clues, questioning witnesses/suspects, researching police evidence), typical of detectives to gather information. During these investigations McCoy will endure many events including uncovering a black market gun runner and being framed for the murder of a civilian (forcing him to work underground in an effort to clear his name). He will also discover corruption within his own police department, blackmail, and much more.

Future Noir Adventuring with Blade Runner

The game’s main focus is the detective work rather than the many puzzles. The player progresses through a number of crime scenes in which they must gather evidence. This is primarily a matter of being observant of the surroundings. Clues come in the form of items, photographs, personal interviews, or unusual markings. An ESPER system (as seen in the film) is used to enhance and enlarge photos, potentially finding some crucial information. Combat is actually quite rare and not too complicated–this is an adventure game after all. There is one weapon in the game–a standard issue police pistol–although different varieties of ammunition are available later in the game.

All evidence collected during investigations is stored in McCoy’s Knowledge Integration Assistant (KIA), where it is organized for easy reference later on. One of its functions is performed via the Crime Scene Panel which lists all crime scenes along with all known suspects and clues related to it. There are also occasions when the player will be able to carry out the infamous Voight-Kampff test (as seen in the film) on suspects. This involves trying to get an emotional response from the subject and to decide if they’re human or a replicant. Once the test is finished the player must then decide what course of action to take based on the results. The player’s decision has a direct impact on the rest of the storyline.

Many familiar landscapes and buildings will be found in the game. Cold fish, anyone?

With the original Blade Runner film being around 13-years-old when the game was initially going into development, it may have came as a surprise to many that it was even considered. “It had always been my favorite film and when we found out that we had a chance to pitch for the rights we jumped at it,” states Louis Castle, co-founder of Westwood Studios. Westwood believed they could re-create the mood and feel of the film, which would have been a major factor in Westwood being successful in the bidding process. As Louis explains, “The Blade Runner Partners specifically did not want something derivative of shooters and RPGs in the market at the time. Their primary concern was that the game expand the IP and not simply be a game that had the license slapped onto it.”

The game’s script is superb and features many clever sequences (cut scenes, set pieces, action scenes), witty dialogue, and powerfully emotional characters, all of which wouldn’t look amiss amongst Hollywood’s finest offerings. “It was written as a complete 200 page script by David Yorkin, an extraordinarily talented Hollywood writer,” explains Louis. “That was then expanded by David Leary (lead designer) into well over 500 pages and finally reviewed and tuned by David Yorkin again before we had the final shooting script. It was a massive undertaking given all the permutations of game states that were possible in the story simulation.”

The KIA is a handy tool for organising your clues for easy retrieval

The cut scenes in particular advance the story and character development extremely well. The game is basically a five-act story with a lot of emotion weaving together the stories of several different characters. Every thing you do has consequences: the moral dilemma in killing what may or may not be human or making a wrong decision and having the police hunt you down. These situations all add to this games deeply emotional experience.

The game runs in non-linear real-time, meaning that when McCoy investigates and gathers clues, the computer controlled characters go about their own business, completing their own objectives. While the plot generally begins the same way every time you start a new game–there is an animal murder, McCoy investigates, he discovers replicants…–it plays out differently each time. There are numerous endings (I have personally seen nine) with variations on the major themes. All of the variations are influenced by the player’s actions throughout the game. According to Louis Castle, the game features “forty-seven permutations but only seven broad categories. The difference in the endings has to do with the random selection of which NPCs will be replicants and the way the world simulation plays out in real time.” An interesting development bug may well have created a rare ending: “the tester had never seen it and thought it was not intended to be possible (I believe it was leaving with Lucy as a paternal love interest).”

Blade Runner’s gameplay is carried out using the standard point-and-click method

The expansive voice cast of Blade Runner deliver their lines impeccably, bringing their character’s personality to the fore. Each and every character-of which there are many-has their own story, their own characteristics and their own agenda. Ray McCoy is the disheveled, trench coat wearing protagonist; Crystal Steele, a cool exterior and one of the most effective police officers; Gaff, a character originally presented in the film, appears randomly to offer advice; Lieutenant Guzza is McCoy’s coarse, overweight superior; Lucy is a troubled teenager who is unsure whether she is a replicant or a human and Clovis is the intelligent leader of the renegade replicants. That’s just the main group of characters as there are also many, many supporting characters of equal importance to the game’s plot.

Showing a dystopian, heavily polluted Los Angeles, the game is notable for its accurate, even lovingly re-created environments. Faithfully reproduced locales are so effective by their use of familiar landmarks like the Tyrell pyramid structure, the Bradbury theatre, Animoid Row, the Yukon hotel and the L.A.P.D.’s cylindrical skyscraper. Despite not requiring a 3D accelerated video card at a time when it was all the rage, the graphics–especially the many cut scenes–were innovative for the time and succeeded in recreating the film’s atmosphere. The characters are as impressive as the environments and although they may look slightly pixellated close up when you see them moving their true fluidity is clearly evident. Other visual effects like rain, coloured lights, lens flares and shadows all add to the dark, moody feel of the game.

Use the ESPER to gather further clues—there’s more to these pictures than meets the eye

Completing the cinematic quality of the game is the sound. Suitably emotional musical scores and satisfying sound effects are arranged throughout. Not only have Vangelis’ original scores been recreated perfectly, new original ones have been produced just for the game. As for the voice talent, Joe Turkel, Sean Young, William Sanderson, Brion James, and James Hong (who starred in the original film) returned to voice their on-screen characters, adding yet another layer of authenticity to the game. “We tried to get every person from the original film but some could not fit it into their schedule. Others were not professionally interested in reprising their role, but those were very few.”

Westwood Studios could have taken the easy way out and made a typical adventure game by retelling the film scene by scene. Luckily they wanted to do something more. The fact that they struggled to squeeze the game onto four CDs is testament to just how much detail is in this game. With great storytelling, superb design, sublime aesthetics, and faithful performances all coming together perfectly, this amounts to a deeply satisfying game and a real labour of love from Westwood Studios that should be experienced by all fans of adventure games and the film. “Like all games it was in production 50% longer than we expected,” adds Louis Castle. “In all it was just a bit over two years, which was a long time back in 1997. The problems were more of trying for some really aspirational goals and simply running out of time to do them as well as we might have. That said, we are all proud of the game we created.”

Character movements are carried out easily with just the mouse. Take aim and kerblammo!

Although Blade Runner was a one-off game for Westwood in terms of the franchise and genre, there were plans to follow up on the game. “Ideas were kicked around but the deal for BR2 was too hard to reach for both sides and other ideas were put on the back burner with the decline of the Adventure Game audience,” commented Louis, before adding “I’m thrilled there is still an interest in the game. I was and still am very proud of Blade Runner.”

Neil Reive

An avid retrogamer who has worked on various projects, magazines, and fanzines. He started his videogaming journey with the Amstrad CPC464 computer before moving onto a Commodore 64, then the Sega Mega Drive, followed by a multitude of PCs.

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