Ridley Scott has never worked on a video game, but he has directed hundreds of them by proxy. Blade Runner and Alien have provided coordinates for development teams to steer for decades, defining the look, feel and sound of interactive science fiction as we know it today. Without them there would be no Mass Effect, no Homeworld and certainly no Cyberpunk.
However, this process is not lossless. Every time Blade Runner is copied, some of the original’s quirks fade away, and what was once a sharp and accurate vision of the future inevitably becomes blotchy and blurry. The neon signs and verticality of a disintegrating Los Angeles are mostly there – alongside a vague meditation on what it means to be human, and whether it can be imitated. But wouldn’t you rather go back to the source? Play the real thing, and not a replicant?
When Command & Conquer studio Westwood presented its Blade Runner game, the movie was already ages – almost a decade and a half old. And the rights to his fiction might as well have been alien, spread between actors with residuals and investors that Scott bled dry during production. But these factors, which many developers may have found constraining, were what drove Westwood’s adjustment.
With the studio unable to use any pre-existing footage or audio, the Blade Runner game is permanently located around the corner and down the road from Scott’s movie sets. You don’t play Deckard, but a replacement replicant fighter named McCoy (who, as his name suggests, has similar problems figuring out if his memories are real or not). And your story plays out parallel to the movie’s plot, without ever getting in front of Scott’s camera.
As McCoy, you live in tantalizing proximity to the cast and surroundings of a classic: you visit the pyramid of Tyrell Corporation, but are not allowed to see the great man; show up at the Yukon Hotel after Deckard has already turned things upside down; hearing the voice of that sweet dork JF Sebastian on an answering machine. If you’re very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Harrison Ford in the background of a photo, brandishing a snake scale between the market stalls of Animoid Row.
Most movie tie-ins are undiluted fan service; this approach is the opposite, leaving you forever grounded and hungry for more of the characters you’ve seen on screen. Yet it also fulfills an implicit fantasy of longtime Blade Runner fans: to step outside the frame and explore an LA that has only ever existed on the Warner Brothers back lot.
The fact that Westwood’s writers stayed in their own jobs only adds to the game’s value as a companion piece. No matter what turns you take as a player, the branching narrative never contradicts the source material, nor does it step outside the city limits into the kipple of tonal dissonance. The detective story is related to, but different from, the one players already knew, convincingly expanding the universe. It’s the very license restrictions that push Westwood’s team to stand on their own two feet as storytellers, confidently ranting against Scott’s creation rather than revamping the rainy streets.
Image 1 from 6
The development of Blade Runner 1997 is even more baffling and unlikely when you consider the genre. Full Throttle, the commercial peak for LucasArts adventure games, had already passed – and Westwood’s point ‘n’ click colleagues were struggling to adjust to a PC audience obsessed with the new promise of 3D. Now was not the time to invest in an unusually expensive version of an old-fashioned shape.
Still, Westwood rivaled id Software for its use of advanced technology, with 20,000 motion capture instances. It loops animations in the background of its scenes, and even collapses raw dynamic lighting. These innovations allowed the studio to recreate not only the sight of a flying car landing on a busy street, but also the very specific mix of floodlights, spinning fans and fog that gave Blade Runner its signature noir vibe.
What’s even more striking in 2022 is the way the noir bleeds into Blade Runner’s mechanics as well. While many ’90s adventure games are notorious for their obtuse puzzle logic, this one stands up as a gumshoe investigation. When you get stuck, it feels natural enough to return to the crime scene, dig through an old photo, or download new clues from the computer shared by your colleagues at HQ (aka Union Station, one of Blade’s Runner’s Few Real Attractions in LA.). Rigorous police work will always yield clues, and following them up involves visiting new locations to enjoy another set of lusciously moody background screens.
Fair warning: The investigation sort of falls apart in the third act. In keeping with film noir tradition, McCoy’s personal life catches up with his professional life, the case deteriorates into chaos and events come to a head. Multiple endings are available, but none where our protagonist escapes to become a hot mess and embarrassment to the force.
But that chaos – the feeling of losing control of the story – is a source of endless fascination for fans of this game. Delve into wikis and interviews and you’ll discover that Blade Runner 1997 is constantly changing just outside your field of vision. Your fellow agent, Crystal, moves in and out of view as if the player is controlling himself, investigating at a pace unrelated to your own discoveries. Key characters are randomly selected as either human or replicant at the start of each playthrough, without your knowledge. And suspects can be apprehended or lost depending on whether you turn left or right on a given screen. Most of all, you feel like time is ticking away regardless of your progress, fostering a strong sense of unease and uncertainty – the same feeling that was first burned to film all those years ago.
As Fraser explained over the summer, you may want to steer clear Blade Runner Enhanced Edition. Ironically, while the original game benefited from not having a box office deadline (the film’s release has long passed), the new version was rushed out before Blade Runner’s 40th Birthday, and is still not in an ideal state. But luckily anyone who buys it on Steam now gets the classic edition for free as a bonus. It’s an easy choice: who wants a flawed copy when you can have the real thing?