Retrospective: Blade Runner

It’s been a quiet week, with no new tat entering my life, so here instead is a retrospective look at one of the classic PC games of yore. Incidentally, it horrified me to realise that this game is now over eleven years old. Gosh.

Westwood Studios are almost synonymous with the real-time strategy genre – pretty much inventing it in 1992 with Dune II, then ensuring their dominance of the early genre through the wildly popular Command & Conquer series from 1995 onwards. But before the release of Command & Conquer, Westwood were as known for being fine crafters of adventures as they were as peddlers of cursor-controlled warfare: 1992 also saw them releasing first title in their of point & clickers, The Legend of Kyrandia, while 1993 saw the arrival of their flagship role-playing series Lands of Lore. While neither had the lasting success belonging to their tank-rush-em-ups, they were well-received, and are fondly remembered by many.

It was upon these foundations that Westwood set their intention to make a point and click adventure based on the cult movie classic Blade Runner, itself based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. And hell if it wasn’t something special.

For once, Deckard's not the star of the show. Meet Ray McCoy, game protagonist.

For once, Deckard's not the star of the show. Meet Ray McCoy, game protagonist (also, blade runner).

Released in 1997, Blade Runner came as the point and click adventure was in its twilight days as one of the PC’s major genres: the year saw genre stalwarts Lucasarts and Revolution Software release their last stabs at the genre before making significant changes to the formula – most obviously the shift to 3D and move away from mouse control, but also in the integration of other mechanics, such as In Cold Blood‘s inclusion of combat sequences, more reminiscent of earlier action adventures like Bioforge than the puzzle-led adventures the developer had previously been known for.

It’s not surprising, then, that Blade Runner itself includes a few nods to the changes that were hitting the genre. It featured more action than would normally be found in a Westwood point and click, with gunplay thrown into the mix, and it too made the move to 3D. Like Grim Fandango after it, Blade Runner used 3D models on pre-rendered backdrops: unlike Grim Fandango, the 3D models were constructed out of voxels rather than polygons; more significantly, it kept its camera angles further from the action, and kept control entirely mouse-controlled. In fact, the main effect of its 3D engine came through the use of depth in its environments, with many scenes offering movement mainly along the z-axis; and the use of a dynamic camera for transitions between screens – pre-rendered 3D background animation combined with real-time 3D models. Which might sound like nothing more than gloss, but this happens to be a game where presentation matters.

While the game tells a different story to either the film or the book preceding it, it stays true to the world and themes of both, particularly capturing the atmosphere of the film. It does so through visual cues (not only borrowing locations and designs – such as the iconic spinner police vehicles – but even lifting camera angles), excellent soundwork (unable to use Vangelis’ iconic soundtrack to the film, Frank Klepacki did a masterful job of matching the score and adding to it), and plotting (though an original story, and featuring few returning characters, the story uses the same combination of hard-boiled detective fiction, sympathetic antagonists and existential crises as the film). Even the voicework is played perfectly, from the downtrodden protagonist through to the bitter replicant leader, every character fills their role perfectly in this future-noir drama.

The broken down-neon juxtaposition is as beautiful as ever.

The run-down/neon juxtaposition is as beautiful as ever.

 

It’s fair to say that for fans of the film in particular, the Westwood game is massively appealing. It allows fans to set foot in one of the most distinctive visions of the future to grace the screen, walking their own path through the morally-ambiguous life of a blade runner. But what about the uninitiated? Any game based on a license risks alienating non-fans; an overeliance on prior knowledge can make a game – particularly an adventure game – near-impenetrable.

Fortunately, while Blade Runner‘s universe is beautifully realised, it isn’t hard to understand: owing as it does as much to crime dramas of the 1940’s as it does to science-fiction, a newcomer won’t find themselves overwhelmed with jargon, but instead introduced to a different, but familiar world. Cars may fly, robotic simulacras may have replaced most domestic animals, and Los Angeles may find itself in perpetual nightfall, but effectively it’s a case of new shoes, same fit. The rich are still rich, the poor still poor, adverts and neon signs still litter the streets, and detectives still find themselves alone at night.

The game even opens with a fairly mundane case – the player, as McCoy, is sent to investigate a seemingly-random shooting; a pet store gutted, its owner left alive but his animals massacred. Soon enough things heat up, and the player is tasked with hunting down a group of replicants – synthetic beings created in the form of humans, outlawed on earth. How things pan out from here is up to the player.

 

Can't see that ending badly... (click for the film's complete opening titles).

Can't see that ending badly... (click for the film's complete opening titles).

 

 

And therein lies the heart of the game’s charm – not only does it tell a good story brilliantly, it allows the player to sculpt it themselves. Put in the shoes of a detective, their job is exactly what you would expect: collect clues, ask questions, and generally get to the bottom of the mystery – who are the replicants, and why have they come to earth?

The detective work itself is subtly handled – unlike most point and click games, Blade Runner doesn’t see you picking up items and combining them to solve puzzles – indeed, in a traditional sense there are no puzzles in the game. Instead, the player literally collects clues – sometimes in the form of physical evidence, sometimes through hearsay, and sometimes through photo analysis.

And what photo analysis – true to the film, the player has access to an esper machine – a photo analyser which can zoom in, enhance, and even – to a limited degree – change the perspective of any photographs fed through it. Playing around with the esper is good fun, with incredible satisfaction to be had finding subtle clues using the machine – from tiny items in forgotten corners, to half-spotted reflections of major suspects.

Using the ESPER machine. "Give me a hard copy of that".

"Give me a hard copy of that".

 

Even better, the player doesn’t actually have to find all the clues – in fact, it’d be very difficult (if it’s at all possible) to do so: what clues you do find will help shape the story. And that’s not all that influences the journey taken – throughout the game, the player makes choices – sometimes clear, sometimes not. A good thing to remember when playing it is that just because you’ve been thrust into a situation with an aggressive character and have a gun in your hand, does not mean you have to blow them away. Choosing when to walk away, turn a blind eye, or press forward, can make significant changes to the storyline – and the way things end. A player who focusses on doing his job to the letter will have a very different experience to one who chooses to find out both sides of the story.

And it’s not just McCoy’s attitude that changes according to the player’s choices: Westwood made the interesting decision to have your actions trigger a series of variables, so that different playthroughs make fundamental changes to the world – even going so far as to change the identities of characters. Just because somebody was a replicant in one playthrough, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be one the second time around.

This makes Blade Runner almost unique among point and click adventures. While it can be fun to play through an adventure a second time, knowing the answers to the puzzles and able to enjoy the story alone, Blade Runner is one of a very few which offer completely different experiences on subsequent attempts* – it positively encourages replays.

 

Remember when this would have been a high-watermark for pre-rendered cut-scenes? How things change.

Remember when this would have been a high-watermark for pre-rendered cut-scenes? How things change.

 

 

But even so, the game is eleven years old. It uses old technology – pre-rendered backdrops are no longer commonplace, and voxel technology has long-been ignored by game developers. Surely the game suffers glaring design hangovers, long-since abandoned with good reason?

Well, not really. The fact is, that while the adventure game is far from dead (despite protestations to the contrary throughout the past decade), the point and click has lain relatively dormant – the main changes have come to its distribution method (Telltale Games’ episodic approach). Adventure games have diversified, certainly – games like Fahrenheit taking much of the story- and puzzle-led nature of the old point and clicks – but the point and click itself has become the backward-looking aspect of the genre, always building on the successes of the past rather than moving to new avenues.

Not to say that modern point and clicks are without merit – there are many excellent titles released every year, a great deal of them for free – but little has changed since the mid-90’s. If anything, Blade Runner‘s implementation of detective work remains progressive, a far cry from the ‘use rubber-chicken on wire’ approach that still carries most point and clicks. The only aspect that stands out is the necessity of regular saving – Blade Runner is none-too-generous with its autosaves, particularly for a game which will quite happily throw you into a deadly combat situation with little warning. Learn to save after any major detective work, however, and the frustration quickly abates. Aside from this, only the graphics mark it as being of its time – the voxel characters are undeniably ugly. Even with that said, the excellent script, voice acting and the still-attractive pre-rendered backdrops are more than enough to carry it. Blade Runner – like many of its point and click brethren – is an easy game to go back to, despite the aging tech.

 

Not from the game - a gorgeous demonstration of just what modern graphics engines can manage, by some very talented fans

Not from the game - a gorgeous demonstration of just what modern graphics engines can manage, by some very talented fans.†

 

Blade Runner is genuinely worth playing, despite its age, whether or not you’ve seen the film, and whether or not you’ve played it before. This one’s a timeless classic, able to draw you in despite its rough edges. A great story, good detective work, and fantastic setting – it’s one of the greatest point and click adventures ever made, and it’s a tragedy that it is so often overlooked. Find it, play it, love it.

 

 

Troubleshooting

Modern PC’s and operating systems can be problematic for older games, and Blade Runner is no exception. Many people will need a patch it up – patches available here – but more important (and less obvious) is the necessity to slow down your PC when running it. While nothing will seem wrong if you allow your PC to run at full whack – animation and sound work perfectly either way – the combat is affected by CPU speed: on a modern PC, any gunfights become impossibly deadly, and the shooting range simply won’t run properly. To do so, you’ll need software which can force your CPU to run slower – the above site handily contains exactly such a utility, Turbo. Just make sure to disable it when you aren’t running Blade Runner!

 

 

*Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis being the biggest name that springs to mind of another point and click with multiple routes – in some ways even more game-changing (it offers significantly different puzzles and locales depending on the route taken), in other ways less significant (the plot stays more-or-less the same. No matter what, you are Indy, you punch nazis).

†sourced from inCrysis.

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