Developer: Westwood Studios
Publisher: Virgin Interactive Entertainment
Blade Runner was one of the most influential films of the 80’s. Its influence on design, atmosphere and storytelling can still be felt in movies to this day. Like just about any movie, good or bad, it had a video game tie-in, right? Well sort of.
In 1985, Blade Runner was released for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. It created by two programmers, Paul Andrew Soddart and Ian Ellery – now a photographer and freelance illustrator for children’s TV shows respectively, at a company called CRL. CRL were unable to get the rights to the Blade Runner film, so instead they managed to settle for…the rights to make a video game based on Vangelis‘ musical score for Blade Runner. Naturally there are a few liberties taken. While you may be a rep-detect in a snazzy long coat with a blaster pistol, you aren’t (officially) Rick Deckard. You’re not hunting replicants, either. Instead your targets are replidroids.
Upon starting the game, you get a fairly faithful (at least in the case of the Commodore 64 version) rendition of the song Blade Runner (End Titles) from the soundtrack. If you’re playing the Amstrad version, you have to listen to this for two whole minutes before being able to actually start playing. This pretentiousness earned it a fair panning from reviews at the time. Once you’ve passed the title screen, you have control of a blip on a map, presumably of 2019 Los Angeles. You move your nondescript blip around, trying to find “replidroid” activity. Once you do, your hovercar deploys you onto the street and you attempt to shoot down the “replidroids” while avoiding the death of citizens.
Music and novelty aside, the game has nothing going for it. The gameplay’s blandness is matched only by that of the graphics and it’s next to impossible to figure out what to do. Reviews at the time were not kind to the game at all.
The Blade Runner license sat dormant for some time, until 1997 when Westwood Studios, known best for essentially creating the real-time strategy genre as it’s known today Command & Conquer released a Blade Runner adventure game.
Westwood‘s game takes place at the same time the movie does. You play as Ray McCoy, a runner working in LA like Deckard. McCoy is a fairly straight-forward guy. He doesn’t hold a lot of animosity towards replicants, like fellow runner Crystal Steele does. All he cares about is doing his job properly so he can afford a companion for his (real) pet dog, Maggie. Deckard, while not having a speaking role in the game, is alluded to by a few characters and seen in one part of the game, handing the scale to the lady at the market.
As McCoy, you’re tasked with tracking down a group of replicants who are suspected of murdering animals (from a shop named Runciter’s – a reference to the group in Ubik, another Phillip K. Dick novel). In Blade Runner‘s world, murdering animals is considered to be almost as bad as murdering a human, due to most animals being near extinct.
Westwood made some interesting choices with Blade Runner. For one thing, while the backgrounds are pre-rendered images and videos, the characters are made of voxels. A voxel is a volumetric pixel, essentially like Lego. Not many games use voxels at all, the most recent use being 3D Dot Game Heroes. The use of voxels gave the game a very unique look, but for smooth animations required a decently powerful system for the time. A lot of scenes, however use FMV featuring proper 3D models of characters. Reportedly, these videos took up 400GB of space on Westwood’s network storage before being compressed down to fit on four CD-ROMs.
Several actors reprise their roles from the movie, generally only for short scenes. Sean Young returns as Rachael, Joe Turkel as Eldon Tyrell as well as the actors for Leon, Hannibal Chew and J.F. Sebastian. McCoy’s boss, Lieutenant Guzza, is played by Jeff Garlin – best known for his work on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Vangelis‘ iconic score does not exist in the game. A couple of themes from the film play during the game, but they and the rest of the music is composed and performed by Westwood‘s Frank Klepacki. His work easily matches the tone and feel that Vangelis created and shows his flexibility compared to his techno-industrial work in Tiberian Sun or the straight up hard rock in Red Alert 2.
Blade Runner also randomizes a lot of elements. Between two playthroughs, some characters change. Sometimes they’ll be replicants, other times they’ll be human. For example, at one point you chase a criminal through a sewer. As you exit via a manhole, he ambushes you and is ready to off you when Steele comes onto the scene. Steele has “the knack” and believes she can “sense” the difference between a replicant and a human. She’ll either kill or arrest the criminal, depending on if he’s a replicant or not in that playthrough.
Sometimes characters will ‘do their own thing’ as you’re investigating – meaning that sometimes you’ll find them in different areas than where they were last time. McCoy also has several different ‘response levels’. By changing this, you can make McCoy seem like a normal person, a slightly depressed fellow, a hardass or “erratic” which makes McCoy randomly pick a different tone for each bit of dialogue he has. If you pick one of these, dialogue between characters plays out automatically. A fifth option allows you to choose your own responses like a LucasArts adventure game. These different systems, combined with thirteen endings, make sure that replaying the game isn’t a waste of time as you get a somewhat different experience each time.
Instead of having a standard inventory like most adventure games, McCoy has a “clue database” called Knowledge Integration Assistant – KIA. Using KIA you can review character profiles, evidence and plot threads. There are also certain points in the game where you use the iconic ESPER machine to “enhance” and zoom in on photos, as well as a couple of instances that involve you performing Voight-Kampff tests on potential replicants.
Unfortunately, Blade Runner came out around the time where people decided that they were sick of adventure games. The game did not sell well at all. Another high-profile adventure game, The Curse of Monkey Island, came out in the same month to similar results. Both games received favorable reviews, but it did little to help sales.
These days, Blade Runner is an absolute pain to get running on a modern system. The installer was 16-bit, so it outright refuses to install on Windows Vista/7 64-bit machines. If you can get it installed somehow, there’s a high chance the mouse cursor won’t display, which makes the game nigh unplayable. There doesn’t seem to be a solution for this, either. Potentially, a service like GOG.com could fix those problems and sell the game again, but with the rights being tied up with the movie license, nevermind both Westwood and Virgin Interactive being long dead, the average person’s chances of experiencing this interesting game are fairly low.