Blade Runner – “Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shores… burning with the fires of Orc. “

The year is 2019, the place is LA… but not “the” LA, but one where everything is gloomy and dirty, the sky pitch black and where it is always raining. This blackened metropolis spawns many anachronisms, a dark future built on a broad mesh of past imagery, boasting classical architecture styles and modern technologies. Old and worn-down skyscrapers that date back to the early 1900’s are filled with gigantic ad-screens, bursting noisy commercials. In the belly of the immense towers, a strange Chinatown-like underworld has formed, with oriental restaurants and night clubs announcing its promise of entertainment in glowing neon lights, dark alleys and run-down warehouses surrounding. Up, in the night sky, flying cars travel feverishly, passing by blimps that announce a perfect life in the outer Colonies. In the center of town lie two gigantic metal pyramids, surrounded by hundreds of factories with fiery chimneys, the culmination of Man’s technology and industry – the home of the Tyrell Company. This is where it all began. The soft Vangelis overture establishing the melancholic depression Mankind has immersed itself in, the eyes of a tired detective reflecting the fiery pits of hell, the sound of rain pouring down on the windshield, a flying car vanishes in the horizon – “Blade Runner”.

It’s difficult to take a movie masterpiece and make it into a game… hell, it’s difficult taking any movie and making into a game, so I guess I was a bit zealous when addressing “Blade Runner”, the videogame. Yet, after playing it, my fears revealed unfounded: it’s probably the best movie adaptation I’ve ever played. The game casts you as Detective Mccoy, a Blade Runner in everything similar to captain Deckard: the same coat, gloomy stare and sharp-wit all noir detectives share. Also like Deckard, he’s commissioned a new case which will eventually lead him on the trail of a group of Replicants bent on enhancing their life-span.

The plot, that unfolds side by side with the movie’s, borrows heavily from the it, focusing on the same moral dilemmas concerning life and death, creation and identity. Who is Det. Mccoy, a replicant or a human? Should Tyrell Company, and above all, Man, be allowed to play God, by deciding the life and death of the replicants? The questions build up as the narrative unfolds, as the player uncovers small pieces of a graphic-adventure puzzle: collecting evidence while investigating murder scenes, analyzing photos (just like in the movie) and talking to possible witnesses. Anyone who has ever played a classic “point and click” will feel right at home, except for one thing: the dynamic narrative. “Blade Runner” attempts at creating an interactive narrative, with each choice altering the events that follow, and not just the endings, as is common. Sadly, each choice is hidden and obscure to the player, thus destroying the designers’ intentions at achieving a good interactive model – if the player doesn’t know when or what he is choosing, then he will never know what to make of the said choices. I mean, how can you know that a specific line of dialogue will transform a certain human character into a replicant? How can you know that you can holster a weapon in a specific place to save a replicant’s life? It just seems silly… and random… unless you plan on repeating every little scene time and time again to find out different outcomes. The fact that there is no good FAQ out there is proof alone of some poorly thought design choices. This applies to other aspects of the interface as well: puzzles feature clues that are extremely hard to find, the player has to guess many of the clues’ meanings, dialogue lines provide impossible to predict results, and you’re never fully aware of all the possibilities each scene poses for you as a player. How on earth a player is supposed to navigate through a game with such an impregnable interface beats me. At least the writing is well done, capturing perfectly the dialectics featured in the original movie.

The sights and sounds of the movie have also been translated meticulously, allowing the game to feed on its atmosphere almost perfectly, with high quality FMVs posing as background for the action, characters featuring fully fledged voice acting and Vangelis’ scores serving as soundtrack. Unfortunately, some environments, locations, characters and musics had to be created from scratch, and while most stay true to the movie’s spirit, the artists quality is clearly under par, going as far as adding some annoying overly kitsch elements to the otherwise serious nocturne landscape.

It’s hard not to see “Blade Runner” as a missed opportunity, for it derives all of the good aspects of the movie it’s based on, the problem is just that when it comes to its interactive elements it feels flat, annoying and hard to understand, a testament to all of the reasons why the classic Adventure genre died out. But if you can cope with those elements, and are really found of “Blade Runner”, than you will probably be highly rewarded for the experience, even if only to wander the streets of that dark brooding LA once again…

Overall: 4/5

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    • Dieubussy
    • May 15th, 2008

    I think you missed the point when you played this game. What Lewis Castle and company were aiming at, when designing this wonderful videogame, was an ambiguous experience that reflects the chaos of the future-noir society as depicted by Kindred Dick and Scott in his 1982 movie. In Westworld’s fine adventure, you choices aren’t based on the dialogues, like in most adventure games where you have positive and negative inputs: simple things like returning twice to the same place, or skip a section of the game, to kill or not to kill, those are the actions which determine the future course of your character’s progression.

    It’s about non-intentional actions, essentially, the small nuances in your player-character behaviour which change slightly everytime you play it. The game draws a fine line across morality, or even the human/replicant condition.

    Also this game is over ten years old: check out the Sierra Online adventures from the same period, from Kyrandia to the Quests, for some insight on prosaic game development. Within its context, Blade Runner is quite the flawless goodbye to the now extinct north-american studio.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • May 15th, 2008

    I get what you’re saying, and can even agree with it. But that doesn’t change the fact that from the player’s point of view that just isn’t interesting.

    First, because it assumes you’re going to play the game or parts of it, more than once, testing for every possible output (to understand the “nuances”), which I feel is a poor idea by any standard (let’s face it: they’re “nuances”, not really new plot elements, and to replay the game just to find them out would implicate a lot of repetition).

    Second, if you analyze the reasons that killed the genre, I’d say that obscure puzzles would be high up on everybody’s list. In a way, the narrative development in “Blade Runner” is one such puzzle. And sure, Sierra’s graphic adventures were even more obscure and poorly designed on many levels, but that doesn’t exactly turn the genre’s flaws into strengths.

    Third: it’s just bad design. Games are based on notions of causality, even if there are some mild random elements (that’s Game Theory 101). Playing “Blade Runner” is kind of like interacting with a simulation game where you are not aware of what actions you can execute and can’t even predict their result, nor understand the logic behind a sequence of past events. Just imagine playing “SimCity” like that, would you enjoy it? I wouldn’t. And yes, it might even serve a purpose, but at what cost? Narrative loses emotional depth (becoming subject of random events), and the player lacks the notion of interactivity and manipulation (since results are essentially unpredictable), thus losing interest in the game. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to have some notion of what I’m doing in a game, and if I don’t, every little action becomes meaningless and lifeless, since either one will lead to an unknown road.

    If you want a treaty on ambiguity in morals, then play “The Witcher”, where those mechanics actually work, since you can actually understand the logic of the action-consequence dynamic, even if you can’t predict each action’s consequences entirely. And yeah, I know it’s a 2007 game, but curiously enough, it makes use of a technically simpler approach to narrative development than the one in “Blade Runner”.

    Yes, “Blade Runner” is a 1997 game, but around that time, there already were better examples of the genre’s mechanics (“Broken Sword”, “Amerzone”…). So while I enjoyed the game’s setting (since it’s based on one of my favorite movies), I just can’t appreciate the gameplay.

    • Dieubussy
    • May 15th, 2008

    There isn’t a “player point of view”, at least not from an objectively. What players expect from a game differs as their individual ability to interact with it becomes decisive to the opinion they form later. So I understand your experience was different from mine. Naturally.

    To play the game a second or a third time is fully optional. I didn’t mean it was mandatory in order to enjoy it. I, for one, only got to replay it years after and I remain adamant about the innovation that was Westwood’s game.

    After you’ve played several point-and-click adventure games, despite the dialogue quality or hi-def graphics, you realize there is always a cause-effect relation between to which the player cannot evade. You do A in order to achieve B, and that leads you to C no matter how many times you do it. That is the case with linear games – whose linearity is but a valid design choice – like in the case of Broken Sword, as well as so many other single-ending narratives that are worthy of being mentioned. Blade Runner, however, adds the unique element of chance to the game, hence the lack of a possible In-Depth FAQs, since the plot unravels by means of random events and or minimal choices – take it as a videogame reenactment of the Chaos Theory. You holster the weapon and you MIGHT get a certain result. There is nothing 100% certain in this game, even if you follow the most detailed guide available; it still defies the notion that adventure games are repetitive, logical and prosaic.

    I’d point out Shenmue as another game where random events prevail, even if the narrative always flows towards a common ending sequence: the game experience, however, differs from player to player. Also, there is no margin for comparison between B.R. and a game like Sim City – need I explain why?! As for the “emotional depth”, I felt nothing of that sort. Actually it was quite a pleasant experience, that of completing a new version of the story which was presented on the film.

    Westwood’s Blade Runner is a flawed game, part of the reason why it is also beautiful and a pleasurable. It would be strenuous to make a game of this excellence today, let alone a decade ago. But I guess that’s the steep price one must pay for playing a game long after its release – yes, that’s your case Mr. Bogosian!

    Nice post though! I forgot to say ‘congratulations’ before, so here it is now!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • May 15th, 2008

    “Blade Runner, however, adds the unique element of chance to the game, hence the lack of a possible In-Depth FAQs, since the plot unravels by means of random events and or minimal choices – take it as a videogame reenactment of the Chaos Theory. You holster the weapon and you MIGHT get a certain result. There is nothing 100% certain in this game, even if you follow the most detailed guide available; it still defies the notion that adventure games are repetitive, logical and prosaic.”
    Jesus F. Christ!!! A reenactment of the Chaos Theory!!! Nice way of putting things 😉

    Sure, the game’s narrative structure is bold and creative, but you must agree innovation isn’t always good, even if it should always be applauded. And I do commend the team behind the game for trying something new and different, and that surely had a good objective. I just find it fails in its attempt at creating a “truly” interactive narrative. I mean, it’s relatively easy throwing pseudo-random events at the player; the challenge lies in creating a narrative that feels like it’s alive and bursting with possibilities, but that at the same time, can be easily shaped by the player’s willful actions… just like SimCity :D. [I know it sounds odd to use simulation games as reference, but one day I’ll explain why…]

    But hey, Westwood tried, and I’m glad they did! 😀

    • Dieubussy
    • May 16th, 2008

    Sim City doesn’t have a narrative. The game reacts to what you build and how you build it, your choices over budget, infra-structures, population growth, loans, with the occasional random event such as natural disasters. In a point and click adventure you have a storyline that can either be single tracked, when there are no alternative choices/alternative consequences, or branched, with multiple choices/multiple consequences.

    1997: The Last Express – choose to leave the body of your mysteriously murdered friend in the train cabin and he’ll be found later by a police search which is inevitable (leads to Game Over). Throw him out of the window while the train moves and you’ll hear the child complaining to her mother on the next compartment that he saw a person fall out of the train moments before. The mother ignores him as the child is always telling incredible stories and lies (you keep on playing).

    While Mechner’s adventure is nothing short of brilliant, the branching storyline is determined by the more or less clear choices you make, while it allows the player to turn back the clock once a mistake is made so he can avoid it by finding another solution to the same problem.

    In B.R., however, the creators intended to create a branched storyline with multiple sequences and eventual endings, where the player was constantly confused by the recollected evidence. Moreover, there is a true feeling of a real-time world where the timing of your actions can be decisive or not. Central characters in the game often operate as the only living element that is able to determine the changes leading to the progression of the story. Here, the power of player’s decision can be less significant as he is performing his investigations. The surrounding world is confusing, even vague at times, as there is a fine line between real and artificial. What is ‘positive’ and what is ‘negative’ about the 2019 L.A., I ask?

    Where you say “bad design” I say “ambiguous real-time world”. Where you mention the lack of a previous warning of what the next input’s value is, I say “you are playing as a character not as yourself”. When I played the game I distinctly remember thinking “why has it come to this point”, trying to reason from things which are beyond reason – much like when get to the end of your day.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • May 16th, 2008

    “You are playing as a character not as yourself”
    Am I? That is the question. I don’t think I am. At least, not in the strict sense of the word “playing”. I am definitely “watching” a character (like in a movie or book) since I can see its actions and consequences. But to “play” a character would mean I had some measure of dictating its actions, and in BR I simply don’t have that, because of the aforementioned reasons.

    If I am “playing” as a character I need to able to choose a part of that character, the role I want her to take; it doesn’t and shouldn’t be a completely static role, but it certainly shouldn’t appear to be random.

    The question you point out: “Why has it come to this point”, only makes sense if there was some credibility to the actions, which I don’t think there is. In real life, you’re never fully aware of the consequences, but you know what choices there are, and you can go as far as predict certain outcomes, something I wasn’t able to do in BR.

    See, you can only put yourself a question like that if the story, in the end, would make some sort of logic, which I feel it doesn’t. More than once, the game fed me lines and facts that later on just didn’t make sense, because they were probably referring different game-flows. And when I wanted to act on those facts and couldn’t, because I had made some silly random choice that I wasn’t aware of, the illusion was destroyed. It’s like clipping your gaming wings, sayin’: “Sorry Mario, you can only jump through the first half of the game, because you killed too many Koopas!” It doesn’t add up, so my mind dismisses the game as a “game”, and not something I’m integrally part of.
    And that is why I dismiss the interactive narrative in BR as flat, because it is castrating instead of empowering to the player, which I think is the whole point of letting him decide certain things for the character. BR chooses for you, without taking into account logic – it just does, no point in asking why. And that isn’t a whole lot better than a linear narrative on my book.

    • Dieubussy
    • May 17th, 2008

    Playing the character means you can make your choices as long as they respect the preordained characteristics which the creators sought as defining for a virtual personality: in this case whatever options you choose, they only represent the limited width which the designers saw fit, in order to preserve the character’s personality and integrity – otherwise you would not be playing WITH a ‘character’, but AS an ‘avatar’.

    Also, many of the game’s choices are easily understandable, unlike what you say. It’s not like you’re always blindly choosing what to do next: sometimes you must rely on instinct; other you just have to toss a coin and see where it leads. As for what got you to certain situations, it was always a combination of your actions, small details and a great deal of chance.

    If you feel powerless as the player of Blade Runner, then the game has served its purpose. There are no heroic feats in the game, and the central character which you guide through the story is a regular person who is overwhelmed by a series of exceptional events which he can’t control, only navigate, like a ship lost in the sea and subject to the fearful moods of the surrounding sea. Instead of dismissing the game you should replay it, find more about it as you hold back that sharp scrutinizing tool which you used to dissect in the first round. Maybe then you would realize that Blade Runner’s narrative system isn’t as flawed as you portray in your pretty, though flat, picture of the game (pun intended+smile).

    • ruicraveirinha
    • May 17th, 2008

    otherwise you would not be playing WITH a ‘character’, but AS an ‘avatar’
    Not really the point here. The point is the degree of freedom your character has. In videogames, character’s personalities have to be molded, or else you couldn’t interact with the game. What I’m questioning is the ability to do so.
    many of the game’s choices are easily understandable
    It depends really; maybe to you they were. Not to me, because surely, the threads you and I played are different. I couldn’t rely on instinct as the game kept throwing me off-balance, limiting my choices and choosing for me. Sure, in the second half of the game I stopped caring about repeating scenes, because I couldn’t get the logic of what was happening.

    “If you feel powerless as the player of Blade Runner, then the game has served its purpose.” But I felt *powerless* in a bad way – frustrated because some choices the game provided were instantly removed because of some silly random choice I made that I wasn’t aware of. Because I can feel *powerless* in a good way (again, try “The Witcher”), when it’s not frustrating to understand what the hell you’re doin’ or have been doin’. Mostly, when Logic and Credibility are part of the equation. But I guess it all comes down to the mechanic not working work for “me”, no point in going back to that yet again.

    P.S. Some other time will talk about SimCity…

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