Blade Runner fuses together a morally ambivalent story about godhood with a visual panache that has shaped cinematic science fiction since its 1982 release. While it has inspired many games like Snatcher, Mean Streets, and the forthcoming Cyberpunk 2077, there have actually been only two Blade Runner video games, each of which approaches its source material in unique ways.
This story originally appeared in July 2017.
The first, in 1985, was a simplistic shooting game for consoles that focused on the action sequences of the movie. The second was released in 1997 for the PC and concentrated on narrative and worldbuilding, serving as an authentic Blade Runner simulator that allowed players to navigate the neon decadence of a futuristic Los Angeles. In their own way, each provides insights into what makes Blade Runner so special.
One More Replicant, Dear
The first time I saw Blade Runner in the late 90s when I was 16 years old, I felt underwhelmed, especially after all the praise I'd heard. I didn't get its appeal until I read the source material, Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The movie isn't just about Deckard, who begins to empathise with his prey, the Nexus 6 replicants (biorobotic androids used as slave labour in the offworld colonies) that have to be "retired" if they go against their programming. It's a broader examination of the parallels religion has to technology, in this case in a cruel world devastated by the apocalyptic World War Terminus.
The 1985 Blade Runner game was developed by British game company CRL Group PLC and came out for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC. All three were 8-bit computers that many used as gaming consoles.
The game distils blade running into its purest form: the player tracks down replicants (called replidroids here) by chasing them through crowds and killing them. Even in a simplistically digitised format, Deckard's plight becomes apparent in that the replidroids are identical to the humans. As he hunts them down, the only indication that they're artificial is that they run when he approaches.
Unlike many of the standard shoot-em-ups of the time, these aren't villains or criminals you're tracking down. They're just machines with advanced intelligence, created by humans, that want to live. The unarmed replidroids get faster with each level, but they don't ever fight back. You're literally shooting them in the back. If blade running really existed, it'd probably be as sad, mind-numbing, and soul-draining as killing replidroids in stage after stage.
In an email exchange with Clem Chambers, who started CRL Group PLC in the early 80s, he explained that he started the company after he had "failed to get into a university." He then "decided to try my hand at starting a business. London was the obvious place, so that was the location.
The idea was to rent out computers like they used to do with TVs. That turned out to be a non-starter so I thought I might try and publish some computer games. I'd seen some ZX-81 cassettes on sale in Smiths, there was half a dozen different titles, so I thought I'd give it a go. The company took off."
CRL developed several adventure games inspired by horror stories like Dracula and Frankenstein. They also developed a game based off the popular British science fiction television series Terrahawks, which became one of the first video games based on a TV show.
Blade Runner, rather than being a straight tie-in to the film, took inspiration from the film's soundtrack by Vangelis. Vangelis' synthesiser is as much a part of the fabric of Blade Runner as its noirish visuals. The audio compositions channel the dystopian symphony of a bleak future into electric blues.
As Chambers explained, "The movie was great, but at the time there was no one to deal with to get the film rights." The rights situation for Blade Runner has historically been complicated, with different groups owning the rights to different aspects of the film.
"There was, however, an emergent music publishing company called Rocksoft. So in desperation we did a deal for the music with them. The Blade Runner film music was classic and I loved it, even though its rights also seemed to be in publishing hell."
CRL's Blade Runner faithfully recreates the "End Theme" which plays throughout most of the game. CRL hired an external developer to interpret the film score into a video game. "We had a company called Clever Music do it, which was a couple of guys trying to leave their boring jobs and become a music producing company. The main guy, Robert Hartshorne, went on to become an award winning composer and music producer. He also became the composer behind the Thomas the Tank Engine series."
It's no coincidence that the execution of the replidroids is euphemised as "retirement," a work-oriented term. Even though the game seems like a simplistic rendering of the film, it required a lot of work, as Chambers' explained.
"These games involved long difficult intensive development schedules where the developer and their team mates worked 24/7 for weeks and months to deliver it. They weren't much fun, especially for the management who had staked the company on the product."
Blade Runner captured the thrill (and frustration) of the replicant chases, focusing its gameplay around the shooting elements and taking inspiration from the musical score. It achieved what it aimed for, but those seeking a more complete Blade Runner experience would have to wait a decade as the rights issues relating to the film got sorted out.
Memories of Blade Running
Taking a few steps forward from the cinematic action focus of the 1985 game, the 1997 Blade Runner PC game is as close to being inside both Blade Runner and the book as players would get. A point-and-click adventure game, it was developed by Westwood Studios and published by Virgin Interactive. (Westwood was bought by EA in 1998. I worked at EA from 2003-2005, though I never worked directly with the EA Westwood division.)
The whole game begins when a series of animal murders leads rookie Blade Runner Ray McCoy on a journey to track down a different group of replicants from the film.
The game has many nods to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This includes the pet shop, the stigma of artificial pets, and the idea of kipple (junk that tends to reproduce itself). There is also a reference to Philip K. Dick's novel Ubik through the name of the pet shop owner, Runciter.
Louis Castle, the executive producer for Blade Runner PC, told me in an email: "Our game design and writing teams at Westwood always did deep research into the IP we were working on. The reference to Dick's other work, and even a few nods to other works referenced as influences to the original film, were lovingly included as an homage to the film, its creators and their inspirations. I strongly believe that great IP extensions build upon the body of work and value of the IP instead of borrowing from it."
That spirit of building on the original was what helped Westwood get the project in the first place. The production company that holds the rights for the film, the Blade Runner Partnership, had spent several years securing the rights.
Even then, there were lingering concerns that aspects of the film's rights could be claimed by different parties. So when they began searching for potential developers, they were drawn to original content rather than a recreation of the film as with most tie-in games.
Castle explained, "The original pitch of Blade Runner was to create a game concurrent with the film that would allow for any events off camera to be resolved in a variety of ways. Weaving the game story into the existing film narrative allowed the player to immerse themselves in the film world without requiring them to replay events they have already seen. More importantly, they get to provide the context for the back story, so in a very real sense, the player's story becomes deeply personal."
Ray McCoy is a contemporary of Rick Deckard, inhabiting the same space and even using similar equipment. The game lets you control McCoy as he utilises the tools of blade running.
There is a palpable thrill in using the ESPER machine to recreate photos in 3D, or busting out the Voight-Kampff machine to ask provocative questions to track emotion in targets. While the latter device was in both the film and book, in the game it feels much more tangible, as you see the exact mechanics of how it functions and determine the questions you want to ask.
This is in addition to players tracking down witnesses, interrogating them using five of the available personalities you can select from in the pause menu, compiling clues in the Knowledge Integration Assistant, and following up on leads at various locations.
You're not just a passive witness in the world, but an active participant, sleuthing your way through the mysteries of the case as well as the history of the dying metropolis.
"Above all the Blade Runner game is a simulation," Castle explained. "Each character collects information and shares it while events continue to unfold. The player is inside the simulated machine and sets conditions which allow for events, but the exact order is very loose."
"Interestingly, the game does not determine McCoy's reality. Characters like Lucy may be replicant or sympathiser but no such decision is made for McCoy. If the player plays as if McCoy is a replicant, then the simulation notices and treats McCoy as a replicant.
The converse is equally true. This further enhances the player's ability to inform the narrative and to make the world of Blade Runner very personal. It is even quite possible to play the game to the completion and in the final moments have a dramatic change in behaviour that flips the world's assessment of your humanity, or lack thereof."
This seeming ambiguity about who is a replicant and who isn't is a key component of Blade Runner's allure. The question of whether Rick Deckard is a replicant or not is one of the most hotly debated questions from the film.
As Castle mentioned for the game, McCoy's status is interlinked with how you navigate your way through the world. The narrative changes with randomised events in every playthrough, diverging and intersecting to result in 13 possible endings.
Some characters will be replicants in one playthrough, but not in another. This makes the story feel dynamic and also amplifies the game's sense of anxiety, since you don't want to "retire" a human by mistake.
"The irony of the Blade Runner universe is that some of the most inhumane behaviour identifies a character as human," Castle stated. "We created the context of the story as acts with classic story structure. Each act began with an inciting incident and ended with a resolution. Unlike linear narrative we allowed for a variety of resolutions so that a player could continue the story with their own conceptions of McCoy's humanity."
Tales of the Future
Glowing bicycles in the rain, advertisements for off-world colonization, and spinner forays past skyscrapers are just part of the connections between Westwood's Blade Runner and the film. Westwood worked with the film's original concept artist, Syd Mead, as well as the film's set builders, to help recreate the original sets along with new ones. Having their guidance ensured a visual bridge between the two, rooting it in the movie's aesthetics.
They also hired members of the original cast like Joe Turkel (Eldon Tyrell), Sean Young (Rachael), and James Hong (Hannibal Chew) to return as voice actors and models for the voxel art to anchor the characters back to the film. "It was pretty funny when we went to do the makeup for Hong, who played Hannibal Chew," Castle said about the eye engineer for the replicants.
"He naturally looked very similar to how he looked in the film. Turns out the passing years had naturally added the weathered face that required a great deal of makeup when he was younger." As for the crew, "The professional staff and actors we hired both in front of and behind the camera were a joy to work with."
"They also deeply respected the place in cult classics that Blade Runner has earned. Each was eager to contribute to a faithful extension and all were very clear on their concerns of quality and respect for the original work. Contributing to games, other than voice-over work, was new to many of them so it was exciting to share our experiences."
Castle wore many hats on the game (art director, technical director, executive producer), which helped create a sense of unity across the game's world. But it was the entire team's contributions that brought the vision to life.
"The team at Westwood had worked together for so long we could practically finish each other's sentences. Donny Miele did a great job as producer, Mike Legg was phenomenal as engineering lead, and Aaron Powell really pushed the limits on the art. I had the concept of how we could combine art, technology and design to push some boundaries, but I could never have balanced it all without the entire team at Westwood, especially the craft leaders."
"I believe maintaining the technology, art and design decisions allowed me to make more nuanced tradeoffs between the disciplines."
The music, composed by Frank Klepacki, faithfully evokes the spirit of Vangelis via a technological dirge that is as haunting as it is memorable. "Frank did an amazing job of not only recreating the magnificent soundscape from the film but also extending the emotional sense into new environments.
Each setting, from nightclubs to animal stores, created new opportunities to extend the emotional impact of the film. In addition to melancholy and isolation we endeavoured to create a constant sense of tension and fear, with very little action. The fact that virtually any scene could explode in violence really helped to drove home that feeling of anxiety.
"Recreating the emotions evoked in the film was a constant and deliberate effort. Every line of dialogue, concept drawing, sound effect and countless other details were measured against recreating the emotions of the film."
While the game was a critical and financial success, the prospect of an increased licensing fee coupled with high production costs precluded a sequel from happening. "We never got to the point of laying out the story for Blade Runner 2," Castle explained.
"Given the large diversity of endings, it would have been a challenge to continue on Ray's story. The game engine sequel would have been about continuing the technology of interactive stories and the use of deferred rendering to bring visually and narratively deep stories to life. I suspect we would have continued the storyline through McCoy since the very nature of McCoy's humanity is the story the player gets to tell in Blade Runner."
2049 In 2017
I never thought there'd be another Blade Runner film. Like many fans, I was thrilled by the announcement and the release of the trailer for Blade Runner 2049. With a new movie on the horizon, it will be interesting to see if more games are created in the world, especially as the mythos grows. At the same time, I wondered what about the original work has made it resonate with so many people all these years later.
"It's because it makes us examine what it means to be human," Castle conjectured when I asked him this question. "The Blade Runner world provokes deep emotions and questions the path of humanity. We have already begun to merge humanity with technology."
"Technology is no longer just a tool but has expanded to become a very real part of who we are. We have become creators who have advanced our machines far faster than our biology has evolved and continue to incorporate them into our very being. The blending of humanity and technology through biological intervention and cybernetics could prepare us for the likely technical singularity."
But will they oppose each other the way some scientists have warned and result in a future where something corresponding to an actual "Blade Runner" department retires errant technologies?
"I don't think there will be a battle between people and machines," Castle stated. "I think the two will become indistinguishable. It will be up to us to preserve humanity. Stories like Blade Runner are even more important now to help us define humanity. Through the plight of the replicants we can examine our own prejudice and mortality and hopefully find what parts of our frailties make us human to preserve them."
Whenever I watch Blade Runner, I think of the way the movie, book, and games complement each other, giving deeper meaning to each. Ultimately, it's the way Blade Runner's power comes from its framing of questions about existence and technology, showing them from a perspective that both humans and theoretical replicants alike can empathise with.
Whether it's focusing on the action that shows the adverse relationship between humanity and technology, or letting players fill the shoes of a blade runner and decide themselves how to juggle the moral uncertainties of executing replicants, the Blade Runner games find new ways to explore the themes of the film.