Blade Runner [video game] (1997)

This 1997 game, “Blade Runner”, was not an adaptation of the 1982 film. Some sort of subtitle to distinguish it from the film (”Blade Runner 2019”, “Blade Runner: The Dark Replicant Rises”, “Blade Runner: Hey, can I get a hard copy of that?”) would have been appreciated, as it gets a bit clunky discussing the game when its title and the fact it seemed to be a tie-in movie video game make it seem like something it isn’t. What it actually is, is a game set in the same year of the film, but developed fifteen years later, and featuring a different protagonist and story. Many side characters and locations are shared between the film and game, but it’s an honest attempt at telling some sort of new story in the setting.

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How did it do? Well, I admire the fact the developers, Westwood Studios, really did try to make an honest-to-god “sidequel”, not just aping the film, but telling a new story in a faithful recreation of the film’s setting. It’s understandably dated at this point (it was a pain to get running well on a PC in 2017, with some key mechanics tied to how computers performed fifteen years ago), but was quite original at the time, pioneering some ideas like procedurally developed narratives, game worlds progressing in real-time disconnected to the player’s actions, voxel rendering…it wasn’t totally seminal, but definitely before its time in lot of ways.

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But a lot of the game itself is really a mess. A really shlocky, cheesy, cliche mess. Very overwrought. Many lines come across as parody, and aren’t helped by the tepid delivery from the voice actors (even the few returning cast members from the film don’t come across very well). Repeated lines (”hey can I get a hard copy of that?”) grate, music is poorly paced through the game, the frequent narration reminds me why Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott disliked the narration on the film’s theatrical cut so much, the intercutting with the film feels forced and undercutting of the actual movie (Rachael and Tyrell meeting another blade runner the exact day they met Deckard is painfully contrived, and that’s not touching on the meeting with Sebastian, the investigation behind the scenes at a stripper joint, Gaf showing up at the end to say a cryptic line, etc.), and so on. Some of that, like the narration and some of the cop cliches, arguably is just a case of the game going for more of a traditional film noir vibe than the actual film, but most of it feels poorly executed.

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What’s more interesting is how the game draws from the book, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” in ways the film didn’t. The protagonist’s relationship with their animal is a key story element, the plot itself revolves around electric animals, there’s a second police station scene like in the novel, and so on. Some of the other connections to the film are interesting, like some of the possible endings being similar to the theatrical cut’s “happy” ending of a couple driving off into the distance, the open road, and the game actually offering a “designer cut” that cuts down on the game’s dialogue – a personal “theatrical”/butchered cut of the game for the player?

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To its credit, the game does do a good job replicating some of the film’s atmosphere and setting out some of its own. The protagonist Ray McCoy himself is a bit bright, quippy, and talkative for the whole Blade Runner vibe at times, but stepping out onto his balcony, observing the smoke and city while “Blade Runner Blues” plays, it’s a lovely thing. A less lovely deployment of the film’s music is the passionate, saxophone driven “Love Theme” playing often when McCoy (a middle-aged man) talks to the character Lucy Devlin, a fourteen year-old pet store worker that McCoy can run away with for a life together in some of the endings. In the endings where she’s a replicant, the voiceover and music might just feel like poor taste in a situation that’s contrived to make some sense, McCoy protecting her from those who would “retire” her, but there are endings where she’s human and McCoy runs away with her anyway.

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Characters that can be replicant or human? It’s one of the most interesting aspects of the game. When a player starts a new games, multiple characters are randomly determined by the game to be replicant or human. It’s a variable randomly generated for each new game. Depending on the player’s action, the protagonist himself can be revealed as a replicant, or not. I wish the game went further with this and baked the idea into more of the actual storytelling and thematics, making more of a comment on the ambiguity of humanity and perhaps iterating off the debate around the film’s various cuts and whether they position their protagonist as replicant or not, but alas, it mostly seems to just be an interesting way of increasingly replayability.

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It’s a clunky game, and not just because of its age, but there are some interesting ideas here and it tried to be a lot more than a usual cashgrab tie-in movie video game or anything like that. Two and a half ESPER machines, and a hard copy of that.

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