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Blade Runner, Westwood, 1997

Blade Runner is a computer game that arrived with plenty of hype, enough to make sure the expectations in my mind could have nothing to do with the reality of the game. After reading about it for so long, I was ready for a giant leap forward in gameplay, graphics, everything. Blade Runner nearly fulfills the promise of its famous license (see my review of the movie), but is often simply boring.

The game comes on four CDs, and you need a fast computer system to run this game. Ridley Scott's famous future is recreated here, and fans will love wandering around the gorgeous locations. There's the noodle bar, the Tyrell buildings, Sebastian's apartment, and a few other scenes, replicated in stunning detail from the movie. The new places you can visit fit with what we know of Los Angeles in 2019: always raining, it's pitch-black out day and night, and there's some fascinating retrofitting going on. Unfortunately, the lovely game background isn't matched by the characters moving around in the foreground. Any time the main character, Ray McCoy, gets close to the foreground, he gets severely pixellated, as if he had just wandered out of a mid-80s adventure game. In conversation, characters' faces often become indistinguishable blurs. When the game switches to rendered cutscenes, we are treated to lots of non-credible body movements, especially noticeable in hand motions. Maybe true realism isn't possible in such a format, but my disappointment is directly proportional to the hype that preceded the game.

On to gameplay. The player mainly walks around, often aimlessly, trying to trigger the next plot event, or worse, carefully moving the mouse over the entire screen, looking for a hotspot. Sometimes the clues fit together and the next step was logical. But more often there is a surfeit of eye candy, and the player feels like the passive viewer of a gorgeous movie. Nice movie, too bad they forgot to include some gameplay. Westwood also heavily hyped the game's replayability, due to a number of different endings. This has always struck me as a futile endeavour in an adventure game but give Westwood points for trying. I did like the way there was only a short scene at the end of each different ending, because this was similar to the movie in the way it intelligently used implications to get the point across. For example, if you shoot everybody, Gaff gives you an origami, The End.

The character interaction is a bit too hardboiled to be believed. Blade Runner the movie got away with this kind of stereotypical detective dialogue because it was balanced by the rest of what was going on -- here, the detective thing is the only thing. Subtlety is thrown out the window, and each character has one specific dialogue trait that is repeated ad nauseam. In the movie, Roy Batty quotes from Blake once -- here, the replicant character Clovis spouts Blake almost every time he opens his mouth. "Without contraries is no progression," he says at one point, an apt quotation from Plate 3 of Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." It's just a soundbite, an empty way of trying to create a consistent character.

A major grievance I had with the game was its underlying sexism. One of the options at the end is to run off with Lucy, a thirteen-year-old replicant, which doesn't strike me as much different than Runciter using her as his sex toy (which we find out in the opening movie). Crystal Steel is another Blade Runner, often competing with McCoy. She is super-competent, foul-mouthed, and extremely stereotypical. And following strictly along with the way that this strong woman type is generally portrayed, Steel dies at the end. She dies no matter which plot route you follow, which I find to be very disturbing (if there was a different end, I'd love to know about it). Furthermore, when he arrives (and I'm distancing myself, as the computer game player, from the character I'm supposed to be controlling -- this forced participation is what makes me so angry about this) at Nightclub Row, you find out about his attitudes towards women in a hurry. The game includes some exploitive and demeaning imagery here, with none of the balance or intelligent context of the brief moment of nudity in the movie. What's more, Ridley Scott understood the idea of Rachel as replicant (or even Zora, but more so with Rachel) in a way that no one at Westwood even approaches -- here we're subjected to some crass and sleazy images without the slightest hint of any intelligent reason for it. Considering the typical market for computer games (young to mid-adult males), I don't think Westwood cares, and probably included these kinds of attitudes deliberately. I get very depressed just thinking about that kind of calculated sexism.

A few random enjoyable moments in the game. It's fun to give the Voight-Kampff test to people, and using the ESPER was also neat -- both devices were portrayed convincingly. Westwood also included a few nods to Philip K. Dick's book, and starting the game off at a crime scene of animal murders is quite brilliant. The sequence with the supposed police station is almost straight from the book, and nicely captured a bit of Dick's paranoia.

Westwood's Blade Runner is a half-decent attempt to capture the feel of one of science fiction's greatest works of cinematic art; the contrast is big enough that I'll likely rewatch the movie instead of playing the game when I want my Blade Runner fix.


First posted: February 2, 1998; Last modified: February 18, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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