21st: Blade Runner

New "Blade Runner" game scores with a return to its roots in the writing of Philip K. Dick.

Published January 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In the annals of cyberpunk, few brand names hold higher value than "Blade Runner," the film. In a single moody noir sci-fi stroke, director Ridley Scott captured the imagination of a generation. Scott's vision of a rain-swept future Los Angeles, swamped by neon-flavored Asia and laced with brooding existential ambiguity, established a legacy to be tampered with only at great peril.

The burden must have been mighty for the creators of "Blade Runner," the game, at Westwood Studios. Happily, they delivered, in inspired fashion. As an interactive CD-ROM, "Blade Runner" succeeds in evoking every atmospheric marvel of a film that was itself a masterpiece of evocative power. But it also goes much further, reaching back and immersing itself in the world of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" -- the original Philip K. Dick novel upon which "Blade Runner," the film, was (very) loosely based.

The satisfaction runs deep. We can submerge ourselves in the Ridley Scott version -- luxuriating in sumptuous graphics and a superb soundtrack, zipping through stunning tableaus of a dystopian Los Angeles landscape in our airborne jet cars. We can strive to hunt down replicants just like a "real" blade runner -- enhancing photographs in search of cleverly hidden clues with our whizz-bang gadgetry, exchanging neo-hard boiled banter with some 70 interactive characters, many of whom seem to leap right off the big screen.

But that's just the surface. For the true "Blade Runner" fan, the homage to Philip K. Dick is an unexpected and exhilarating reward offered in return for popping four discs into the CD-ROM player. The narrative splices scenes and dialogue and characters taken directly from the novel seamlessly into the visual world of the film. Dick's obsession with the question of what it really means to be alive and human runs through the narrative like a deep, inexorable current, sweeping all game play before it.

Actually, judged purely as a game, "Blade Runner" has significant flaws. Although supposedly an "adventure game," there isn't all that much in the way of action. Solving the puzzles presented by the game amounts to little more than pointing and clicking on every possible object or person -- one isn't required to think. And, as a number of disappointed hard-core gamers have already noted on the Net, once you get to the end, after some 15 to 20 hours of game play, there is a serious question as to whether you will want to play again. Quite possibly not.

Why is that so? Precisely because of the emphasis on narrative at the expense of player-determined action. "Blade Runner" isn't so much a game, really, as it is an ingenious demonstration of the possibilities of hypertext multimedia fiction. And for those who might find the attraction of spending 20 hours in an interactive "Blade Runner" future that is equal parts Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick almost irresistible, the question of replayability is moot. Game players might shrug their shoulders; fans of "Blade Runner" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" will not.

The first clue hinting that this version of "Blade Runner" is more a work of art than an adventure thrill-ride emerges from its most un-gamelike structure. "Blade Runner," the game, is divided into five "acts." Sprinkled throughout the acts and marking the transitions between them are dramatic set-pieces in which animated characters, including your own, interact with each other, without input from the game player. As I progressed through the sequence, I found myself increasingly obsessed with advancing the story line, with striking the gold of each new revelation, rather than with solving crimes, shooting replicants or playing with my on-screen Voigt-Kampff machine (for detecting replicants).

In general, hypertext fiction usually suffers from its own defining characteristic -- the requirements of a non-linear narrative structure. Allowing the reader to choose his or her own path through a story doesn't necessarily ensure a satisfactory experience -- it's all too easy to run around in circles or create a self-contradictory mess. "Blade Runner" neatly skips past this problem, thanks to its own unique faithfulness to the themes of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" You can alter the outcome of the game, as well as how some of the "acts" play out, by altering your own behavior -- to the extent that other characters change their own identity from human to replicant, or vice versa, according to your actions.

The ensuing ambiguity of identity is so true to the original Philip K. Dick vision that it's breathtaking. Form and content are as one. Nothing is as it seems, and everything is amenable to change: just as it should be, but just as it could not be in a staid old book or film. Somewhere, Philip K. Dick is smiling.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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