The Imitation Game: Westwood’s Blade Runner

October 6, 2017 by Displate Artists Team in Gaming Art

How would you describe the cultural impact of Blade Runner? It jump-started book sequels, comic books, animations, TV series and games based on the movie and its distinctive aesthetics of neo-noir and cyberpunk, now almost indistinguishable for the genre’s description. It merged ethical dilemma of ‘replicant retirement’ and philosophical issues of personal identity, still staying true to its sci-fi roots. A similar approach was the key objective of Westwood’s Blade Runner game that hit shelves in 1997.

There were two games based on Ridley Scott’s masterpiece: first, named Blade Runner, came in 1985 courtesy of British company CRL Group Plc. It took the action-packed replicant pursues from the movie and turn them into the game. As a titular blade runner, you had to chase them down and ‘retire’ them permanently. And it was pretty much it. 

Well, the second one, also called Blade Runner, was a collective effort of Westwood Studios and people involved in the production of the movie. The scope was bigger, with the creative aspirations being of (remaking) the movie itself. It followed the actions of Ray McCoy, a freshly deputized police officer, in hunt of animal killers (which are a rare sight because of their endangerment due to the aftermath of fallout). In a manner of true Blade Runner game, players visited well-known locations from the movie – occasionally meeting few familiar faces. Rick Deckard is absent though, only mention by some characters, but his actions are marked during the game. This Blader Runner is a ‘sidequel’ of sorts – it takes place simultaneously to the events of the movie, mirroring them closely. 

Rough Beginnings

But the task of preparing the game based on the movie wasn’t the easiest task. The rights to the film were scattered over different companies and it took several years before Westwood Studios actually begin development. To avoid further legal problems Louis Castle – game’s lead artist and director – decided to incorporate a story that would differ from the film, but be still within the movie’s milieu. That way the game wouldn’t have to be as heavily inspired by the movie as it would with the straight adaptation. It’s still about catching rogue replicants, but with 13 different endings and constant questions whether NPCs (or the main character) are humans or androids – it’s to be decided by the players during Voigt-Kampff test sequences – the game adaptation stays true to Blade Runners roots and its dilemmas. 

It’s safe to say Westwood’s vision was ambitious. From the scope, through the design, to technology – from the standpoint of 1997, there was a lot to prepare. Getting the right to the movie was just a small step forward. The studio soon realized they were unable to use any footage from the movie, not to mention Vangelis soundtrack. Although they could cast people from the movie it was ruled out almost instantly that Harrison Ford would appear in the game. Instead, other original cast reprised their roles, including Sean Young as Rachel and Joe Turkel as Tyrell.  

blade runner game screenshot
Blade Runner screenshot

Blade Runner’s Concept Art

The strong contribution though was that of Syd Mead, who previously prepared concept arts that formed the basis for the movie’s aesthetics. He sends the team extracts from his original artworks but as it turned out his approach differed from the finished film. Mead’s approach tended to be clean and polished whereas the film had been grittier, dirtier and more “worn-out”. Nevertheless, his color palette and art style supplemented neon-lit, reflective surfaces of Los Angeles 2019.

Those decisions were made due to budget issues: if the filmmakers would prepare sets based on Mead concepts, the movie would be too expensive to shot. Instead, they decided to make “less perfect” version of artist’s designs. Westwood did the same: every asset in the game had to come from either the movie or movie’s concept arts. At first, the lead modeler and concept artist for the game, Gary Freeman, started to prepare futuristic assets, but they didn’t match the visuals of the movie. He then took the more industrial look and matched the visuals to the original vision. Just take a look at the opening scenes of the game with all those flames shooting out high buildings for the final effect.

Replicants’ Technology

The technology used to develop the game was advanced in 1997. At the time of 3D accelerators and 128 MB RAM storage, preparing the game that rich in graphical information was a real challenge. 

“When we told Intel that we were doing a 640×480, 65,000 color game that emulates true color, with a 16-bit Z-buffer and six-channel CD-quality audio, they said you can’t — the PCI bus can’t support it […] So we felt good about ourselves, because we hadn’t even mentioned the 750,000 polygons for the characters yet.”

– says Louis Castle, executive vice president of Westwood Studios

Westwood used self-developed voxel technology (pixels with width, height, and depth) instead of regular 3D. To render almost 140 locations would be too much for than CPUs. Moving camera and games environment took almost 60% of the CPU bandwidth, but thanks to voxels the game was playable in steady 15 frames per second.

We had to invent a new technology for the characters […] We went back to voxel technology and used it as a launching pad. What we are using is not voxels, but sort of ‘voxels plus.’ We use voxels to do the three-dimensional rotations, transformations, and projections that create the character, but we actually use a very fast polygon rendering engine to render the polygons to the screen. By not having to have a voxel model that is so dense that every pixel is a voxel, we were able to achieve much higher frame rates with much more polygons on the screen and have lots of characters. 

Blade Runner Blues

The last part to work on was the soundtrack. Since the rights for Vangelis music was out of reach, Frank Klepacki – a Westwood’s composer – had to recreate it by ear. The effect he achieved is stunningly similar to the original, especially his take on iconic ‘Blade Runner Blues’ that can be heard in Ray’s apartment for example. 

Overall Blade Runner is an ambitious game that unfortunately couldn’t outrun some of its flaws. Although voxels technology was performing better than standard 3D, the models were a bit messy, and the story mimicked the movie a little too much. But the atmosphere and a mere fact, that every player can immerse in this unique universe of LA 2019 is enough reason to call it an obscure classic. Unfortunately, all of the game’s assets are long lost and gone so it’s unlikely to ever get an HD remake and extend its lifespan. But as Tyrell said to Roy in the famous scene from the movie: the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and Blade Runner game have burned so very, very brightly. 

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