Blade Runner  

Blade Runner is an interesting example of a story that has migrated from one medium to another without losing its internal coherence, even though the particulars may differ greatly in each case. The original Philip K. Dick´s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was turned into a film and released in 1982 with the name Blade Runner, and the film was turned into a game in 1997. The film is faithful to the novel in its deepest meaning; both question what it means to be human, as Scott Bukatman analyses:

Philip Dick gives us two oppositions: Human/Android and Human/Inhuman. The first is ultimately unimportant, while the second is urgent. The division between human and android raises a central philosophical question: how do you know you´re human? The second opposition leads to a moral problem: what does it mean to be human? (...) Blade Runner performs an ingenious variation on the definitions of humanity that dominated science fiction film in the 50s: (...) humans simply have feelings while non-humans simply do not. Blade Runner denaturalises that division and subtly inverts it: what has feelings is human. Thus the film is as much about Deckards recovery of empathic response as it is about Batty´s development of such a response. (Bukatman 68-70)

Apart from the setting and many scenes directly inspired on the novel and the film, the game also shares this deep meaning with them, and the non-playing characters often ask the protagonist/player: how do you know you´re human?

"You are Blade Runner Ray McCoy, engaged in an adventure uniquely your own. But what you don´t know each time you play is whether you -or anyone else- is human or replicant." (Westwood´s Blade Runner official website)

The game recreates the film settings so faithfully that all fans will be thrilled when they see the opening screen with the ficticious Los Angeles of 2019 and its immense towers with the fires burning against a very dark orange sky. This opening scene (and many others) are exact reproductions of those in the film, and the player even has the chance to talk to characters from the film (like Leon, Doctor Tyrell, Rachael or J.F. Sebastian). McCoy never crosses paths with Rick Deckard (the Blade Runner played by Harrison Ford in the film), but there are constant references to him that give the player the feeling that the game´s events happen at the same time as the film´s. The game has also borrowed a couple of scenes from Dick´s book, like the one where false policemen interrogate the player and suggest that McCoy may be a replicant, or the kipple idea, this term referring to a tremendous accumulation of trash in the city´s outskirts. The cutscenes are also quite sophisticated, and although they show the player who committed the crimes, she must still find out why. All this makes the game a remarkable immersive experience (aided by Vangelis´ powerful soundtrack), and as the player "sits" in her spinner with the control panel and the map of the city before her, she feels that she is a part of that world.

As a rookie Blade Runner, the player doesn´t have a lot of experience in the "retirement" business, and when the game starts she is assigned a case because nobody else seems to be available at the moment. It´s animal murder, a terrible crime in a time when the few living animals are dying out due to pollution. Sergeant Guzza thinks it might be related to escaped replicants, who else could commit such a heartless crime?

The game fits into the "detective story" schema we have discussed above. The player can use a "personal computer" to keep track of her findings, (where all the information about suspects, crime scenes and clues will be stored), and also has access to the main computer in the Police Station, where she can learn what the other Blade Runners have found (although this feature is not very helpful after the first crime scene). She also has an Esper device to analyse bidimensional photographs nearly turning them into tridimensional spaces, and a Voigt-Kampff test machine to measure emotional response during interviews in order to find out if somebody is a replicant. The characters are "round" in a literary sense; they have their own agendas and the dialogue is witty and well acted out.

After the introductory scene the player goes to the first crime-scene -a pet shop- interviews the only witness and clicks around for all objects that make the cursor change color (the interface is simple: the cursor changes color every time there is an object or person with whom the player can interact, the rest of the screen is dead background and the player cannot use objects once she has them, they are only data). The new information directs the player to another location, where she must interview more people, pick up more things, explore the photographs with the Esper, maybe get to do a couple of Voigt-Kampff tests and so on.

This detective´s work is quite linear in the sense that most of the discoveries must happen so that the story advances. The player doesn´t have to do much with the information she gets by clicking around in every "green" point, because Ray McCoy uses it automatically (for example showing a photo to a suspect) when the program thinks it´s necessary and not when the player decides.

The dialogue with the non-playing characters is also quite rigid, as it merely consists of choosing the order of the same conversation topics until they are finished, and the player doesn´t even know what McCoy is actually going to say about the topic she´s choosing. And this only in the "user´s choice" mode, because there are four other modes where the player just listens to the dialogues without the chance of influencing them. These four modes are polite (Mc Coy will warn replicants without killing anybody), surly (he´ll Voigt-Kampff-test everybody), normal (sometimes Voigt-Kampff, sometimes not) or erratic (random), but they are not very advisable if the player wants to have the sensation of being doing something.

Apart from a couple of little puzzles (like when McCoy must think of a plan to get past a bouncer in a discotheque), the game has no traditional puzzles in the adventure games´ style : there is no chance to use objects on objects, to activate devices or to solve mechanical problems, and this is the main reason why many fans think that the game has failed as such and is only a beautiful piece of graphic art (with the exception of the excessively pixelated characters everybody complains about).(2)

But even without the puzzles, I think the game provides enough agency in Janet Murray´s sense. For her, agency is "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices" (Murray 126), and she prefers this term to the often confusing one of "interactivity". Agency is not only action, Murray gives the example of a tabletop game of roulette where players are constantly doing things: operating wheels, exchanging money and choosing numbers, but as the results of their actions are governed by luck alone, there is no agency. In Blade Runner, the detective´s gadgets help to the immersive experience by carefully reproducing those in the film, and their use is also embedded in the narrative so that the player gets a satisfying sense of agency. The Esper machine (in the film it´s also a screen) tests the player´s patience by making her look for hidden information that will later prove relevant to the case, and even though the Voigt-Kampff test machine is not very interactive (it lets the player choose the "emotional intensity" of the question, but not the text), the decision of subjecting somebody to the test has meaningful consequences: the suspect may get angry with McCoy, run away, or attack him. Even the action game feature of the target practice exercises, where McCoy tests his reflexes shooting moving armed dummies and sparing those who carry babies, has later effects, because McCoy´s score will determine how good he is with his weapon and how easy it will be for him to shoot his enemies afterwards.

If Blade Runner was only this, it wouldn´t be very different from the other adventure games, because all try to integrate action and story to more or less successfully provide satisfying agency. Blade Runner´s most powerful sense of agency comes from the narrative decisions that the player must take at key moments.

Both the film and the game are based on a solid Film Noir background where there is no simple maniqueism of "goodies" and "baddies", and the protagonist detective is usually assaulted by moral doubts about his job and his beliefs. In Blade Runner, first Rick Deckard and in the game Ray McCoy must question their own identities searching for answers, and what starts with a "do I have the right to kill them? They only want to live...", ends up as "am I worse than them? How do I know I´m human?" As any "shoot´em up", the game starts with the assignment of "retiring" escaped replicants, but unlike in these narratively simple games, the player has the choice of hunting them, letting them scape or even helping them. There is no "right" thing to do to win the game, the final decision about what is best is left to the player. Indeed, the player´s decisions affect not only the behaviour of the non-playing characters towards McCoy, but also bring about different endings to the game.

This is a huge narrative leap in adventure games, for even if the decision points are not many, they are so significant to the ethos of the story that it truly feels as multi-linear, something that literary hypertext hasn´t yet achieved despite some critics claims. Marie-Laure Ryan addresses this problem in her article "Immersion and Interactivity in Hypertext", and relates hypertext and games in a very interesting interview also in Dichtung Digital, (see references).

It is not the first time that an adventure game has different endings, Myst for example did it before, but while related to the game and what the player has seen about each of the brothers, Myst´s endings are too centered on winning or losing, so that there are two "bad" endings and a "good" one. Blade Runner´s endings have no winning/losing implication, but rather a moral one: you may escape with one (or some) of your replicant friends if you have helped them or if you believe you are a replicant yourself, or you may have killed them all and walk back to the city with Gaff or Crystal (other Blade Runners), or you may have killed Crystal as well and find yourself alone. There are many permutations under the two main themes: replicant-friend or replicant-enemy, and they are a consequence of the player´s actions during the game. There are some endings in which McCoy escapes with his "chosen girl": Lucy, a fourteen year-old lolita; Dektora, a beautiful dancer and Clovis´s (the replicant leader) ex-lover; or, in the case of being a replicant-enemy, Crystal Steele, the cold and efficient feminine Blade Runner. The dialogue amusingly plays with the sexual attraction between McCoy and any of the three women throughout the game, a clear proof that it is oriented to masculine players. And while women-players may enjoy stepping into a masculine role for a while, they are really excluded from this part of the story, as there is no possibility of playing as a woman Blade Runner and "living a romance" with Clovis or another masculine character. This is not a flippant complaint; sexual attraction between the Blade Runner and the replicants is a very important issue in the book and the film, because it arises deep doubts about one´s feelings and identity. In the game, women and homosexual players can´t get involved in this sense unless they really turn into McCoy for some hours. There is nothing wrong with roleplaying, but it is always women who must play the transvestite using masculine characters and not the other way round.

All endings try to reach a satisfactory narrative climax "closing" the story in a Hollywood style. For example, when McCoy escapes in the moon bus with the replicants, his chosen girlfriend (Lucy/Dektora) speaks the last sentence: "And this time our memories will be our own" (3), a reference to the implanted memories that all replicants have; Gaff sees the moon bus fly away and leaves a little origami tiger on the floor (in allusion to the Blake poems that Clovis quotes through the game). In fact, in every ending where McCoy has killed all the replicants except for Clovis and steps into the moon bus, Clovis lies in a bed and dies while reading a poem aloud in an allegory of loss and sadness, then McCoy gets out and talks to Gaff, who says a line from the film: "You´ve done a man´s job, sir!", and lets McCoy pondering about his own humanity after he has given him an origami dog that reminds him of his pet Maggie. In the endings where McCoy escapes in a car with either Lucy or Dektora, they don´t know how much time they have left (if McCoy hasn´t found the ADN information in Tyrell´s laboratory) but they will "live each day as if it was a whole life"; then we can see a dead Clovis in the moon bus and an origami tiger on the floor.

None of the endings is so open and disquieting as the director´s cut film ending with Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) in the elevator and the doors slamming shut with an ominous noise. The disastrous sneak previews forced Ridley Scott to shoot another ending in which both characters can be seen escaping in a car through a beautiful forest landscape. This "happy ending" is the one that was released in 1982, and it was substituted by the original one in the 1992 Director´s cut. (See Sammon for a story of the film´s making). If the 1982 film audience wasn´t ready for such a pessimistic and uncertain ending, the game audience of the 90s certainly isn´t more prepared for experimentation in a medium that is not yet as ripe as cinema. But this is just as well for the moment, as the game´s endings are not simple or childlike, and the player´s sense of completion depends greatly on the coherence of her actions during the game and their final consequences that she sees reflected on the ending.

Is McCoy a replicant? Scott Bukatman jokingly remarks that the question whether Deckard is a replicant has "generated more discussion on the Internet than the existence of God" (Bukatman 80). For him, the ambiguity is crucial, the question being more important than the answer, and he thinks that the film has a double reading so that the definition of what it means to be human stays open for the viewer to solve (Bukatman 80-83). The game also leaves the question open; there are some hints that suggest that McCoy might be a replicant, like the conversation with Sadik and Clovis where they call him "brother", the moon bus photo where McCoy appears behind Clovis, the encounter with the "false policemen", etc. But none of these hints is definitive, and it is in fact the player herself who decides about her status: helping the replicants will sometimes mean that you are one of them (other times you are just a replicant sympathizer), and killing them will make you the toughest Blade Runner in town despite Gaff´s dog origami.

If a computer game´s ultimate question is: "am I human?", something has changed from the times when the question was "how many points can I get killing them?" There are other adult themes in the game: the extinction of animal species, the emotional interaction with the dog, the emphaty of the replicants for one another and their sense of being a "family", the amorality of some technological advances, political corruption, paranoia, the possible sexual abuse of young Lucy by Runciter and Early Q. or the disturbing love affair of McCoy himself with 14 year old Lucy...

Westwood´s advertisement had insisted on the game being the first "real time adventure game" and had talked about its "constantly changing plot" that make it "interactive storytelling", and many players were disappointed when they found the game was something else (see note 2). Both claims are exaggerations, specially the first, as time has no impact whatsoever in the way the story unfolds; it doesn´t matter if it takes the player ten minutes or three hours to find Lucy´s photo in the first crime-scene so that she can proceed to the next scenario, nothing will happen until she does. The "constantly changing plot" refers to a few random options in the game, for example who out of six of the non-playing characters will turn out to be a replicant, or if the player will find a box full of scorpions in a shop. This certainly introduces changes, but it wouldn´t be enough to ensure a replayability value if the player´s decisions on whom to kill and whom to help weren´t as important as I have explained above.

It is true that it is is the first adventure game worth playing more than once, but this game is no revolution. Westwood is in the right direction with the multiple meaningful endings and the concentration on the deep ethos of the story, but from that to "interactive storytelling" there is a long way to go. The plot has some inconsistencies, no doubt due to the openness of the story to allow for different combinations, and the linearity of the dialogues is quite frustrating when the decision points have achieved such satisfying agency.

The important thing is that Blade Runner is a first step in the development of adventure games towards adult themes and real agency. Both are possible with today´s technical means, the usual alibi when adventure games are too linear or boring. Blade Runner shows that managing plot branching is not only possible, it also provides a more gratifying involvement in the story than spectacular graphics or complicated puzzles.

The challenge of this genre will be to overcome the linearity of the interaction between playing and non-playing characters, and towards this aim strive the experiments with artificial intelligence that are being carried out in universities and gaming companies. This seems to me the real participatory narrative of the future. In the twenty-first century, we won´t only want to be told stories, we´ll want to live them.