Blade Runner was the first DVD I ever owned — not the movie, but Westwood Studios’ 1997 PC adventure game. Originally released on four CDs, the ambitious game was also bundled onto a single disc by Packard Bell as a way to demonstrate the powers of what would ultimately be our first family computer with a DVD drive.
I have no idea where that disc is today. Until yesterday, though, it would have been the only legal way I had of playing Blade Runner, a game long thought lost to time due to a combination of missing source code, tangled rights issues, dead studios, and incompatibility with modern hardware.
The new downloadable version, which just got a surprise release on GOG, weighs in at a meager 1.3GB. That’s big enough to need a DVD, sure, but it’s tiny by today’s standards. But in spite of its scant size, Blade Runner remains a genuine classic and a game that many people will now be able to play for the first time. They absolutely should — there’s still nothing else like it.
Blade Runner is a point-and-click adventure, a genre that was still very popular on PCs at the time of its release. Games like Beneath a Steel Sky had already used the format to tell Blade Runner-inspired cyberpunk stories. Given the usual state of movie adaptations, a Blade Runner adventure game wouldn’t necessarily have been anything to get excited about.
‘Blade Runner’ really does make you feel like a detective
What Westwood did with the license, however, was inspired. The game isn’t a straight retelling of the movie. (Harrison Ford’s Deckard is nowhere to be seen.) You play a detective named Ray McCoy on the tail of replicants linked to vicious animal murders. While the story takes place at the same time as the movie and involves some of the same locations and characters, it plays out in parallel without intersecting too strongly. This was a great decision for a narrative adventure, allowing the game to evoke the movie without feeling predictable.
The movie’s technology was also a good fit for an adventure game. As McCoy, you get to operate the Voight-Kampff machine and administer replicant-detecting interviews, while other puzzles hinge around iconic Blade Runner inventions like the photo-enhancing ESPER computer. More than almost any other game I’ve ever played, Blade Runner really does make you feel like a detective.
But it’s the underlying structure of the game that proved to be Blade Runner’s most innovative element. Unlike most adventure games at the time, Blade Runner doesn’t force you to solve convoluted puzzles with a single solution. Instead, conversations shift based on your dialogue choices, and there are usually several ways to track down a lead. There’s also a random element to the twisty storytelling: most characters can either be a replicant or human, which the game decides in the background when you start. Blade Runner isn’t a particularly long or difficult game, but it’s far more replayable than most of its kind.
It was also highly inventive from a technical perspective, which allowed Westwood Studios to capture the atmosphere of the movie on far more modest hardware than you might have expected. Blade Runner used a combination of pre-rendered animated backgrounds and motion-captured 3D characters constructed out of voxels. It meant that the game would have to use static camera angles, and the human models looked a little rough up close. But the overall effect was impressive, and it provided a cinematic experience even on computers without an expensive graphics card.
Today, the game doesn’t look much better or worse than it did two decades ago. The backgrounds could stand to be higher-resolution, but if anything, they make the blocky characters stand out less on modern displays. I played the GOG version of Blade Runner on my PC and on a MacBook Pro, and there wasn’t much difference on either. (Though I did find that the audio seemed to be a little out of sync on the PC at times.)
Really, it’s just an incredibly welcome surprise to be able to play this game at all in 2019 without trawling eBay for CDs or dealing with emulators. (The work of ScummVM developers was invaluable in enabling the GOG version to exist at all.) At $9.99 — down to $8.99 at launch — this should be considered an essential purchase for anyone with the slightest interest in Blade Runner.