In the fall of 1997 the respected computer game manufacturers Westwood Studios (who pride themselves on “shamelessly addictive games”) released a state-of-the-art computer game based on the 1982 film Blade Runner, further obliterating the line we once drew between art and entertainment. These days even computer games address the problems of identity, stories, and hidden meanings. And the most sophisticated computer games, like sophisticated artworks, are able to compel interest long after the user has fully comprehended or deconstructed them, and, in the case of the game, “won.”
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The classic sci-fi “meet your maker” story of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its emphasis on the construction of human identity and reality, has an obvious appeal to the computer game subculture. And its gorgeous but frightening depiction of a rainy, smoky, burnt-out Los Angeles in the not-so-distant future makes it a perfect candidate for translation to the ever-more-impressive pixellated screen. The game version essentially places the player inside the film, assuming a persona loosely based on the Harrison Ford character Deckard. The player assumes the identity of “Ray McCoy,” a rookie blade runner on his first big case. The player uses McCoy’s body to navigate through beautiful scenes that vividly recall specific settings from the film and hears McCoy’s thoughts in a narration strikingly similar to that in the film’s original released version. However, unlike the Deckard figure, McCoy is a rookie blade runner, this conveniently allowing the player to be bad at the game at first without feeling wimpy. (A blade runner is a special agent of the police force whose job it is to detect and “retire” errant replicants, those incredibly human-like androids whose extreme strength and lack of empathy make them a menace to society.)
McCoy, like Harrison Ford’s Deckard, is a classic hard-boiled detective fiction hero. Initially reluctant, mechanically thorough, and ranging in emotion from deadpan to sarcastic, both Deckard and McCoy doggedly pursue and uncover clues, and kill people without emotion when necessary. As a player begins the game, a lush movie-like sequence sets up the scene, and the player seamlessly makes a transition from watching the action to being a [End Page 118] part of it. Suddenly, McCoy stops moving and talking of his own accord and a cursor appears with which the player can move him around. The first and only stated objective placed in front of McCoy is to investigate a case of animal murder at an animal boutique. Specifically what it takes to “win” the game is never made explicit, but it is clear that the general object of the game is to follow clues as to the identity and whereabouts of replicants, pursue, and “retire” them. McCoy has at his disposal the Esper photographic analyzing machine and the Voight-Kampff empathy test used to detect replicants in the film, and he must learn to use these well if he is going to end up the last one standing. The implicit question, explored ad infinitum by the film’s cult following and left ultimately unanswered by both the film and the game: Is our hero himself a replicant? Is he the embodiment of what he searches for?
In the game, McCoy’s voice tells the user what he or she needs to know, functioning in a similar way to the exposition provided by Harrison Ford’s dry monologue in the original version of the film. The way a filmmaker usually makes it known that an item, a person, or a clue is important to the story is to linger on it visually. The player of the Blade Runner game may sweep the mouse cursor over the screen to find possible clues and courses of action; when the cursor is on top of something that may be important, it turns green, and the user may then click on that object to find out more information about it and add it to a...