Can you believe it’s been 20 years since Westwood Studios released their magnificent Blade Runner adventure? While a new Blade Runner movie, starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, is expected to arrive in cinemas around the globe in October, unfortunately a game sequel is nowhere in sight. Nevertheless, the 20th anniversary and an upcoming new film are great reasons to spend some time looking back on Westwood’s remarkable adventure. I was able to get in touch with the game’s co-writer/designer David Leary on Skype to discuss the beloved classic and its intense development process. Read on as Leary, whose design credits also include popular non-adventures such as Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, Age of Empires III, and Halo Wars, takes a trip down memory lane with me, shining an inside light on Westwood’s highly ambitious replicant-chasing adventure.
Ingmar Böke: Welcome, David! As a Blade Runner fan, it’s a real treat to welcome you to Adventure Gamers! What was your position at Westwood Studios by the time you joined the development team of Blade Runner?
David Leary: Thank you! I was actually hired on to work on the Blade Runner game; that was my first job at Westwood. I was very young, and I had not been in the industry very long. They were looking for a game designer because what they had on the table was the license, sort of a linear script that had been written by David Yorkin, they had a bunch of fantastic concept art, the beginning of an engine, and they had a fairly talented team of engineers that had worked on the Kyrandia series. What they didn’t have was a game designer, and they also needed someone with some background in writing who would help to flesh out that linear script into something that would actually be not quite so linear.
I happened to – luckily – fill both those requirements, so they hired me on to do that work fairly early in the process. I think they were only four or five months into their initial prototype when I joined on. That’s how my first big lead project in the industry landed on my lap (laughs). I felt very fortunate to be that young and getting to work on something that big. I’ve always been a fan of Blade Runner, so that was pretty exciting.
Ingmar: So you were already a fan before you started working on the game. Please talk about that a little more.
David: Yeah, I was a fan of both: the movie and the book [Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?]. A lot of Philip K. Dick’s other work as well. I’m sure you’ve read the book. They’re (the movie and the book) very different pieces of art, but I think they each bring something unique to the table. You know, the movie in terms of its visuals, and the world it presented. It was very ground-breaking stuff at the time when that movie came out, and I think that vision has definitely carried forward to today. I mean, we’re just seeing how influential it’s been on things that came after it. It was certainly influential on me when I was young.
Ingmar: Same here! Speaking of the book, I noticed the game played with a few elements that were in the book but not in the movie. The fake police station, for example. What was the idea behind that approach?
David: We definitely drew influences from the book. We had to be a little careful, you know, because we didn’t actually have the license to the book, only to the movie and the work. But there were areas that I felt that we could bring in that influence, and I’m glad that you picked up on that because we tried to give a nod to the work there. It was an important thing to us to bring some of that stuff in where we could.
Ingmar: Blade Runner was a unique game in several ways. Please describe the overall approach that Westwood had in mind for this ambitious project.
David: Yeah, I think they certainly wanted to bring in as much of the cinematic experience as they could. People talk about cinematic experiences in games these days, and of course it’s a lot easier to get closer to that today than it was back then. I think they – within the limits of the technology at the time – wanted to bring that feel of the movie to the game as much as they could. That involved working really closely with the Blade Runner Partnership who owned the property, making sure that we hit all the right notes, while at the same time creating something a little more unique, explore some spaces of the world that had not been explored in the movie. I think those were all pretty high-level goals when the project was first initiated. One of the other things that I remember we talked a lot about at the time was how many movie games had been made that just weren’t very good games. So our goal was not only that we did justice to the original movie, but also made sure that we put a game in there as well and not just have it be some cheap license thing.
Ingmar: How much freedom did you and David Yorkin have as writers – especially when it came to the input of the Blade Runner Partnership?
Extra care had to be taken with characters from the movie, like Dr. Eldon Tyrell
David: We definitely had to work within some constraints. I felt like when we were working on individual scenes and individual game elements, we had a lot of freedom. We had to be particularly careful whenever we brought in characters that were from the actual movie. We were fortunate to be able to get a lot of voice actors to do a little work for us, but we had to be very careful with how we’d use them – both because we didn’t want to mess with the integrity of the original movie, and also just because incorporating them into our story was going to be a challenge to begin with. I think sometimes those strains show a little bit in some of the scenes, and I wish that we could have served those characters a little better in some cases. In retrospect, we probably pushed too hard to try to bring in some of those characters when we didn’t neccessarily need to. That was certainly one of the challenges that we faced, but in terms of the freedom we had to develop the game, I think that the Blade Runner Partnership was always a really good partner.
Ingmar: The plot of the game took place parallel to the events of the movie. In fact, there were several hints in the game, some of them well hidden, that referred to the investigations of Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard. How was the idea of that parallel storyline born?
David: You know, that was something that we talked about a lot, and when we settled on that it just felt like such a breakthrough. I think that having that parallel story allowed us to do the kind of stuff that you’re talking about. We had little hints, and the story of McCoy could weave in and out of Deckard’s story a little bit. At the same time it allowed us to kind of tell a very separate story that didn’t have the kind of impact on the movie story that would have gotten us into the danger of not doing the movie justice. It gave us the freedom that we needed to develop the game without impacting the main property that everyone loved so much. I’m glad that you picked up on that stuff because a lot of that stuff was very subtle, and we were trying not to be super heavy-handed with it.