Nightdive Studios’ website says it is, “Bringing lost and forgotten gaming treasures back from the depths.” In restoring video games for new hardware, the developer is performing a noble service to an industry that often struggles with its own conservation. Its back catalogue already includes successful resurrections of puzzle game The 7th Guest, shooter Quake, and an enhanced edition of revered action adventure game System Shock.
However, as the developer is learning with another of its latest projects, an attempt to salvage Westwood Studios’ acclaimed 1997 point-and-click adventure Blade Runner, some riches are more deeply buried than others. That said, whether or not the Blade Runner remaster succeeds, it's still an important venture.
Why the Remaster of Blade Runner Matters
Blade Runner is a 1982 science fiction movie directed by Ridley Scott, based upon Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? It is regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made, and one of the foundational texts of the cyberpunk genre; thus a massive influence on games like CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077.
Less known is the tie-in video game released in 1997 by Virgin Interactive, which bucked the gaming trend of mediocre video game movie tie-ins by creating a commercially successful and award-winning reimagining of the film. Rather than presenting players with a straightforward adaptation, Blade Runner is a "sidequel," depicting events that run in parallel and occasionally intersect with the movie’s plot.
This approach enabled developer Westwood Studios to bring in familiar characters, utilizing the talent of the original actors to enhance its game’s authenticity. Sean Young reprises her role as Rachael, James Hong appears as Hannibal Chew, and William Sanderson is once again genetic designer J.F. Sebastian. However, rather than play as the movie’s main protagonist Rick Deckard, the Blade Runner video game has players take the role of rookie blade runner Ray McCoy, tasked with tracking down a group of renegade replicants.
Its gameplay was praised for focusing on detective work rather than derivative shooter mechanics, with players analyzing evidence, interrogating suspects, and even applying the film’s Voight-Kampff test; designed to identify replicants posing as humans. Its graphics were also lauded, as it used state-of-the art voxels and unprecedented amounts of motion capture to create slick 3D models that were considered cutting edge.
However, the game was mired in IP issues and legal rights wranglings for years, meaning it could not be brought to modern digital storefronts until its appearance on GOG.com in 2019. It is only through the remastering efforts of studios like Nightdive that many such games can become available to a wider modern audience, and it is crucial that a piece of gaming history like Blade Runner is not lost forever.
Why the Video Games Industry Needs to Get Better at Preservation
Nightdive has announced delays for Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition after it emerged that the original developer lost the game’s source code, meaning Nightdive has to reverse engineer it from existing versions. Compounding this issue is the fact that the innovative techniques used to create the game’s graphics involved every frame of animation being a distinct 3D model (as opposed to using a single animated model), with some of this data removed from final versions so it could be compressed onto CDs for distribution. Nightdive therefore has to reanimate models while filling in these gaps.
Blade Runner is not the first game whose preservation has been neglected. Konami infamously lost the source code for its psychological horror classic Silent Hill 2, meaning that the version released as part of the Silent Hill: HD Collection was recreated from a beta version. As a result, various glitches, bugs, and omissions were introduced that were not present in the original version, leading many to regard the Silent Hill: HD Collection as a sub-optimal way to play the originals.
Digital-only distribution of games also presents a problem for video game preservation, with games released through digital platforms able to be suddenly erased. This was the fate that befell P.T. after the cancellation of Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills project, but there are a host of other examples. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game was removed from digital stores in 2014 when its franchise license expired, despite being a cult hit among fans. Luckily, it has since been resurrected.
Hard copies of games on CDs or cartridges also need to be carefully preserved, given the inevitable deterioration of both these storage methods and the hardware necessary to play them. Some rare video games, particularly those that only received limited production runs due to commercial failure or other issues, are worth extraordinary amounts of money given how few copies still exist today.
This problem is exacerbated by some video games giants’ approach to backward compatibility, with old games no longer playable on their more recent consoles. The situation is improving, with developers like Electronic Arts implementing extensive systems to preserve games at the end of their development cycle.
There are also other ways to play old games, with emulators being a popular solution among nostalgic players and fan communities working together to develop patches and mods to complete missing content or modernize classics. The success of Black Mesa, a fan made remake of the first Half-Life fully endorsed by Valve Corporation, is an indicator of a more positive future for video game preservation. Regardless of the wider challenges facing historians, fans remain optimistic that Nightdive can complete its work on Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition and bring the title to new fans in the coming months.
Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition is in development for PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.
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