Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention. This article contains spoilers for Blade Runner. click here to retire back home.
You touch the scorpions, and reality splinters. One version of Ray McCoy dies immediately, and, as far as the player is concerned, this timeline stops. Another McCoy in another universe is stung, but mysteriously survives. The stall owner is perplexed, worried. You should be dead, but instead you go back to your investigation. In front of a third stall, a different Ray McCoy wisely avoids touching the deadly creatures; later he is stung to death at a night club, after the scorpions are purchased by the club owner and hidden under a couch cushion.
It doesn’t start here. It always begins with dead animals, artificial life, and a Blade Runner. Westwood Studios’ amalgamated interpretation of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? focuses on the rain-soaked experiences of Ray McCoy, a rookie robot killer searching for some killer robots in Los Angeles. The story has an impressive thirteen possible endings, which range all the way from being the best cop in the city to instigating one of the most infamous departmental disasters in history. Alternate endings pop up infrequently in every genre, but what’s really notable about Blade Runner‘s branching storyline is how much is left to the quivering and undirected hand of fate.
Begin a new game and many tiny wheels are set in motion. While you fumble about over the corpse of a mutilated tiger, questioning witnesses and practising your world-weary monologues, digital switches are being flipped on your behalf. Characters are going about their business, and, more importantly, they are deciding what that business entails. You might go to the crime lab and find the technician has gone to lunch, or a fellow Blade Runner may have gotten to a crime scene before you. A suspect might react to your questioning by running, or he might just blow you off and keep drinking his cocktail.
Mutations in the DNA of your adventure aren’t just behavioural. McCoy encounters 15 suspects in the game, only two of which are guaranteed to be replicants in any given file. All of the uncontrollable changes which can occur as you play through Blade Runner—for the first time, or the thirteenth—serve to enliven and enrich the future-world of digital Los Angeles. A clue isn’t merely a handy object for the player to collect, it’s a chunk of power that can be used by McCoy or against him. Interviews and casual conversations are genuine attempts to glean information and turn situations to your advantage, rather than a time to go through the response-collecting grind sometimes found in games that rely on dialogue trees.
This random narrative generator taps into and feeds off a concept vital to the very idea of a video game: unpredictability. Part of the experience when playing most games is the unpredictable nature of events. A given RPG could be reduced to a search for unknown pieces of narrative accompanied by a struggle to learn the best way a set of mechanics could be implemented. An online first-person shooter is a constant strategic arms race against other players to figure out how to be the best. Even when a game is conquered, and people begin plastering their perfectly memorised speedrun videos online, it’s a victory celebrated over the challenge of unpredictability. Beating the unknown by learning all its tricks; Becoming god, at least in the same sense that Bill Murray described in Groundhog Day¹.
The current trend in procedurally generated worlds is a reaction to the limitations of video game unpredictability. Different worlds and new configurations to explore every time you hit that shiny New Game button. At the moment, most of these specialise in alterations of the physical; games like The Binding of Isaac, Minecraft and Starbound weave unfamiliar landscapes from a box of bits and pieces, and the end result is, for all intents and purposes, a completely new location. Some games, like mystery simulator Noir Syndrome, have also begun to dabble in instanced generation of scenarios and characters, with mixed results.
And yet, way back in 1997, Westwood managed to set up a universe that is both rigidly constructed and chaotic. It seems an insurmountable task, particularly when you consider it’s also a mystery—a genre known for its intricate and exacting placement of breadcrumbs.
A vital piece of the puzzle is Blade Runner‘s peculiarly lackadaisical attitude to progress. Clues may be found, picked up and analysed; suspects and witnesses may be located and questioned; locations can be explored. But no judgements are made by the system, and few actions are taken by McCoy that are outside the player’s control. You decide what to do with the evidence and leads you’ve gathered. Or fail to decide. The influence you can exert over the world as McCoy is superficially limited—you can talk to people, pick up objects and shoot—but where and when you take action, as well as the reasons driving that action, provide a tremendous amount of variability without sacrificing narrative coherence.
Early in the game you follow various clues to a noodle restaurant and confront the large, angry chef there. Chasing him will lead you into a nearby building where he may or may not try to cut open your face with a cleaver. Put away your gun during this confrontation and you can choose to let him get away. Stumble in the chase, or avoid chasing entirely, and he escapes unseen.
All the mutable factors here—your speed, the cook’s status as a replicant or a human, his attitude to you—significantly alter the scenario, but the bulk of the real change comes from your interpretation of and reaction to events and information. If you shoot the cook, did you do so knowing he was a replicant, or were there doubts? If you let him go, why? And how will you deal with having to cover that up? This is only one scene in the game, and its ramifications vibrate and echo through every scene that follows. And this is before you consider the mess that spawns from accidentally shooting the homeless man in the alley beforehand.
Even on subsequent playthroughs, you’re aware of the overbearing chaos that looms in the background from the beginning of the game. The safety net usually afforded to those playing games repeatedly is gone, replaced with a jumble of risk assessments, faulty information and uncertainty that has an uncomfortable resemblance to the unpredictability of real life.
The real world is also full of bitter ironies, and it’s a special kind of poetic tragedy that Blade Runner was one of the last projects Westwood put together before they began their untimely and drawn-out demise at the hands of Electronic Arts. EA acquired Westwood Studios in 1998 (just a year after Blade Runner was released) and around half the employees quit in response. Projects still being made by the studio were rushed out as unfinished products, which led to poor sales. Future projects were either heavily controlled by EA or cancelled outright. Games being made by the remains of Westwood failed to meet sales expectations, and in 2003 the studio was liquidated.
Had the studio somehow avoided the all-consuming maw of late-90s EA, the sort of technology and ideas present in Blade Runner may have found a wider and more sustained audience. It’s the sort of “what if” scenario that the game so expertly weaves into its far from straightforward point-and-click mystery, with the addition of speculative scenarios that not even the player has thought about yet.
So yes, Blade Runner is random. Unpredictable. But it is randomness that serves to reinforce and strengthen the ideas and game mechanics. Blade Runner is random because a mystery should be mysterious, and a video game can be mysterious a dozen times over without breaking a sweat. It’s random because life is random, and some simulation of reality is required to give virtual choices any weight. It’s random because the core of Ray McCoy’s journey is discovering how little you know compared to what you think you know. The unknown is thrilling and scary and part of the reason we play games instead of watching films or reading books. Games are tangible representations of change, and change is leaping into a tangled pit of writhing possibilities without really knowing all the angles. Here’s to touching more scorpions.
¹There is, of course, a deep well of possible interpretations of this scene—and the entirety of Groundhog Day—as it relates to video games. Murray’s character is perfectly describing the repetition and learning behaviour that underlies any challenging game as he recounts his experiences inside the Punxsutawney time loop.