Ross is a writer, educator, and performer who lives and works in NYC. When he's not doing any of the aforementioned activities, he's playing video games.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — a movie about hunting down renegade androids — came out the same year as Robotron: 2084, a game in which players save the last of the human race from evil robots. The year 1982 marked a moment in history when the concept of artificial intelligence and the danger it poses first infiltrated the imagination of mainstream audiences through popular mediums like films and video games. Gamers were seeing their favorite movie stars, like Harrison Ford, act in cybernetic narratives at the same time they were playing as similar characters in local arcades.
Stories of man versus machine like Blade Runner have since seeped deeper into the DNA of popular culture, and beyond examples like its sequel Blade Runner 2049, nothing demonstrates this phenomenon quite as well as contemporary retro-futuristic video games. Many of these titles take directly after the sci-fi media their creators’ generation grew up with. There are a number of examples to date, including mainstream titles like the Deus Ex series and the much anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, but of all places, Blade Runner’s legacy appears prominently in indie platformers from the last few years.
There are a lot of reasons for this uptick in Blade Runner-esque indie titles, so it’s challenging to account for. Because both of them mentioned Scott’s film as a major influence on their recent projects in previous interviews with me, I got our friends Don Bellenger, the creator of Black Future ’88, and Blake Lowry, the designer of Kova, to shed a little more light on why so many indie developers draw inspiration from ’80s sci-fi.
As it turn out, lots of Blade Runner devotees didn’t become fans of the film when it first came out. In fact, most of us were either not even born yet or too young to fully appreciate what the movie had to offer. Some of us watched it when we were kids, but it wasn’t until later in life that we revisited it and truly came to understand and appreciate its nuances. I remember watching it when I was eleven, and my biggest take away was probably that I got to see an android pop a man’s head open with his bare hands. But upon viewing it in my late teens, I finally saw it for what it is: a visionary piece of auteur cinema. The same goes for both Don and Blake.
“I think I was maybe eight years old, and my dad had been talking about it breathlessly all week, and finally he came home from work with one of those sleeved VHS cassettes. The movie was SO hyped for me, but also SO over my head that I think I lasted all of five minutes before wandering off,” Don recalls. “It was such a pivotal disappointment for me that I actually remember it. I only finally got to watch Blade Runner for the first time several years ago while I was babysitting, and maaaan do I wish I could go back in time to enjoy it in the theater to see it right.”
“The first time I personally remember watching it was sometime in the early 2000s from a copy I got online. I had always heard of it being a classic, but didn’t watch it until then. Even when I saw it at that time, I didn’t appreciate it yet,” says Blake. “It wasn’t until later when I bought the box set on Blu-Ray that we [Mandy — lead programmer — and I] fell hard in love with it, understanding its subtle nuances and appreciating its themes; the visuals sealed the deal.”
Now that we’re older and full-fledged fans of all things sci-fi, the grand scope of the film’s foreboding vision of what’s to come and the gravity of scenes like a robot gouging out his creator’s eyes really sink in. Viewers like us now recognize how profound Blade Runner is, so it’s only natural that memorable moments from the movie spill over into our imagination.
“[My favorite scene] is the monologue from Roy Batty towards the end as it really fleshes out how deep the wound goes,” explains Blake. “It also does a great job expanding the reaches of the story when he mentions ‘Attack ships off the shoulder of Orion’ and ‘C-Beams near Tannhauser Gate.’ I have no idea what those are, but it makes your imagination explode. Combine that with a heavy synth and rain…wow. “
“The great thing about Blade Runner is that it put so much detail into the world for things you only get a glimpse at. It’s a tease and really sparks your imagination into what kind of future mankind could be headed toward,” Blake continues. “The thought of this dark, dystopian, and yet somewhat relatable world with a civilization that has reached out past the stars feels real and visceral, more so than most sci-fis. At the time, I’m sure it felt like a realistic vision of the future. Today, it’s a genre-defining piece of history.”
For other fans, it’s less about the movie being a superb piece of cinema and just the feeling that Blade Runner’s doomed version of our world that captures their imagination. “I think just the magnitude of the world-building in Blade Runner still remains as a complete standout. The sheer size of the corporate signage alone gives the world a sense of scale and also reinforces the hopelessness of trying to come out on top of these massively global corporations,” says Don. “I’m a big fan of offscreen light sources that cast these disembodied lights over the scene, and I grabbed that up wholesale.”
“For me, it’s always been about that smoke and volumetric lighting. The air itself is so tactile, as a viewer you can almost smell it and feel it in the room, the way the light shafts cut through the air,” Don goes on. “I think everything that happens in the Bradbury building tends to capture everything I love about the film. The smoke itself has this viscous and carcinogenic quality to it that always feels like it came out of something more menacing than a set hazer.”
One can plainly see how aesthetic elements from Blade Runner’s dystopian cityscape influence the level design in games like Black Future ‘88 and Kova. For instance, the former is set in a giant skyscraper filled with killer robots. The latter, on the other hand, features an entire dingy, neon-lit city that’s strikingly similar to how Los Angeles is depicted in the famous neo-noir film.
“Triadyne City’s (one of three worlds in Kova) aesthetic is directly influenced by Blade Runner. The rain, neon, synth, and heavy atmosphere are clearly inspired by the movie. Even a touch of the retrofuturism finds its way in, but in general the tone of the grungy dystopian future is the focal point of inspiration,” Blake explains. “Kova also touches on an oppression narrative that revolves around the enslaved race of synthetic robotic humans used largely for laborious tasks. It’s not the larger story arch, but it is a major motivational driver for the story progression.”
While it’s not too much of a stretch to understand why Blade Runner has left such a powerful legacy, it’s more difficult to explain why its influence is so prevalent in indie games at this moment in time. Don attributes it to a number of factors, a kind of perfect sci-fi storm: “I think it’s a really amazing convergence of Blade Runner being eerily prescient, synthwave music, game engine advances, and the success of great 2D indie platformers that have made it possible to make games like Black Future ’88.”
“It’s hard to say exactly, but I would think maybe there is a generation of people that were too young to see the movie when it was originally released and maybe always had a curiosity about it. Watching it as a mature adult has a different effect, possibly profound,” Blake concurs. “Cyberpunk as a genre of sorts seems to be coming back in full swing, no doubt in part by people discovering or rediscovering this masterpiece of film. Combine that with a generation of musicians and fans bringing back hard synth styles of music that were so prominent in the 80s, likely when they were kids; it’s all coming to a point now.”
There seems to be an urgency for telling stories like Blade Runner, as if something is, as Blake puts it, certainly “coming to a point.” The film is a cautionary tale and one that is particularly ominous for our generation. Maybe that’s why so many indie developers are attracted to creating fictional universes that resemble Scott’s technocratic vision of the future. Perhaps it’s because many of them, looking back at everything that’s transpired since the ’80s, see the signs of an unsustainable future ahead of us and want to communicate that notion to audiences in the most palatable way possible — video games.
If you’d like to experience how Blade Runner is bleeding into indie games firsthand, be sure to pick up Black Future ‘88 and Kova when they come out. Both game trailers are below, so check them out to get a better idea of how they take after Scott’s masterpiece.