Replicating Blade Runner: why the adventure game classic is so tough to remaster

When Nightdive Studios announced it was working on a remaster of the beloved 1997 point-and-click adventure Blade Runner, it said the game would come out on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch later in 2020. Eurogamer can reveal that won’t happen, as development on the game has run into a raft of challenges that have complicated the work.

Nightdive Studios, which is known for restoring classic games such as System Shock and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, secured a licence from Blade Runner rights holder Alcon Entertainment back in December 2019, and set to work remastering Westwood Studios’ cinematic adventure.

In September 2020, the Vancouver, Washington-based developer released a video showing off the original’s opening cutscene compared to the remastered version’s. The video didn’t go down particularly well, with some fans complaining that Blade Runner’s cool, film-like look had been lost in the upscaling process.

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In an interview with Eurogamer, Nightdive CEO Stephen Kick confirmed Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition, as it’s called, now carries a “TBD” release date.

“There have been some obstacles we’ve had to overcome in terms of the old technology the game uses,” Kick said. “And our hunt for the original source code and assets have come up empty.”

When EA bought Westwood in August 1998 and had the studio move office, the Blade Runner source code was lost. While a vault of old Westwood content was unearthed by EA during the development of the Command & Conquer remaster, Kick doesn’t think he’ll end up with anything Blade Runner-related from it, even if it is found.

“We’ve had some discussions with EA about what else is in the vault they found regarding Blade Runner, and we haven’t been able to get a clear answer,” Kick said. “And even if there was something, it’s very unlikely they would release it to us for legal reasons, mostly, which is a bit of a disappointment, because we were hoping to at least get the original audio recordings. So we’re basically working off what was in the original game at this point and not having access to any original stuff.

“I’ve been led to believe that there’s some stuff but no-one will ever know.”

This means Nightdive must reverse engineer the code – an arduous and time consuming task that involves creating tools to extract the original art assets. “It’s just taking a bit longer than we originally anticipated,” Kick said.

But Blade Runner comes with its own set of quirks, quirks other remaster projects do not.

The original is a heavily compressed game that shipped on multiple discs back in 1997. It includes full motion video, beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds and thousands of frames of animation. To pack that all in, Westwood compressed much of the game.

Complicating matters further, Blade Runner’s in-game models are not rigged characters that animate. Basically, the characters have animations that are broken down into individual models, which means every frame of animation is, essentially, a different model. This means animations involve thousands of models. “To get that all to fit for all the characters, they actually had to remove slices from every model,” Kick explained. “Basically half the information from the model had to be removed just to get it all to fit in the game.”

Nightdive must fill in the missing pieces, so to speak, while animating characters correctly by using a single model for every frame of animation. The alternative would be to remake Blade Runner entirely, but that’s not within the scope of the project.

“We’re in a really difficult middle ground where we can’t really do what is typically done in a remaster,” Kick said. “We had to invent new pipelines to extract the data and to modify it in a way that would present it in even a slightly higher resolution or higher fidelity.

“So yeah, it’s been a real challenge.”

What’s interesting is this Blade Runner reverse engineering work has already been done by the enthusiasts at ScummVM. ScummVM is a fan-made program that lets you run certain classic adventure games, provided you already have their data files, on systems for which they were never designed. ScummVM supports over 250 games, including classics from LucasArts, Sierra On-Line, Revolution Software, Cyan, Inc. and of course Westwood Studios. Their work is invaluable to an army of loyal fans who love old-school adventure games at a time when the genre is more or less extinct.

Over the course of eight years, ScummVM dug into Blade Runner and expertly updated the game, even restoring some cut content, and it’s this work that powers the December 2019 GOG release of the original Blade Runner.

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So, you’d think Nightdive could have saved itself a lot of pain and heartache if it had simply licensed ScummVM’s good work on Blade Runner. And indeed, Kick entered into negotiations with ScummVM for such a licence, but talks fell through.

Kick confirmed Nightdive originally intended to use the code that was reverse engineered by the ScummVM team, but talks collapsed because the studio is targeting multiple platforms for Blade Runner. This is prohibited by the open source agreement, preventing Nightdive from using ScummVM’s code.

Digging into the detail, if Nightdive had used the open source software using the General Public License (GPL), it would have had to supply that code and any modifications it made to it to the end user. This is why every ScummVM game comes with the code to ScummVM, as well as anything else that may have come from the team.

But you can’t do this on console. Nightdive cannot, for example, sell somebody a game on Nintendo Switch and also give them accessible code. There is no system in place on consoles to enable this.

Kick called this situation “unfortunate”, but insisted it will use its own engine, KEX, to do all the work itself to ensure Blade Runner will be on all platforms instead of just PC.

I think it’s fair to say the ScummVM team behind Blade Runner is sceptical of Nightdive’s project. The team confirmed they had been in negotiations with Kick for a couple of months before talks collapsed just a month-and-a half before Nightdive’s HD remaster was announced in March 2020. “Now they claim to have reverse engineered the game and recreated original assets by themselves? I’ll believe it when I see it,” ScummVM member madmoose, who started working on Blade Runner in 2011, said in a post on Reddit.

“If you want to play Blade Runner, buy it on GOG.com. It’s cheap and it’s run by good people.”

The ScummVM team is sceptical of Nightdive’s Blade Runner remaster because they know exactly how hard it is and how long it takes to reverse engineer the game. The quality of their work on Blade Runner is quite astonishing, the result of a prolonged, concerted team effort that spanned close to a decade. “I had been doing some reverse engineering of some video formats for a couple of other games and Blade Runner was an interesting game because it’s completely video based,” madmoose explained to Eurogamer.

“The game characters are displayed over looping background videos. Even the settings user interface is video based. So initially it was just a small project to work out the video format. Nothing existed to properly play the videos in Blade Runner although projects existed to play videos from other Westwood games.

“Next I worked on the audio playback, and then the big goal of getting the characters in the game to draw over videos.”

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The ScummVM team ended up completely disassembling the whole game, discovering every secret, finding every structure and every algorithm underpinning it.

Peter Kohaut, who started working on Blade Runner in early 2014 in order to learn how to do disassembly, became so familiar with the code that he was able to identify what piece was written by which developer, just by their style of coding.

“Nobody was even completely sure how many endings the game had before we decoded the whole game,” madmoose said.

“We took the original program and recreated the source code very close to what the original source code looked like. I’ve seen old fans of the Blade Runner game show bugs from the originals that we still have in ScummVM because the recreation is so accurate.”

The ScummVM team is keeping a close eye on Nightdive’s work, as you’d expect, and is particularly keen to see the remastered Blade Runner engine in action. Right now, all it has to go on is the comparison video released in September.

“It is just upscaling videos,” Sev, who joined the project about halfway through to help with NPC AI but has been with the ScummVM team since 2003, said. “Absolutely generic work, not engine-specific.”

Even talk of the difficulty remastering the character models doesn’t necessarily relate to the bulk of the work that will need to go into reverse engineering the game, Sev insisted.

“They could tweak the videos or even fully remodel the characters,” Sev said. “They have to have the place to put those in and animate. It is like you would like to own a car, and you start with purchasing a pair of headlights.”

“There’s certainly a lot more challenging work to be done for the remaster of the game,” software engineer Thanasis “Praetorian” Antoniou, added.

Sev told Eurogamer they had been in touch with Nightdive and the possibility of a dual licence was raised. But again, this fell through as both parties couldn’t agree terms.

“We talked about it,” Kick confirmed. “But we couldn’t come to terms that made sense for the project.

“It was disappointing. But again, because we’re using our own technology, and we’ve got a team of extraordinarily talented coders, it was a challenge we were willing to face. So yeah, we’re making some significant progress. And I think the results are going to speak for themselves.”

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It’s natural to wonder whether the complication around Blade Runner has as much to do with money as hard coding. Kick spent a great deal of time and energy securing a deal to licence the game with Alcon Entertainment, and when I asked him if he had been surprised by GOG’s December 2019 release of the original, he declined to comment.

As for ScummVM, the team insisted none of its work is about money. While ScummVM has an affiliate agreement with GOG, the team called it irrelevant to its effort. “We loved GOG from the first sight, because before they popped up, the only option to obtain those games legally was eBay,” Sev said.

“The work hasn’t been about money,” Praetorian added. “The game was really considered a lost case as far as the rights for redistribution.

“We wanted to have a definitive version of it, that anyone who had the original discs could play it, on modern configurations, smartphones, tablets.”

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Thoughts now turn to Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition’s eventual release, but it doesn’t feel like it’s due out any time soon. Kick said the code work “is mostly done”. The developers are updating the visual component of the game, and “experimenting”. The comparison video released in September was part of this experimentation.

“We’re basically just going over every visual and audio aspect of the game now and just bringing it up in as high a fidelity as we possibly can.”

Kick admitted the comparison video didn’t do a great job of showing off Blade Runner. “It’s more of a work in progress,” he said, “as opposed to, this is what the final version’s gonna look like.”

Kick said the developers will probably end up dropping the enhanced edition from 60fps to 30fps, so it looks more like a movie, and then add a film grain. “It’ll be smooth and it’ll look nice, but it’ll still have that kind of underlying grit to it, that the original had.”

The comparison video showed off Blade Runner’s opening cinematic, but when will we see Nightdive’s work on the engine?

“We should probably be showing that next,” Kick said, “but I can’t tell you when that’s going to be.”

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After I spoke to Stephen Kick in our video call, I wondered whether he thought, privately, that the Blade Runner project may not be worth all the trouble. Here we have an old game based on a movie, built in an archaic manner by a developer that no longer exists and by a publisher who no longer holds the rights to the game, and that is now under the watchful eye of a billion dollar licence holder and a team of enthusiasts who are sceptical about the work. Blade Runner is a beloved franchise and a beloved Westwood game. The pressure is very much on.

“The business of re-releasing classic games is not easy,” Kick said. “The business of re-releasing classic licensed games is very hard.”

Meanwhile, I do not get the sense the ScummVM team is against the existence of a Blade Runner remaster. In fact, the team told me they’re excited about the prospect of more people playing the game they love so much. But they’re staunchly protective of their work, and believe wholeheartedly it should be treated properly.

While they wait to see how Nightdive’s Blade Runner turns out, the ScummVM team still maintains their version. Bug fixing is ongoing, and Praetorian is trying to restore lost content based on “remains” discovered while sifting through the source code – a word here, a small script there, or a line of dialogue unrelated or unfinished.

“It’s stuff like extra dialogues with characters, extra scenes (like some with Rachael from the movie), small cutscenes, extra audio cues (like in the GPS system), extra animations, (sub)story paths, extra choices for action, a Voigt-Kampff session with Runciter that was removed, even (possibly) one or two extra finales,” Praetorian explained.

Exciting stuff. Whatever happens during 2021, I suspect fans will run Nightdive’s Blade Runner through a Voight-Kampff test to find out if it’s the real deal – or merely a “replicant”.

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