The San Francisco Bay Area: The year is 1992. Skyscrapers rise high above the abandoned underworld, a wasteland due to nuclear fallout. World War Terminus ravaged the world, killing most species of animals and plants, forcing humans to flee Earth to colonize Mars and the rest of the Solar System. The only humans left on Earth are the peasants, the “chickenheads” (those whose minds decayed due to the fallout), the criminals and those who try to stop them. Then there are the androids, considered a threat to humanity after they rebelled against their masters…
This is where you, brave and seasoned gamer, enter. You take control of a bounty hunter, who is hired to “retire” (destroy) 6 androids in one day before they can escape into the shadows of the San Francisco underworld.
Your goal: to earn enough money to buy a real-life animal (a symbol of status since most animals are extinct) and replace the electric sheep that roams your front yard.
Break the android-killing record in this button-mashing cyberpunk adventure that pays homage to the world of Philip K. Dick!
But doesn’t it sound like a perfect plot for a new sci fi shooter or RPG? I’m talking about the plot of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the über famous writer who has inspired more movies, games and other works of fiction than any other sci fi writer I can think of.
Anyone who knows anything about sci fi has seen the 1982 film Blade Runner, which is an adaptation of the aforementioned novel. Although it took many controversial liberties with the beloved plot (not to mention those painful voice-overs by Harrison Ford, which are part of the movie’s delicious campy goodness), Blade Runner is still critics’ and fan’s most often cited “best scifi movie of all-time.”
SO WHY AREN’T THERE ANY VIDEO GAMES?
There are four games in fact, although none of us have ever heard of them. Two are based on Blade Runner (not the novel, but the film) and the other two are based on Ubik and Total Recall.
The first Blade Runner game was released in 1985 for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC systems and died a quiet death soon thereafter. CRL Group PLC, a now defunct British game publisher, was unable to acquire a license for a film tie-in, so they were forced to base their game around Vangelis’ soundtrack for the film…
Say it slowly: A sidescrolling video game interpretation of a film score.
Doesn’t that just sound like a recipe for disaster?
You are a member of a bounty hunter unit tasked with destroying all Replidroids (they meant Replicants) on Earth. First, you listen to a butchered portion of the brilliant film score. Then you run around the streets dodging cars and crowds in order to kill your targets. Frogger meets Hitman.
Well, the game was panned by everyone who laid eyes on it. It had lazy graphics even for 1985. Someone even called it “pretentious.” The game also seemed derivative, riding on the success of the 1984 hit sidescroller Ghostbusters.
No one touched PKD’s work again until the 1997 video game adaptation of Blade Runner for PC. This time around, Westwood Studios, which closed in 2003, was able to at least stick to the original material.
Players take control of McCoy, another bounty hunter, in a story parallel to the events of the film in a point-and-click adventure. Deckard, Rachael, J.F. Sebastian, and Tyrell are all either mentioned or have cameos in the game. It serves as a side story in a universe that is definitely ripe for the picking.
The game was technologically ambitious due to its 3D rendering of San Francisco and was well received by critics, but it failed to make the transition to the console market. Still, it won a Computer Adventure Game of the Year award and I’m guessing it’s regarded as a cult classic today.
The first PKD game to hit consoles was a controversial Total Recall game released in the early 90s, by two different developers, for various home computers and NES. The computer version stuck closer to the movie while the NES version was more faithful to the original short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Some people were pissed with the NES version came out because they were expecting the computer version. Who cares? Both platforms sucked.
Another PKD game that hit consoles was an adaptation of Ubik in 1998. Developed by Cryo Interactive (they made an awesome Dune game . . . once) and released for the Playstation and PC, this strategy game allowed you to take the fight to the evil Hollis Corporation, an organization of psychics bent on…not sure what, exactly…
It’s a funny story about Ubik since the story is one of the hardest to map in the highly ambitious PKD catalog. The plot involves reincarnation, God, life force, time travel, alternate realities, telepathy, half lives, a moon base, a possible dream world and a product called Ubik, which may or may not keep people from dying. Fans far more determined than I have tried to interpret the novel and make sense out of all the plot points.
What I’m trying to tell you is that this kind of plot isn’t really fit for a strategy game. Critics and fans didn’t think so either.
The reality is that PKD is very hard to adapt. Most films, except for Blade Runner, Total Recall (original), A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report, aren’t very good. The plots are too convoluted. One can never really tell if anything is taking place in the “reality” of the novel. Or is it part of an illusion created by forces beyond the narrator’s control?
This undoubtedly poses a problem for the video game industry, which doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to telling complex stories. Just think about two of the best-selling science fiction video game franchises of all-time: Halo and Gears of War. Neither is ever lauded for its storytelling. The plots are fragmented and gloss over story elements that would need countless hours to develop correctly. The main characters mostly mumble random thoughts about, whatever, until it’s time to shoot things again.
Half-Life 2 and its expansions might be the best examples of complex storytelling in a sci fi universe. How did Valve manage to tell such a deep story centered around hard science and inter-dimensional travel? Minimalism. A couple details here, a couple details there, a far out setting that you could believe in because it didn’t stray far from your own. A recognizable formula in which a mysterious God like character known as the G-Man drops you into a sticky situation that you must fix. The science is cool and super advanced, but you won’t be bogged down by it.
That’s often what trips up anyone delving into the world of PKD fans for the first time. You almost have to get bogged down by the science in order to understand the structure of the story and the mystery that holds everything together. There’s no way around it. If you’re not confused, you’re not doing it right.
Gamers don’t like to be confused. Definitely not big time game publishers like EA or Activision. Let’s face it: games like Deadly Premonition, Fahrenheit and Alan Wake don’t happen very often. A new PKD game probably isn’t a very smart investment. An indie developer might take a crack at it, but even then, the game might not be very good.
Things are looking grim for future game adaptations of PKD’s work. That’s not to say his universe won’t continue to influence the game world.
Perhaps Phillip K Dick’s greatest students are the guys at Eidos, who developed the highly-influential Deus Ex franchise. Full of cyberpunk, conspiracies, nanotechnology, cybernetic enhancements and noir; Deus Ex delves into the predominant question that connects all of Phillip K Dick’s work: what does it mean to be human in a largely simulated world? Never has perception been more challenged than when Denton or Jensen realize that the world they’re fighting for might be an illusion.
Deus Ex has a whole lot of transcendence, too. One of the several subplots in the series, specifically in Human Revolution, deals with singularity; the point at which man and machine will become one. Characters are fitted with robotic arms that can punch through walls and shoot explosives at enemies. They are augmented with nanomachines. Seriously, the Deus Ex story is about human identity and whether humanity’s destiny is to transcend flesh and bone.
All up PKD’s alley: A Scanner Darkly, The Simulacra, VALIS, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and countless others.
Something else that’s worth noting is that Deus Ex is an RPG franchise, which in my opinion is the best format for overly complicated Dickian plots. You’re able to explore loads of storylines, character backgrounds and subplots in a self-contained manner. The name of the game is side quests, folks.
I’m pretty much begging to play a new Deus Ex series at this point. It’s been two years since Human Revolution. That’s an eternity in single player game years. And I don’t think we’ll be getting anything from Eidos anytime soon since they’re owned by Square Enix (you know, the guys who don’t know what to do with themselves except make sequels to Final Fantasy XIII-26: When Snow Met Lightning).
So my hope lies with upcoming games such as Remember Me and Watch Dogs, which deal with memories, surveillance and information warfare. All very Scanner Darkly if you ask me.
But wouldn’t it be nice if someone directly adapted A Scanner Darkly into an awesome RPG where the main character is hunting and being hunted by himself at the same time? I’m down for that. I mean, watch the spectacular film adaptation with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder as semi-animated characters. They’re already halfway there!
What about a Total Recall game that doesn’t completely blow? I’m looking at you, Total Recall for iPad.