Interview with Louis Castle About Westwood's Blade Runner
February 20, 1998
Westwood Studios, under the direction of Louis Castle and Brett W. Sperry, have created more than forty interactive games for console and PC, the latest of which is the CD-ROM game based on the classic story of Blade Runner, the definitive sci-fi noir.
For those of us who have indulged in the quaint practice of giving names to our computers, the ambiguity between life forms and non-life forms is already blurred. Now the vigorous debate over whether technology can create life and is it a good thing if it does, has been staged on a new platform.
The aspect of a grim, dystopian metropolis is the setting for the electronic version of Philip K. Dick's futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. If the term "classic" can be applied to contemporary literary genre of science fiction, it would properly pertain to the story of Blade Runner. Mythology, allegory and a compelling story on many levels are the ingredients from which Louis Castle and Westwood Studios built their game.
Where did the idea of doing Blade Runner As a CD come from? What in your background prepared you for this project?
Castle: I always loved the Blade Runner film and I wanted to do a product that had a chance of recreating the same emotions I felt when I viewed the film. Twelve years of making games with my partner, Brett and the recent experiences with Monopoly and the Lion King really made me anxious to approach a complex and powerful film.
You wear several hats in this project, Louis. As well as being co-founder of Westwood Studios, the idea of doing Blade Runner as a computer game was yours. What was there about the story that appealed to you? Did you have to sell the other members of the company?
Castle: Myself and Erik Yeo were challenged with how to make a great game based on the Blade Runner license. The lead designer, David Leary, did a great deal of the work on the title. I drafted the original technical specification and design document in early 1995.
How extensive was the original proposal?
Castle: The document was only a dozen pages or so but it covered the game concept and a brief description of the technologies that would be created to bring it to life. Many of the ideas in the concept document were specified in detail in separate documents.
As Executive Producer with responsibility for personnel, timing of the project, budgetary considerations and delivery of the beta model, you must have had a few surprises. Did everything go as planned?
Castle: No, but many things did. In fact, Blade Runner is the closest I have ever come to realizing a design document verbatim. The biggest challenges were self imposed. Each time a portion of the product exceeded our expectations other portions had to be reconsidered.
Being the technical director as well, there must have been compromises dictated by your function as Executive Producer. How did you put the team together?
Castle: We added a few new people, not the least important of which was James McNeill, a chief architect in many of the new technologies.
How many developers were on the Blade Runner team?
Castle: Westwood has one hundred and twenty on staff. We managed Blade Runner among the two other products put out at the same time.
The team was comprised of the coders and artists that worked on the Kyrandia series of adventure games and the Monopoly CD-ROM.
Then most of the team had experience working together. It was just the technology that was new, then?
Castle: The biggest technical compromise we had was to reduce the detail of many of the game's character graphics to fit the game on 4 CD-ROMs. We had to have a minimum set of locations and animations available on each CD to minimize disc swapping. That caused many of the game's secondary characters to be of a much lower resolution than the game engine would allow.
What were some of the factors that you faced in producing and integrating the art work?
Castle: Over 249 gigabytes of assets were created, managed and compressed onto 4 CD-ROMs. It was a huge task with many disparate systems that needed to work like clock work to make the game a reality.
The images in the movie of the decadent city and the images of the replicants are familiar to fans of the sci-fi genre. Did their existence make the job easier or harder?
Castle: Having a great base of demanding fans made it easier to get excited about the product, but also made it very obvious that we could not make mistakes about interpreting the film. The fierce following is what helped to mold the game. It was clear that Blade Runner fans would not be satisfied with a running gun game in LA 2019.
With a story as well known as this one is, what were some of the more difficult concepts to deal with in the game version? What needed to be retained and what needed to be struck?
Castle: We needed to retain the mood and atmosphere of the film or all would have been lost. We had to "lose" the actual film "story" since we did not want the player to be able to change the film. Instead, we allow the player to interact with the back story of the film and change many things that happened "off camera".
Did some parts need to be reformed or revised?
Castle: Not very many. We did months of planning before beginning production and it really paid off. Most of the time and effort was spent implementing a plan, the planning was done exceptionally well.
In the novel and the film, the main character, Dekard, has a strong, unitary, obvious goal of eliminating the replicants. Were there obstacles to translating it into the game format?
Castle: No. Killing things is a particularly easy goal to get across in a game. In fact, the value and ability NOT to kill things was much harder to get across and to implement.
The question of the true nature of Dekard, human or replicant, is a major question posed by the novel and the film. It seems that it might present problems in a strictly computerized version that depends so heavily on visuals for representation.
Castle: Since we solved that problem by not dealing with Dekard, this was not an issue. In fact, our character, McCoy is even more questioning since he is accused of being a replicant. The ambiguity is one of the game's greatest strengths.
Were you able to make use of the film footage?
Castle: We didn't use any film footage. It was all recreated from scratch with 3D software. There was no "translation" just loving devotion to the film's vision and a great deal of extremely talented artists.
How did you go about preparing the scenario? Since the game is faithful to the film, did you start your manuscript from the movie script?
Castle: Yes. We began production by duplicating key sets from the film and trying to engineer similar situations. We abstracted the script and tried to identify the pacing and emotional beats of the film. Finally we created a unique script with this knowledge and then tried to make a simulation that "allowed" the script to happen, but did not constrain the player to tell only one story.
What were some of the innovative technologies used?
Castle: We used breakthrough special effects like shadows, translucent lighting, attentuation, lens flares, fog, mist, and many others rendered in real-time game play.
What are some of the games within the story?
Castle: Mounted in the immersive detective story is a police training maze, an ESPER photo analysis device, the Voigt-Kampff empathy response test that is featured in the game and your personal Knowledge Integration Assistant.
When filming, the visuals and the audio are created simultaneously. Was that the case in the computerization?
Castle: The script was written and the dialog was recorded first. We animated and motion captured to the dialog track. It is almost like doing an entire film in post.
Is there a difference in the "playing time" or speed for visuals in the filmed version as compared with the digitized version?
Castle: Our game emulates 640x480 24 bit component color at 15 frames per second at all times. Most people would view the film in video resolution (slightly better) but on an NTSC monitor (much worse) so the effect is that the game looks better on a monitor side by side with the same image on a television. The film still looks better on an NTSC TV, but not by much! ;)
What was the technology used in the development of the game?
Castle: The technology used in Blade Runner for the characters allows for many small single color polygons to be rendered by a standard (non-3D) video card. The result is that we can "render" 20,000 polygons for our main character on a P90. Although compression allows these characters to take up a minimal amount of memory per frame the sheer number of frames of animation, at motion capture rates of 15 frames per second, caused us to exceed our CD space again and again. To keep the players from having to swap CDs in and out of the drive we had to reduce the polygon count to less that 3000 polygons on many of the less important characters. Since these are flat shaded polygons the characters did not do the technology justice.
And what about the color palettes? Was that a problem?
Castle: Pallette Problems? YES! In a big way! The Pallette and the smoke and myst effects required 24-bit color to look right. Unfortunately, there are very few cards that can support 24-bit at 640x480 with a reliable 15fps. What we created was an animated dithering technique that simulated 24-bit on 16-bit cards. The result is a 16-bit series of images that simulates more color by strobing pixels. It is similar to how an image on NTSC television works.
Westwood has created games for video, Nintendo, Sega Saturn and Genesis, Sony Play Station, Amiga and Mac. That represents a lot of experience. What's next?
Castle: With more memory and a larger CD surface we could have easily made all the characters look nearly as good as they did in the cut scenes. We intend to explore this aspect of the technology in upcoming games.
Thanks, Lou, for all the info. We'll watch for your next project if we're not too busy playing Blade Runner.
Gloria Stern is a game design consultant and the director of The Virtual Classroom, a distance learning program for creating new media. She is the founder of The Mouse Trap and Two By Two. Her web activities include reviews, live chats, a Q & A column and Gamasutra interviews.