Do gamers dream of electric sheep?

 

There are two words guaranteed to reduce the average games player to a whimpering heap in the corner. Not "game over" but interactive movie. Back in the early 1990s, sections of the games industry thought mixing up full motion video and linear narrative with gameplay would be a good idea. The theory was that this would be the killer app that would sell CD-Rom technology to the masses.

The only problem was that, though some games developers were more than happy to act like Hollywood big shots, games and film didn't really mix.

The movies, that is, the full motion video on offer, were usually of poor technical quality. They were badly shot, terribly acted and generally incoherent. Worse, the plodding linear narratives held up the gameplay; either that or, in their efforts to make the movie part make sense, the developers simply forgot about the gameplay.

But oddly enough, the interactive movie might be making a comeback, albeit from a different direction. Now, people aren't simply trying to impose linear film narrative on a simple game structure. Instead they're gradually adding complexity to existing game genres and, from the bottom up, a new sort of interactive storytelling is emerging.

The best example is Westwood Studios' excellent game conversion of Blade Runner (released just over a week ago on PC CD-Rom by Virgin Interactive, £44.99). Developed over 2 1/2 years on a $4-million budget, this cleverly takes the elements of Ridley Scott's cult film - the stunning sets, characters and the future noir plot - and blends them into a point-and-click adventure. As you might expect, you play a detective (though not Deckard, the film's central character, played by Harrison Ford). The aim, as in the film, is to figure out which characters are replicants (androids) and then "retire" them.

According to Louis Castle, Westwood's ebullient cofounder, the end result is not an interactive movie. "Oh, god. Please don't call it that. That label interactive movie has been attached to so many poor movie-licensed products that at this point it's a definite negative. I would never use that term about a product unless I was insulting it."

His preferred term is real-time 3D adventure. Blade Runner takes the elements of the adventure game the immersive story-based exploration in a different direction, he suggests. The difference is the real-time 3D environment. Characters move around independently, like in a simulator. But there's also a pacing and tension to it, without putting a time limit on it. It's there in the Ridley Scott film - a sense of impending doom.

The sense of time in the game is certainly different. With events unfolding in real time, you do need to work things out reasonably quickly. The replicant characters have a degree of artificial intelligence, take note of what you're doing and will, if they get worried, attempt to retire you when you least expect it. The end result comes close to something like narrative suspense.

Aside from the technological innovations, Blade Runner seems likely to win fans because of the way it reproduces the look of the film. Artists at Westwood had to work mainly with a laser disc copy of the film and a pause button. However, Syd Mead, who was responsible for the retrofitted futurism of the film, did help out.

Many members of the original cast also supplied voices, including Sean Young, who was made up and photographed to recapture her role of Rachel, Harrison Ford's replicant love-interest.

According to Castle, Blade Runner the movie is all about blurring the lines between what is real and unreal, between moral right and wrong. We wanted the game to do something similar. Within 20 minutes of playing, I think you realise that this is not the standard adventure game: this is something new.

You hear this a lot from games developers but, with Blade Runner, Castle might have a point. Just don't call it an interactive movie.

This week also sees the release of a dead-cert best-seller: Tomb Raider 2, once again starring the cult archaeologist Lara Croft. Since the first Tomb Raider appeared in the shops a year ago, Ms Croft has appeared on the front of dozens of magazines including The Face, and its makers have always denied the Internet rumours that there was a secret level in the game where Lara would appear naked.

In Tomb Raider 2 Lara can climb walls, drive vehicles, and explore a much larger area than before, and she has been made more realistic too - for example, her ponytail moves convincingly up and down and from side to side when she moves (rather than always hanging straight down her back).