By Bryan Langley
The fiction of Philip K. Dick has been something special for the film industry, whether re-imagined or mangled and distorted until the original stories are near-unrecognisable. When it comes to video games, however, Westwood Studios' 1997 point 'n' click PC detective game Blade Runner is the only title of any real note to directly translate PKD’s material into a game – or, to be more accurate, the film based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Other attempts have been made with the author’s work but it’s never really transitioned into anything spectacular in terms of video game adaptations.
This is strange because the plots, settings and primary themes of PKD’s work have the potential to fit videogames beautifully: uncertain or dual identities, infiltration of social groups, the banal mundanity of everyday life, and a distrust of government and/or authority figures. Given that he began writing his unique brand of sci-fi in the 1950s, the impact of nuclear fallout was also a looming concern, as was the impact of robotic or alien technologies on society. As the fiction became more mystical in his later output (1970-80s) it focused almost wholly on the difference between individual experiences versus the outer world as perceived by wider society. PKD wasn’t really a hard sci-fi author, but increasingly moved towards a human-focused sci-fi.
Part of this wider story is that, while direct adaptations of PKD’s work are relatively thin on the ground, many of his ideas do exist in videogames, and often in very prominent series. The closest fans have had to experiencing the themes of PKD’s work is probably the seminal Deus Ex series with its science-fiction staple of cybernetic enhancements and how they can or cannot change your identity. In particular, the fact players spent the second half of the first game questioning UNATCO and the various individuals working within it, made the whole thing feel like an extended PKD tribute: “I think I’m the good guy: but is my whole constructed reality really a lie?”
To be fair to developers, more straightforward interpretation of PKD’s work brings its own problems. Ubik, a direct adaptation of the 1969 novel, hit PC and PlayStation in 1998 and was basically an RTS. Ubik strove for a Blade Runner visual aesthetic (fairly successfully) which the developers freely admitted in interviews was down to the prominence of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, and the game also offered combat scenarios that stayed true to the novel’s setup of industrial espionage – complete with a large cast of characters before Mass Effect got all the glory for doing the same.
The game was also fully voice-acted, rather more of a novelty at the time than it is now, but the screen size was dominated by a terribly fiddly interface. Largely forgotten today, Ubik is a curiosity in that the aesthetic really nailed the sci-fi feel (even if it’s not wholly original), and the plot follows the source material extremely carefully – even down to incorporating and trying to somehow present disintegrating realities around its everyman protagonist.
Ubik has problems and it’s no forgotten classic, but it’s an ambitious game that perhaps tried to do too much. The novel Ubik has been included in the Library of America publishing line-up. The video game has not been preserved to such an extent: nobody is touching this for Let’s Plays or streaming it on Twitch.
Elsewhere in the Dick canon, there’s also the fairly risible video game adaptation of 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report. It came packaged as a third-person action game on PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox and had generally average to poor review scores, due to repetitive brawling and a plot that was derivative of both the short story and film.
Look again at Dick’s filmography and you’ll see a number of action sci-fi hybrids. Some have done well at the box office, too – The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report and the 2012 remake of Total Recall made tidy sums. PKD’s fiction doesn’t just seem easily adaptable into something interactive, but is commercially popular. First person shooters, spy thrillers, so-called walking simulators — you can see how all could potentially work with PKD’s stories.
But players too often find it jarring when the story of their game – if they care for it at all – alters drastically near the end. PKD’s sudden reality shifts and drastic perspective changes often work better in fiction than they could in video games. Many of his stories end with a terrific change in perspective, or an unexpected twist, that frames or even abandons the previous narrative in a new way. It’s an incredibly effective technique in fiction, but almost seems a parallel to a common catch-22 of video games: the conflict between the player’s own story and the story the game is trying to dole out.
Gamers love choice but they also like a definitive ending, directed and controlled, that emphasises what a badass they were. Take L.A. Noire, Team Bondi’s Rockstar-published detective ‘em up. The sudden switch from rising star detective Cole Phelps fighting corruption in the L.A.P.D. to Jack Kelso (insurance claim investigator) doling out his own kind of justice felt flat-footed. Many found it an irritation that Vaas, central villain of Far Cry 3, was dispatched part-way through the game and left players with a far less charismatic foe in the form of Hoyt for the game’s remainder.
Perhaps the ending of the original Mass Effect trilogy, where players were suddenly complicit in the big baddy’s scheme, was inspired by the kinds of shift that PKD enjoyed writing — and the Mass Effect fanbase simply couldn’t accept this, screaming from the rooftops until Bioware caved and re-wrote the ending to something players approved of. It’s a scary precedent for anyone that cares about artistic integrity.
Quantic Dream’s upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive Detroit: Become Human is an intriguing prospect, explicitly taking much from Blade Runner and aiming to tell a human story in a high sci-fi setting. Director David Cage’s games have always stressed narrative and player choice – often at the expense of traditional gameplay, it has to be said. But this also makes him an unusual creator. Cage has never worked with the idea of video game levels, for example, Quantic Dream’s playspaces being less connected maps and more highly-restricted areas: the gameplay becomes chapters that the player moves through, makes decisions and proceeds to the next. In this sense these lavish, fully-3D, big-budget productions are almost the heir to text adventures.
Detroit’s hook is playing as differing android characters, and it already looks like Blade Runner with the gameplay trappings of Quantic Dream’s post-2005 output: Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Android protagonist Kara’s desperate cry of “I want to live!” when threatened with disassembly explicitly echoes that of Roy Batty’s more aggressive cry to his creator Tyrell in Blade Runner: “I want more life…fucker!”
The idea of playing as an android trying to break free from slavery is compelling, but Cage will face a problem when he tries to communicate the doubt part of the equation. The truth is that, in a video game, why would you ever want to become human? How many players shared Adam Jensen’s misgivings when he learned he’d been augmented against his will? Why wouldn’t you want to have stealth attacks with huge retractable blades and the innate ability to look cool in sunglasses no matter the hour of the day? In videogames we want to do, not be.
However Detroit turns out, it joins Deus Ex and countless other videogames in carrying forward a few of PKD’s themes — even if, rather inevitably, much of the author’s influence does and will continue to come from an 80s movie rather than his 60s book. It’s perhaps worth ending on why we should care about PKD’s work at all as a potential source: aren’t there many other deserving authors, and hasn’t he done quite well already thanks?
It’s a matter of taste, of course, but PKD’s sci-fi has this duality of being both extremely weird — his imagination for settings and fantastic-yet-plausible scenarios is absolutely singular — and having a squishy human core. Take A Scanner Darkly, which starts with a future cop undercover in America’s losing drugs war, then follows him into addiction and a new plane of hallucinogenic experience — where his own identity begins to dissolve.
Games are getting better at techniques that can communicate ideas like this. Even in the mainstream you see the likes of the Assassin’s Creed series with its Animus conceit (the world is constructed from memories), not to mention the recent example of Nier: Automata where a fighting android questions its own understanding of the world as the presentation shifts and syncs around this theme. Personally I find it a great pity that Philip K. Dick’s fiction has not been more explicitly a part of videogames, but it’s some consolation that, when you look for his influence, you start to see it everywhere.