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The Blade Runner Game - Esper Photo Enhancement and Voxel Technology

The Esper photo enhancement software was probably the most interesting piece of technology in the film, other than the Replicants themselves.
Blade Runner is a point-and-click adventure game developed by Westwood in 1997. Just a few minutes after I started playing I realized it was special. It was a feeling I had only really experienced before with two other adventure games - The Last Express and The Longest Journey. This is the first of a series of posts in which I attempt to discover and explain what I find so interesting about it.

The Esper photo enhancement software was probably the most interesting piece of technology in the film, other than the Replicants themselves. It is an important tool in the game, used to reveal clues through that seemingly impossible three-dimensional navigation of a two-dimensional photograph. The parallels between the fictional Esper and the very real Blade Runner game engine are actually quite fascinating.

When Blade Runner was released in 1997 is was advertised as "the first real-time 3D adventure game". It used a custom "voxel plus" engine to create 3D character models. The use of voxel technology allowed the game to be played by people without 3D accelerator video cards. Exactly like the Esper system, incredible state-of-the-art 3D techniques were being rendered on hardware that does not at first glance seem up to the task. It should not be possible to move around objects in a 2D photograph. It should not be possible to render 3D objects with hardware that traditionally only supports 2D graphics. Voxels, like the photographs of Blade Runner's future, are paradoxically and simultaneously two- and three-dimensional. 

While playing Blade Runner (at a very large modern resolution) I notice the characters appear pixelated, a two-dimensional aesthetic. But then they move, the pixels rotate. The apparent 2D character moves in 3D dimensional space, before resuming its flat two dimensional appearance. The photograph technology of Blade Runner is never fully explained, but I imagine it could work in a similar way. The photographs themselves, like those old holograms found on children's cereal boxes, can be moved with a subtle touch to give the person holding it a view from a different angle. The Esper, in this case, would just be an enhancement device, not actually creating any spacial paradox itself, but acting as a glorified magnifying glass that replicates actions that can be performed in reality with the physical photograph. Like these photographs, when you look at a still shot of Blade Runner with it's pre-rendered backgrounds and pixelated characters, common sense suggests 2D. Only through user manipulation and interaction with the game interface does its 3D nature reveal itself.

Moving between "screens" or neighbouring locations in Blade Runner is also reminiscent of navigating through an Esper photo. There is a smooth transition as the camera swings around corners from one pre-rendered background to the next. These are obviously pre-rendered 2D backgrounds -- even games taking advantage of 3D acceleration could not create such detailed environments in 1997 -- so it is startling when the first transition occurs. In Blade Runner the boundaries between 2D and 3D are consistently and successfully blurred. This breaking down and obfuscation of the barrier between old and new, 2D and 3D, Human and Replicant, is a recurring theme in both the game and film. 

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