It’s Die Hard, In A Videogame

Michael Clarkson writes about how videogames take a page from the action classic, Die Hard.

Die Hard

If you've ever tried to discuss games with someone whose experience goes no deeper than Farmville you can understand the difficulty in explaining why anyone would remake Half-Life once, let alone the existence of a fan project to remake it a second time. I recently struggled to make a friend understand the appeal of that magnificent slow opening, the sudden explosion of violence, the lonely journey through a mazelike complex in the face of overwhelming force. It didn't take long to realize what would put the experience in the proper context. "It's Die Hard," I said, "In a vast underground lab."

Many games are Die Hard, which should not surprise us because modern videogames emerge from the cultural context of late-century film, and an fairly large number of movies are Die Hard. The original spawned a lineage of imitators that continues to this day. We have had Die Hard in cruise ships (Speed 2), battleships (Under Siege), and spaceships (Lockout), in planes (Con Air), trains (Under Siege 2), and automobiles (Speed). In the late '90s the phrase "It's Die Hard, in a _____" became so ubiquitous that a joke went around about a movie pitching itself as "It's Die Hard, in an office building".

This cultural phenomenon arose because Die Hard delivers on a very fundamental power fantasy. In the face of a distant tragedy, someone will always say that if he had been there, things would have turned out differently. We've all been around, or simply been, the guy who says, "I would have taken away a box cutter and stabbed those guys to death with it," or "I would have beat Sandusky to a pulp, then dragged him to a police station." Die Hard brings that fantasy to life with an ordinary guy who stands up to an organized and deadly attack by exceptional thieves. 

Die Hard

That can be hard to fully appreciate, because almost 25 years later, we are accustomed to seeing Bruce Willis as an action hero. At the time, however, Willis was primarily known as a comedic actor for his work on the (also iconic) television show Moonlighting, and this helped him bring an everyman quality to the role. John McClane was an ordinary, balding cop, not a mighty commando or space marine. Viewers – especially male viewers – identified with his less-than-ideal looks and relationship failures. When McClane triumphed, it was as if they triumphed, an emotion the film accentuates in its final moments with sad-sack desk cop Al Powell's apotheosis as a revolver-wielding badass.

This power fantasy – "I could be the one guy to stand up in a crisis" – is precisely what modern shooters are tuned to deliver. The shooter simply replaces the vicarious triumph experienced by the viewer with the personal victory of the player.

The resemblance doesn't end there, however, because Die Hard's story is intimately entangled with the details of the structural space in which it occurs. Almost immediately after the thieves attack the Nakatomi building, McClane scrambles up the stairs, cataloging each floor and what it contains.  Offices on 31, construction on 32, computers on 33 – this quick survey establishes spatial relationships that inform the rest of the film, so that the audience always knows where McClane is and how his position relates to Hans, Karl, and the rest of his foes.