It’s Die Hard, In A Videogame

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

Die Hard

The film uses a similar trick when, after taking out the first of the thieves, McClane gets to the roof through the elevator shaft. His first passage through the mechanical area serves to contextualize his later retreat into an airshaft and duct, a traversal method much used in the shooters and stealth games that would follow. Making sense of the events in Die Hard requires an eye for the details of the space in which it occurs. This intimate linkage between structure and story is also characteristic of the best level design in games.

The relationship between the building and the plot also leads to a pacing that many modern games have adopted. Cinematic action games, typified by the Uncharted series, intersperse combat sequences with environmental traversals. Movement in these games serves to relieve the pressure of combat and establish the nature of the environments. Die Hard adopts a similar rhythm for much the same reasons.

McClane kills a thief, then climbs up to the roof. After an abortive radio call, a gunbattle ensues. McClane retreats into the building and crawls through a vent to escape. He kills two more of the thieves, then retreats upstairs as their allies arrive. All the while, he takes weapons and ammo from his dead foes. McClane's traversals provide a consistent challenge and serve to emphasize the tight quarters in which the plot takes place. Except for the low bodycount, this could be a sequence from any number of games.

Die Hard also makes significant use of the environmental storytelling that videogames are often praised for. The models on the 31st floor, for instance, lay out the power  and breadth of the Nakatomi corporation in a remarkably efficient way. Meanwhile, the artworks in the vault and the famous "Fallingwater" centerpiece of the 30th floor reflect a contemporaneous paranoia that Japanese businesses were taking over America. These cues in the setting add a subversive subtext to the film:  the sets agree with Hans Gruber the terrorist, even as the plot villifies Hans Gruber the thief.

Die Hard

A movie so concerned with the details of the physical space faces a challenge when it comes to building any sort of direct conflict between its protagonist and antagonist. Additionally, it needs some way to keep McClane aware of (and reacting to) the situation, which would be difficult to do with the police 30 floors below him. Die Hard solves these problems through the medium of radio, which allows Hans and McClane to square off against each other long before they meet face-to-face. At the same time, McClane's conversations with Al serve not only to keep him apprised of his allies' movements, but also humanize him and maintain his everyman status in the face of his amazing exploits.

Shooters face similar challenges, because the typical staging of gameplay demands that the viewpoint remain with the protagonist throughout. Using radio communications to offer comfort and confrontation at a distance allows developers to compensate for the limitations of their limited field of vision. The dialogue also creates an opportunity (too rarely used) to create the character without forcing him to talk to himself all the time. Faced with similar problems to Die Hard, videogames employ a similar solution.

The easy joke is that so many video games seem like Die Hard because their settings are rendered in grays and browns and their protagonists are 30-something white dudes with short brown hair. Fundamentally, however, Die Hard shares with videogames many of the features that made it so striking that it spawned its own subgenre of action film. Videogames emulate Die Hard in the nature of their power fantasies and in the significance of physical space in creating and pacing the story. They respond to the challenges and opportunities inherent in this structure in similar ways, with  remote conversations and environmental storytelling.

Die Hard appeared at the dawn of the modern era of gaming, one year after the introduction of the VGA standard, and four years before Wolfenstein 3D gave rise to the first-person shooter as we know it. It cast a long shadow over action cinema, with copycat films appearing to this day. In the medium of videogames, its influence might be even greater. Shooters of all varieties consistently strive to deliver the Die Hard experience: an isolated hero taking on a well-armed, well-organized foe, using the space they have seized against them.