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Twenty Years Later, ‘Die Hard Trilogy’ Shows Us How Video Games Can ‘Do Movies’ Right

Film tie-in games have a reputation for being, mostly, terrible. But Probe's 1996 title was a wonderful, inspirational exception.

by Ed Smith
16 September 2016, 11:07am

The Platinum range cover of 'Die Hard Trilogy' for the original PlayStation

There are twelve terrorists in Die Hard. You can picture them all – Hans, Karl, the one with the jumper who gets his neck broken – and the film repeatedly updates the audience on which ones are dead and which are alive. John McClane keeps a tally chart written on his arm. Sergeant Al Powell, halfway through the film, tells the FBI agents they're now facing "seven terrorists instead of twelve".

Herein lie the film's tension, and its stakes. We know McClane is outmatched twelve to one; we know that, in order to save the day, he must defeat twelve enemies. It's simple and effective writing. John's romance with Holly, his friendship with Powell, the terrorists' plot and their in-fighting all orientate a basic, A to B story: before the end of Die Hard, we know John McClane must travel from zero dead terrorists to twelve.

Probe's Die Hard Trilogy game, now 20 years old and first released for the original PlayStation (a Saturn version followed several months later), has a much higher body count than any of the movies on which it is based. The bad guys are all nameless and faceless (one can only daydream of a shooter wherein every slain enemy is a recognisable character) and they die en masse. It's an arcade game. Fast, designed to test players' reflexes and by its nature over quickly, Die Hard Trilogy, superficially at least, is antithesis to the slow action of, in particular, the first film. But where it ignores the intricacies of the movies' plots and set-ups, it captures their spirits – at the best of times, playing the game creates a similar feeling to watching the films.

The 'Die Hard' section of 'Die Hard Trilogy'

The Die Hard section, for example, keeps a counter in the top right corner of the screen of how many terrorists you have to kill before the missions is complete. It's a small detail, and opposed to twelve across an entire film, you shoot 20 or 30 bad guys per level. But it's a nod at least to the tangible sense of progression and movement created in the movie. Along vents, through windows, up and down elevators – John McClane is always moving. The terrorist tally in Die Hard Trilogy and the points accumulator in the top centre of the screen are simple, cheap ways of impressing that same sense of gradual advancement. Perhaps, this speaks more to the film than the game.

Like The Raid, also based in a tower block, also featuring a series of increasingly bloody gunfights on successively higher floors, Die Hard often feels like Typical Video Game Structure: The Movie. McClane starts with a pistol then steadily improves his arsenal by collecting first a machine gun then some explosives. He moves variably up and down them, but McClane nevertheless travels across multiple "levels".

"Trilogy is a broad appropriation of Die Hard, but it captures a lot more of the film's vim and brio than a closer emulation."

Conceits like these help the first section of Die Hard Trilogy to become one of the most cogent, credible video game adaptations of a movie. It's helped, also, by the presence of hostages in each level, who must be rescued, and a bomb timer which activates once every terrorist in a mission has been killed. They're much more throwaway – compared to recognisable faces from the movie, like Ellis and Holly, hostages in Die Hard Trilogy are essentially items to collect, obstacles to shoot around – but they provide a trace element of the film's dramatic stakes.

Nakatomi Plaza, another Die Hard tie-in, from 2002, pays homage to a lot more of the film's minutiae, precisely recreating the dialogue, costumes, sets and so on. But it's a pure shooter: no hostages, no bombs. And without those contrivances – despite a greater attention to detail – the game feels empty and flat. Trilogy is a broad appropriation of the original Die Hard, but it captures a lot more of the film's vim and brio than a closer emulation.

The 'Die Hard 2' section of 'Die Hard Trilogy'

The same might be said for the game's Die Hard 2 section, a light gun shooter that strips out all the dialogue and plotting of the film and replaces it with raw, constant action. So much of Die Hard 2, the film, is spent waiting for something to happen. Compared to the original movie, McClane is hardly on screen, and large sections of run time are dedicated to either the air traffic controllers bickering or Holly, on the plane, teasing Dick Thornburg. It doesn't lend itself well to an action game.

So Trilogy basically throws Die Hard 2 out. It's a fine section, but rather than effectively adapting a movie, it's more revealing of how certain aspects of films, or maybe certain films wholesale, don't transfer well to games as we broadly understand them. Die Hard 2 is conversation heavy. For that reason, it's a bad action film; and for the same reason, its sensation, its experience, isn't well suited for adaptation into a contemporary action game. Copying Die Hard 2 certainly wouldn't be the place to start, but comparing the 20-year-old Die Hard Trilogy to contemporary shooters, one hopes progress will quicken when it comes to game-makers weaving cogent, interesting narratives between gunfights.

The 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' section of 'Die Hard Trilogy'

Until then, Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third section of Die Hard Trilogy, is a good template for film-to-game adaptations. Like the Die Hard section, it appropriates the sensations rather than the specifics of the series' third film. It's anarchic. It's colourful. Like the best parts of the film – McClane's race to Wall Street in a yellow cab, his storming a boat to find the code to the bomb in the school – the game is played constantly against the clock. It's a rush, no doubt, and shares a successful streamlining of its source material with the few other great movie tie-ins.

Spider-Man 2 captures the thrill of swinging and gliding like its eponymous film hero, and that's all it needs. The Warriors evokes the sights and smells of Walter Hill's dystopian 1970s New York so much that it needn't be the "best" action game of its ilk. Like the Bond movies at their most thrilling, GoldenEye 007 is fast-paced and sparingly written. Capture a memorable moment or feeling from a film and recreate it as something prolonged and interactive – this is what the best video game adaptations have done.

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But they exemplify, also, what games and game-makers value and prefer to work with: spectacle rather than subtlety, situations rather than characters, action rather than drama. As much as it's a trim, exciting shooter, Die Hard Trilogy, today, exemplifies why it took so long for games to take writing seriously. Even back in 1996, when video games, arguably unlike now, could plausibly be called a developing medium, and the guidelines about audience expectation were not so rigidly enforced, game-makers looked at movies and instead of their characterisation and their dialogue, stole their explosions and guns.

The spirit of Die Hard is present in Trilogy, but the flesh is not. We couldn't have asked for a more solid frame around which to build better film tie-ins – but two decades on, action games based around movies so regularly have little meat on their bones.

@mostsincerelyed

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