Being John McClane: Translating Die Hard Trilogy into a 90’s videogame

By Neil Merrett

Die Hard Trilogy, released on Sony PlayStation in 1996, developed by Fox Interactive and Acclaim Studios London

Die Hard Trilogy on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn was able to give the players a 3D skyscraper, airport and basic city to blast around and have explosive action adventures in.  The games were perhaps less effective at exploring the appeal of John McClane as a somewhat vulnerable and down-on-his luck hero that made dangerously reckless decisions while trying to hold off the demons that drive him.  

From a purely technical perspective, the emergence of 32-bit CD-based consoles such as the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn were a perfect technology to try and recreate one of Western Cinemas most venerated action movies.

In fact, as the name suggests, Die Hard Trilogy sought to recreate 3 different movies on a single disk.

The developer chose to therefore build three separate games – each built around an entirely different genre – to let people act out their fantasies as wise cracking, down-on-his-luck, New York police detective John McClane.

This newer generation of consoles allowed for developers to create large 3D environments for the player to roll, shoot, sneak and drive around in, while being hunted and pursued by generic European and south American terrorists type.

Yes, these 3D environments are crude and unsophisticated compared to your standard adventure games on current generation consoles, but the games ticked the boxes of recreating the base concept of Die Hard and its two immediate sequels.

Die Hard is a third person shooter where the player pays a game of cat and mouse with gun-totting terrorists across a 1980’s skyscraper while trying to spare as many civilians as possible.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder sees a number of explosive shoot outs across an airport, and Die Hard with a Vengeance is a time-based stunt driving game where the player must dodge new York traffic and crash into bombs and explosive vehicles before a timer runs out obliterating entire New York Streets. It was somewhere between the Taito 80s pursuit game Chase HQ and Crazy Taxi with a mad bomber as the antagonist that threatened to decimate the player and city in all consuming flame.

For the mid-90s, it was a thrilling concept for action movie fans where they got to directly control John McClane as an outgunned lone warrior that was able to lure terrorists to their doom and dispatch them while some not entirely convincing impressions of Bruce Willis catchphrases played back through the screen.

Strategy was arguably based around exploiting the limited AI of the game’s bad guys, usually by avoiding getting shot up and then hiding around corners as they lined up to then be taken out by McClane.

Limited at this strategy was, it was satisfying enough for the time to let the player evaporate multiple terrorists by hiding in a fountain or behind a pit plant and lobbing a grenade at them.  There was always the danger of being cornered and surrounded by gunmen from multiple angles or forced to flee under gun fire into a boiler room.

Die Hard 1 on the PlayStation was wish fulfilment for 90s action movie fans.  Now you too could strap on a white vest and outsmart lethal terrorists – even if they are not particularly intelligent. It was John McClane enough for the time.

Die Hard 2 meanwhile was an on-rails shooter experienced through McClane’s eyes. In this mode, the player charged simply with controlling where McClane is shooting as the character travels and shambles around a pre-programmed route based around the inner workings of Dulles Airport by foot, skidoo and even ejector seat.

This experience broadly plays out as in the movie Die Hard, albeit without any dialogue besides a few soundbites emulating Bruce Willis’s iconic “Yippee Ki Yays” and an incredulous shout of “this is not my day” as he somehow survives another deadly encounter.

32-bit consoles were ultimately able to create a satisfying sense of film sets to be a hero, yet they were a somewhat surface-level recreation of the exploits of john McClane of the NYPD.

Sure, the player could get shot at and even be exploded, but there was little exploration of McClane being a character that is much better at navigating near death scrapes than actually living as a functioning human being.

This is not to say that Die Hard Trilogy necessarily needed a cut-scene or mini-game where McClane tries to finally say and admit his failings to his estranged wife. But the three games also failed to recreate any of the narrative spectacle of the early Die Hard movies in terms of its charismatically scenery chewing villains or the surprising vulnerability of McClane as he is at high risk of both bleeding out or having a breakdown. 

“Alone, tired and the only chance”

Watching the original three movies in the series, it is sometimes surprising to see how McClane, for all his maverick tough guys ways, is utterly dependent on close colleagues and perhaps, even friends to try and get him through each day.

One of the tag lines used on certain posters for the original Die Hard suggested that John McClane was not in a good place – both literally and figuratively.

It stated: “High above the city of LA a team of terrorists has seized a building, taken hostages and declared war. One man has managed to escape. An off-duty cop hiding somewhere inside. He’s alone, tired… and the only chance anyone has got.”

By the start of the third movie, our main hero is no longer an active police man and is introduced with a terrible hangover as a welcome distraction from barely holding himself together. True, the character still has the trademark smart mouth, but the same personality that always has something to say when dispatching terrorists also seems to alienate people who like the hero more than he does.

There is a school of thought – shared by some at Squareblind towers – that Die Hard can serve as a classic Christmas movie about a dedicated police officer and underwhelming husband and father trying to save his marriage alongside the lives of dozens of party goers on an 80s Christmas eve. To others it’s a loud, obnoxious action movie about a shootout in a skyscraper.

Both of these opinions can be valid.  But perhaps to an audience used to watching the movie at Christmas time, Die Hard and McClane as a character transcends being just an entertaining action movie with elements of sit-com, kitchen sink drama and character study of a ‘good man’ on the edge.

To some, the appeal of John McClane as a character is not just the explosive actions he takes, but also the shambling, quick thinking and simultaneously overwhelmed way he struggles to bring down an army of bad guys while he tries to keep himself patched together, conscious and sane.

Die Hard Trilogy, perhaps due to technical limitations, fails to capture almost any of McClane’s internal struggles and doubts, as well as the ever looming marital strife. There is little interplay with the world and people around other than making sure you are not shot and can get to the bombs on time.

Videogames by the mid-1990s had developed the means to create the explosive chaos of the first three Die Hard films. The era was less interested in conveying troubled heroes – in favour of the wish fulfilment of being a bad-ass able to come out on top.

The same year that Die Hard Trilogy released also saw the first Tomb Raider game hitting shelves. The title would become one of the year’s breakout commercial and critical successes in gaming and create an instant icon of Lara Croft. This was a gun-totting action adventure heroine that was charged with leaping, somersaulting and blowing away physical and supernatural death traps ranging from hidden spike pits, cave-ins and dinosaur attacks.

The numerous ways to die in the were often brutal and gory, but through trial and error the player could learn to control Lara Croft as a truly unstoppable action star.

In the subsequent decades that have passed.  The Tomb Raider game series has been rebooted to try and marry the requirements of an action adventure game with a more cinematic exploration of the main character and the demons that drive her unique brand of heroism.

As has previously found, this more modern Lara Croft has had something of a McClane-like development in terms of trying to make a more vulnerable hero – even as she brutally dispatches hundreds of faceless goons in the most entertaining violent ways that a simulation can afford.

Videogames have evolved as a medium to use many different approaches and techniques to explore character.  The first Person Shooter genre arguably developed as a means to shoot demons from hell – not to mention nazis – can also be used to create non-violent interactive explorations of grief, mental health and loneliness.

Equally, shooter can more or less avoid plot development entirely and create strategic gung battles between human players around the word looking to show who is the best virtual shooter.

Die Hard Trilogy is notably a game from a different time where developers to seeking to make use of new technologies to try and keep up and match the appeal of a cinema – as opposed to building its own approach to explore characters and interactive storytelling. An important difference and appeal of gaming is the ability to give the player choices and satisfying consequences – for good or bad – to their decisions and choices in the heat of battle.

However, the first Die Hard movie in particular has been influential in developing the medium to immerse players in taking the role of flawed heroes that can often be overwhelmed, out of their depth and frankly forced into shambolic or plain bad decisions.

This might not be by directly playing as John McClane, but his DNA arguably exists in many videogame stories.

Gamers are well versed in trying to be a ‘good hero’, so it’s perhaps reassuring to be directly placed into characters struggling with the same doubts about their actions.

As McClane himself once said: “welcome to the party pal”.


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