This week it was announced that Hollywood veteran Bruce Willis is retiring from acting. The Die Hard star has been diagnosed with aphasia, a condition that is diminishing his ability to read, write, and speak. It's the end of an era, and the press has used the news as an excuse to look back at his career, highlighting his standout roles in movies like Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and 12 Monkeys. But I've yet to see anyone mention Apocalypse, a game Willis made in 1998 with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater developer Neversoft.
Okay, it's not that surprising that people aren't talking about Apocalypse. It's hardly a career highlight for Willis, but it's worth revisiting because it was ahead of its time. Today, Hollywood actors showing up in video games has been normalised so much that it's no longer a novelty. We're at the point now where even small indie games like 12 Minutes have a cast of established screen actors. But back in '98, when Willis was enjoying something of a career revival, someone with his cultural clout appearing in a video game was huge.
In a dark vision of the future, an evil scientist known as the Reverend creates four powerful demonic entities, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and orders them to bring about the end of days. The only man who can stop him? Bruce Willis, of course. He plays Trey Kincaid, a tough, wise-cracking prisoner who blasts his way out of a maximum security penitentiary and makes it his mission to stop the Reverend and save the world. It's a pretty flimsy story, but more than sufficient for a game that is essentially an arcade shooter.
Early in Apocalypse's development, Kincaid was your partner. Neversoft wanted to create the video game equivalent of a buddy film, having him fight alongside you. But at some point he became the lead, and Willis had his face scanned and digitally inserted into the game. He also spent two days at House of Moves, a motion capture studio in Venice, California, bringing the character to life. He didn't record much dialogue—cheesy one-liners, mainly—but did enough to actually be the star of the game, not just the face of it.
It's not, perhaps unsurprisingly, an Oscar-winning performance. Willis reads lines like "These guys need more lead in their diet!" with just enough enthusiasm, but it's clear he isn't treating Apocalypse with the same gravity as, say, a Quentin Tarantino movie. Fair enough. Why would he? Even so, his presence alone makes Apocalypse a fascinating piece of video game history. It's also arguably the only reason people remember the game, which was otherwise deeply uninspiring, and would have probably faded into obscurity without Willis.
Apocalypse was something of a pioneer when it came to bringing Hollywood into the games industry. But a more meaningful legacy is how it led directly to the creation of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. The engine was used to create the first prototype of what would eventually become Neversoft's legendary skating game, with Trey Kincaid in place of Hawk. So even though Apocalypse was, Willis aside, a pretty forgettable game, it had a major impact on gaming as a whole. Far from Bruce's finest moment, but one still worth celebrating.
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