After an impressively endless wait through development horrors, Duke Nukem Forever has hit the shelves. It’s a follow-up to 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D–there have been a number of easily forotten spin off games, like Manhattan Project, but the original story has gone untouched for fifteen years. There are plenty of reviews tearing apart the newly released Duke Nukem Forever–for all the gory details, try one of these. I can’t disagree with any of them: the latest of Duke’s adventures is not funny, it’s not playable, and it’s even missing the senseless unending violence that characterized the original. But rather than repeat their criticisms, I’d like to address another question: why did anyone expect it to be great? What is it about Duke Nukem?
Ian Bogost tweeted as the reviews came in: “Did everyone really forget that Duke Nukem c1996 was also ‘barely playable, not funny, rampantly offensive?'”
Well, he may have a point. But when the game came out, I was twelve years old–so, not exactly the assumed target audience by gender, but definitely in the right age bracket to pick it up immediately. I still have Duke Nukem’s catch phrases engrained in my head, from “Come get some!” to “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of gum.”
And yes, I thought it was funny. Duke Nukem’s offensiveness was also harmless–his main inspirations were the same somewhat laughable macho figures as, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop or Bruce Willis in Die Hard fighting bad guys sans footwear. It’s true that Duke’s particular brand of world saving seemed to involve a lot of shoot outs in low-res porn shops, and the alien invasion itself wasn’t particularly kind to women. And, of course, there were the strippers:
Politically correct? Of course not. But the collective impact was no worse than watching a Bruce Campbell flick. It had the air of a B movie, and the cartoony graphics were actually a mark in its favor. Like the classic adventure game character Leisure Suit Larry, Duke is impossible to take too seriously. No one was holding Duke up as a role model: like Doom’s space marine, Duke Nukem was a sarcastic lens on a world of chaos, and his visage was well-suited to the task of violence. The FPS mechanics at its heart were the primary draw, and the multiplayer: TEN, Total Entertainment Network, brought Duke Nukem into online multiplayer. For kids like me, that was one of the first games that took us out of LAN parties and into online battlegrounds. It’s experiences like those free-for-all battles that remind us of the best of Duke Nukem 3D. And, while perhaps less popular, a co-op mode made it possible to play the game working with a teammate against the invading aliens.
That’s the Duke Nukem we remember, through the haze of flying bullets–much of the setting could be obscured by the frantic competition and fast pace of play. And this old Duke comes with a dose of nostalgia and the desire to return to a certain state of innocence. Players like me, who were around our teenage years when the last version of Duke was on our screens, know that the gaming genre has gotten a lot more complicated since those days. But has the culture evolved so much that we are all embarrassed by Duke?
Certainly, as a girl gamer, my relationship with Duke Nukem as an icon is troubled. He’s now associated with anti-feminism, homophobia, and sheer macho bull without any shades of irony. The self-mocking humor that made the original slightly more endearing even in its offensive moments is still present in the fandom, but now it’s more self-congratulatory.
And for another side of that question, take a look at the image that accompanies a blog post “3 Reasons Duke Nukem Forever is a MUST for shooter fans.”
Yes, graphics have certainly advanced since Duke’s time. But the gender politics of the gaming industry haven’t always come so far. Take, for instance, the Penny Arcade battles over dickwolves I’ve discussed in the past, the attention to breast bounce mechanics paid in games like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, or the industry’s division over the value of booth babes at gaming conventions (No real surprise: Duke Nukem Forever had plenty.)
So maybe we’re not any more sophisticated, except in our graphics cards, but the current tensions over gaming and gender and sex make Duke’s nineties antics look like child’s play. But he’s a specter of the industry’s roots that no one knows how to confront: the industry’s changed, for better and for worse, but the Duke Nukem who showed up at the party today hasn’t changed with it.
Duke Nukem today is the former big-shot making a grand entrance at his high school reunion. He expects everyone to see him like they used to–he set himself up to be the king. But even with a scantily clad babe attached to his arm, he looks more ridiculous than royal, and even his former buddies are a bit embarrassed to associate too closely with him. First-person-shooter heroes of Duke’s era were already timeless (or at least ageless). Unlike, say, King Quest‘s Sir Graham, who went from knight to king to husband to father. Duke has nowhere left to go but straight to the casting call for RED.
Duke Nukem Forever was more fun as vaporware–a promise of a moment that could be just like the first time. It’s true that the game set expectations no game could have lived up to. Forever is a long time, especially in the video game world. If there’s anything eternal here, it’s the memory of Duke as he ways–not a throwback that fails both as a repackaging of the original and as a new game. Duke Nukem perhaps shouldn’t live forever: he represents a time, both in the lives of those of us who played the game in the nineties and in his own context.
The worst sin of this new game is ignoring any opportunity for growth: it is exactly the same humor, the same style of one-liners, the same references, but without the gameplay to match–that, and only that, has gotten more complicated and more boring. It leaves the player with too much time to think on the environment and notice the uncomfortable circumstances. It even fails as a game to market to today’s teenagers–limits on ammunition and a revised health system remove all the fun of potential multiplayer even on systems that can handle it. With these serious flaws, Duke Nukem’s tired act is left fully exposed, and it’s not a pleasant sight.
Let’s hope that this time, they let the franchise die quietly.