No Tears for the Duke

There has been much wailing, gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair and rending of garments in the online video game press the past few days — you’d think someone died.

And you’d be right.  It was this guy:

Duke Nukem

Duke Nukem

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I come to bury Nukem, not to praise him.

Duke Nukem is an iconic figure, for better or for worse (and it’s mostly worse), in video game culture.  He’s the hard-bitten, cigar-chomping, iron-pumping, one-liner-spouting, alien-killing badass hero of 3D Realms’ series of games named for him.  The Duke Nukem series began in 1991 with the original Duke Nukem; the sequel came two years later, and Duke Nukem 3D, the inception of what we might call the modern Duke Nukem franchise, arrived in January 1996.  Indeed, DN3D might equally be called the definition of the modern Duke Nukem franchise.  The first two games were DOS-based side-scrolling platformers, with little plot exposition and no dialogue; Duke himself was only a few pixels tall, and while his blond buzzcut was discernible, little else was.  And they were pretty fun, actually.  iD had shown a year earlier with Commander Keen that you could make a PC platformer as much fun as the console titles that dominated the market (though PC platformers would take much longer to break out of the limited shareware niche, and never became the dominant force that console platformers did), and Apogee picked up their formula and ran with it.

iD, of course, then made Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, and while they were arguably less sophisticated than their contemporary competition (and the whole iD/Bungie, PC/Mac history is very interesting, but beyond the scope of this blog post), they completely changed the market’s idea of what a video game was.

Apogee had no intention of being left behind, so their 3D Realms division (which would later become the whole company, as the Apogee name and all non-3D games were quietly dropped) looked at Wolf3D and Doom and saw, apparently, mainly that they were graphically violent in a way games had not really previously been, and that in Doom‘s case, it allowed multiplayer “deathmatch” gameplay.  And, again apparently, they thought to themselves, “OK, those elements are important to a game being a huge success.  What else might we need?”  And their answer to this question was, “boobies, duh.”

And thus Duke Nukem 3D was born, and Duke Nukem was reborn, transformed from a tiny, nondescript 2D sprite with yellow hair into a self-parodying, hollow caricature of machismo; a pastiche of every musclebrained action hero ever, rattling off lines that were only kind of funny when Bruce Campbell said them in the first place.  Oh yeah, plus gems like “no one steals our chicks and lives,” on learning that the invading aliens are abducting human women, and “shake it, baby,” on encountering strippers bizarrely still dancing in the blasted-out ruin of a nightclub.

Duke Nukem Forever was announced as the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D in April 1997 — about 15 months after DN3D saw the light of day.

In 2001, 3D Realms came in for some mockery from Penny Arcade with its announcement that they were going to stop setting release dates (of which they’d already blown past several) and that the game would be released “when it’s done.”  (The other game to which they refer, Prey, was another famous vaporware title, first announced in 1995, and after a similarly troubled development process to DNF, was eventually handed off to a different development studio, and released to middling reviews in 2006.)  DNF was so hotly anticipated, back when it was first announced, and so over-hyped, that it rapidly became a punchline, of course, and no one is really surprised that it is, indeed, never coming out.  The “Forever” in the title really did refer to the development time.  And hence the gnashing of teeth, &c.

And I say: good.  Duke Nukem embodied everything that was wrong with video games.

In between DN3D‘s release and DNF‘s final demise, there were approximately 2.4 billion other Duke Nukem games released, almost all of which were ports, expansions, or retreads.  One of the PlayStation ports was subtitled Land of the Babes; there was also a Penthouse-themed level pack.  I mention this because the usual refrain from fans of Duke Nukem 3D is that it was the gameplay they loved so much (a claim that sounds frustratingly familiar to anyone who paid attention to the Resident Evil 5 controversy), not the immature chuckles they might have derived from the third-hand jokes and thoroughgoing misogyny.  But the documented history of the game belies that notion, and besides, I was there.  I was a nerdy sixteen-year-old guy who spent way too much time playing video games, when DN3D came out — precisely its target audience — and I know what it was about the game I liked: it was that Duke cursed, and part of the game was set in a porno theater, and there were strippers.  I thought it was funny that you could shoot the strippers, and they’d explode in a shower of dollar bills.  Like an unfortunately high percentage of sixteen-year-old boys, even the nerdy ones who play too many video games, I was an asshole.  But 3D Realms knew that about sixteen-year-old boys, and they made a game that catered to assholes.  And everything we knew about Duke Nukem Forever made it quite clear that they were still going after that same misogynist, poorly socialized, teenage boy audience.

(I think it’s worth noting that the first Grand Theft Auto — back when it was a top-down, 2D game with simple, cartoony graphics, long before there was any controversy, or indeed much of any notice at all, attached to the name — was released in late 1997, over a year and a half after DN3D.)

So, yes: I’m very glad this game is never coming out.  There’s a lot of ink being spilled in regret and nostalgia for the good old days of Duke Nukem 3D, but it’s fundamentally dishonest, in that its writers claim what they miss is the fun, fast-paced multiplayer, when in fact many games — from the original Half-Life, released only a couple of years after DN3D, or even the brilliant-beyond-its-time Descent, which predated DN3D by almost a year, through to many modern games — have offered and do offer better multiplayer experiences.  What they really miss, I believe, is the cheap thrill of objectification of and violence against women, the macho posturing, the frisson of transgression from a character in a video game using swear words: the same impulses, at bottom, that lead people to valorize “political incorrectness.”

Video games need to grow out of those juvenile attitudes.  Video game culture needs to refuse to stay mired in that mid-90s-teenage-boy mindset.  I’m not an asshole poorly-socialized sixteen-year-old anymore, and I’m actually completely OK with not reliving those years.  The excessive mourning for Duke Nukem suggests that many in the video game press would like to, and I think that’s rather sad, especially when we have so many other, better examples of what video games can do.  Me, I’m glad he’s dead.

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