Friday, August 13, 2010

Always bet on Duke

So this week, news that the Duke Nukem license had been picked up by Gearbox reared its head.  I was initially struck with glee.  Duke Nukem is a franchise that I've always enjoyed for its quality gameplay and its "help, I'm trapped in the 80s" attitude, so seeing it resurrected yet again was a nice thing to hear, especially coming from as capable a developer as Gearbox.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder whether or not Duke Nukem really matters anymore.

The first two Duke Nukem games were fairly conventional 2D action platformers with some light-hearted over-the-top action movie humour, but it wasn't really until Duke Nukem 3D that the series burst into mainstream gaming discourse, with its exaggerated macho-80s Duke blowing up aliens left and right, all the while taking a few minutes to tip a stripper on the side.  It was and still is totally tasteless, but also very well made, and one of my favourite games of all time due to how well it holds up today once it's got some mods plugged in.

Duke Nukem Forever was the much-awaited follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D, and was in development for, on and off, over ten years, switching game engines at least a few times, even as other Duke games like Manhattan Project were released.  Every couple of years it would resurface, and it became the industry's running joke for vapourware.  Technology changes and lack of funding eventually caught up with it, and last year it was announced that the game had effectively been cancelled.  Most of the gaming industry gave a little sigh and moved on, disappointed, but also totally unsurprised at the same time.

Duke Nukem 3D's major appeal was in its "rebellious" use of sex, violence 
and strong language, all intended to poke fun at self-serious games.

Now, Duke is back from the dead.  But what does it mean for gaming?  To really figure it out, we have to go back to the release of Duke Nukem 3D.  The appeal of Duke 3D at the time wasn't so much its gameplay, because there were plenty of games that did the same thing just about as well.  Rather, Duke Nukem 3D was appealing because it came out at a time when shooters were just starting to become dark, depressing and, for lack of a better term, "more serious".  By contrast, Duke 3D's tasteless, crass and campy humour stood out from the pack of repetitive fantasy and sci-fi games, and its inclusion of partial nudity no doubt attracted a lot of gamers.  It was gimmicky, for sure, and that gimmick served its purpose.  When it was announced, Duke Nukem Forever again filled that niche as "serious" titles like Half-Life, SIN, Unreal and Soldier of Fortune were making the rounds.

It seems like in 2010, we're overdue for a game that doesn't take itself seriously.  Various shooters flood the marketplace, the vast majority of them proclaiming that realism and authenticity are the highest of virtues.  Call of Duty, BioShock, Gears of War, etc. are all good games, but their success has also led to stagnation in the industry, and instead of making games with new ideas, we're seeing developers churn out copies of the big hits.  Medal of Honor, Singularity and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine all seem to be alternate takes on the respective games above, and while I'm sure they'll be good in their own rights, it's quite clear that the reason they were ever made to begin with was because the successes of those earlier titles convinced publishers that they could be the next big thing.

If there were ever a time for a game to come out and give them the literal finger, it'd be now.  And yet at this point, I'm not really sure that it would work, or rather, I'm not so sure that Duke is the one who should be wagging that finger.  Duke Nukem is a character that millions of people know about, but as an actual brand, the potential for new Duke Nukem games feels limited.  A successful Duke Nukem title hasn't been released in years, and when put next to a dozen other games that are likely to offer up more content, it's hard to say how far Duke's old gimmicks will get him.  Moreover, Duke Nukem, even through parody, risks being turned into the very thing that it mocks; I can only handle so much online run-and-gun combat, and I'm not convinced that a Duke Nukem game would be able to stand up on the quality of its gameplay in the same way it could fifteen years ago.

Moreover, there's the issue of the violence in sex in Duke Nukem.  In the mid-90s, seeing digitised computer game breasts was a relatively uncommon thing, as was extreme violence, and much of Duke Nukem 3D's appeal was in this "forbidden fruit" aspect.  These days, with titles like Grand Theft Auto and The Saboteur featuring full-on strip clubs and lap dances, a new Duke game wouldn't have much wiggle room before it became illegal to sell.  Obviously a lot of this hinges on the execution of such a game, but most of Duke's appeal came from how excessive it was, and there's a cap on just what developers can get away with.

 Even in 15 years, Duke has hardly changed a bit, but do
we still look at him as a parody, or as an outdated relic?

Finally, games have matured immensely since Duke Nukem 3D.  Certainly not all games are high art, but the number of evocative themes touched on by even more whimsical and pedestrian titles far exceeds the corridors of Doom and Hellish vistas of Quake.  It's always good to be able to step back and laugh ourselves, but there are so many other games that have done self-parody since Duke Nukem 3D (and with varying levels of subtlety, to boot), that the question of whether we need Duke anymore is ever-pressing.  Who knows - maybe Duke needs to grow up a little bit.

While I'm hoping for the best for the inevitable Duke Nukem 3D follow-up, I'm not sure if Duke has a place outside of low-price downloadable games, the modding scene, and nostalgia.  It's a name that has been irrelevant for far too long, and the basic gameplay it did well in the past has been done better a hundred times over by other games.  Duke Nukem wants us to think "it's just a game", but at this point that may be its problem more than anything else.

[Image credit 1]
[Image credit 2]

1 comment:

  1. modern games are not realistic or authenic. Id argue that games around the 2004 time period were more realistic than games these days. Sure games these days may look more real just because of the higher res textures and having more poly's and everything else but at the same time everything is dark, bloom everywhere and the rampant shader abuse.
    Modern games have headed towards the hollywood look, where things superficially appear more realistic but in the end are really not and are just as unrealistic as what came before it.

    There are of course a few games that are more realistic and authentic. Usually these games are tactical shooters and the fun thing about those is that tactical shooters are on the brink of extinction. What is there these days? Brothers in Arms barely qualifies, so other than that the only new title would be Armed Assault 2.

    Duke Nukem forever is almost as realistic as modern games are if you look past the limitations of the technology available back then. It just has a sense of humour. Sure you fight aliens and such but once you look past this superficial layer of what the enemy looks like you see that its more and less just the same. If you look at the new Armed Assault you see that there is a much larger difference. The enemy looks like you, fights like you and acts like you. In every modern game you are really distinct from the rest in a similar fashion as in those old titles like duke nukem 3d in that are superior to everybody else, you can do all the same unrealistic things you can do in modern shooters the only difference is basically that you grab magical healthpacks instead of you slowly heal when out of combat and you dont have iron sights.

    I however would like a new game which doesnt try to be hollywood realistic. I would like a new UT, new serious sam or new duke nukem.
    FPS gameplay has barely changed over the last decade. Most of the features modern shooters have already were present in games that have been around for a decade. The only change that has come that can affect gameplay is destruction of objects in the gameworld. This kind of destruction has been promised to us for half of the past decade and only now is it finally starting to appear, but really if you take Halo and BF1942 you get basically what every game has been like for the last 10 years. I really hope for that shooters will once again try to be more different. 10 years ago the range of shooters basically reached from UT to ghost recon to Trespasser and today the range of shooters seems to vary between Halo and CoD with only a few exceptions. Eventually games will hit the barrier of photorealism and how will they then justify new titles coming out every year which offer the same gameplay but with improved gfx?