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.
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