Back when I was in college, the girl I was dating happened to mention to me off-handedly that she had played Duke Nukem in her younger years. This struck me as odd, as she didn’t exactly seem the type who’d be into that sort of thing.
Even more surprising, she told me she had a copy saved on her laptop, and I couldn’t wait to see her play. But what she showed me…wasn’t Duke Nukem. In fact it was ‘Duke Nukum’ (with a ‘u’). See, I had been thinking of the definitive Duke game, Duke Nukem 3D, but I had not even been aware that the Duke had a history. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, isn’t it? You listen to the music of a rock sensation, and assume he was always a rock sensation; then you listen to his early work and you’re like “oh… that’s… interesting”.
Now, while its mechanics had been borrowed from superior titles, Duke Nukum the original wasn’t a bad game for its time. But you know what was a bad game for it’s time? Duke Nukem: Forever. Or at least that’s what every person who ever played it will tell you.
You would think that a 14 year development period would be able to produce something…better than what Duke Nukem: Forever was. Sure the graphics were eyesores, the gameplay was boring, the tone was all over the place, and the story was….um…
But ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid if you let that stuff bother you; then you have plain missed the point of Duke Nukem: Forever entirely! It was never supposed to be a ‘good’ game, rather, it was supposed to more resemble an episode of ‘Behind the Music’; a final culmination of a long-dimmed star attempting a come-back… and failing.
“Bull crap”, you say? “Clearly it’s a title meant to cash-in on a once-relevant name in gaming that suffered from poor leadership and even poorer investors”, you say? Well that’s a strangely cogent argument to fire off spur of the moment like that, but let’s examine the evidence, shall we?
Like most fallen idols, the beginnings of Duke’s career were humble ones. He sported no grenade bandoliers, his eyes were unshieled from the sun’s harsh rays, his tank-top was a faded pink and they didn’t even spell his name right on the game’s title (instead, called ‘Duke Nukum’). He might have been the ‘hero’ sent to defeat Doctor Proton, but he was a far cry from the iconic champion that was to follow.
Yep, he was all set to be another, generic throw-away share ware hero whose passing would be as mourned or noted as a fart in a hurricane. Yet, from such small beginnings, the foundation of a franchise was laid and the taste of stardom went to Duke’s head. In fact, his second adventure actually begins with Duke giving an interview about his autobiography Why I’m so Great.
Then came Duke Nukem 3D; the Duke everyone remembers. The Duke we wanted to believe would someday return. Sadly, this would be Nukem’s apex of stardom. He had his womanizing action-hero parody shtick down pat. He could do silly things with his environment that had no point or purpose other than to amuse the audience. And his now famous one-liners instantly became video game comedy gold. Oh, and it was a damn good shooter and a damned good game. We clamored for more, and for years we were tortured with delicious screenshots and gameplay trailers. So what happened?
We meet Duke again 12 years after his triumph over the aliens from Duke Nukem 3D – incidentally, playing a video game about that very adventure; a ‘reliving of the glory days’, as it were. As it happens, twelve years is a pretty long time for a beer swilling, chain-smoking, steroid abusing, sex-addled ego maniac to spend sedentary. And we see that he spent every second of those twelve years resting on his laurels. Sure, single-handedly stopping the alien onslaught is definitely a great way to earn some street cred, but the new-found fame and glory clearly got to Duke’s head.
Now we see that he’s been climbing, hunting, acting and working out…hey, he’s gotta do something with all that money and fame, right? Otherwise, however, Duke seemed quite content to spend his remaining years ‘reigning’ atop his throne on the 69th floor of the casino devoted to him, receiving sexual favors from disposable pop-music bimbos. Nukem was clearly ill-prepared for a grudge match with the aliens, and it showed.
And here’s why DNF is less a game, and more an allegory for getting old. Duke had fought his battles already. Time was past for him to step aside. But he was so self-involved and had built such a following that he almost had to give saving the world another shot.
But those days had passed. Duke didn’t want to admit it, and we didn’t want to admit it. We wanted to convince ourselves that the king we remembered would one day return… but it was like expecting a retired Olympian to take the gold twelve years later.
Where Duke could once maintain a sustained running speed that would rival a track star, he can now only manage a few yards before nearing collapse and gasping for air. Some cynical people might say this was a sorry attempt on behalf of the developers to mirror the ‘sprint’ mechanics found in many shooters these days… and those cynical people would be wrong! Can you imagine the discipline and stamina it takes to maintain that sort of pace for an extended period of time? Can you imagine what would happen if you didn’t practice for more than a decade and then suddenly tried to go full-tilt like that again out of the blue? Do you honestly think you’d fare any better?
Duke could once carry an entire squad’s worth of weapons and ammo, but now he can now only carry a paltry primary and secondary. Again, you might think that this was the developers trying to copy other successful shooters with the two-weapon mechanic. And, again, you’d be missing the point. There’s a difference between bodybuilding for utility and bodybuilding for show; and Duke has clearly been doing the latter for the past decade. Carrying so many weapons requires a certain technique as well as a certain physique. If both aren’t maintained, then both with deteriorate.
Then there’s the drinking. Back in the day, Duke could have been as sober as a judge after a dozen beers. But age has a way of catching up with a guy; even Duke. He just can’t pound the brewskis like he used to, and now even one good can has got him stumbling around the floor.
But perhaps the most damning of all evidence indicating Duke is ‘over the hill’ is the fact that, once upon a time, Nukem’s rampaging could only be stopped when the last drop of blood was spilt from his body. Now he’ll sheepishly lay down and die when his own self-image becomes too damaged. Duke doesn’t have a health bar in DNF, but an ‘ego bar’; one that has to be constantly massaged and expanded by performing the same loutish feats that would have come naturally in his youth, but now are more difficult to perform in late middle-age.
Can you imagine if Duke had relied on his own ego for health in Duke Nukem 3D?
But this Duke is getting old. His youthful habits are getting harder to maintain. His façade of invincibility; quickly shattering.
Just like any crotchety old man, lashing out at the ‘new-fangled things’ he doesn’t understand, Duke unnecessarily berates his younger and more successful contemporaries. “Power armor is for pussies” Duke declares bitterly, when presented a suit that closely resembles that of the most famous naval non-com in gaming. “That’s one dead space marine” Nukem says with a sneer upon discovering the corpse of a fallen EDF soldier whose helmet bears more than passing similarities to Isaac Clarke’s. Even Duke’s ‘friends’ try in vain to massage his ego; “I had to help my friend find his wife; what a pussy!” one declares. Despite their undeniable success that far exceeds his own, Duke still clings to the notion –the hope, rather- that tired one-liners and a blatant disregard for the opposite sex will still be considered ‘hip’… just the sort of bizarre pantomime older generations fall into when they try to relate to ‘the youth’.
But at this point, ‘the king’ is just going through the motions. The entirety of the alien invasion just seems to be something he wants to ‘get over with’. While he tried to put on an impassioned show early on “Not MY babes, not in MY town!” by the time he reaches his girls (about to face a brutal and painful death, by the way), his reaction isn’t sympathy or even anger; just a snide “looks like you’re…fucked.”
This is the moment where even Duke has to realize that it’s over for him. He’s no longer got any motivation left. He’s partied out. The only reason he keeps doing what he does is because it’s all he knows how to do. Oh, he tries to mix it up. He tries to set some loftier goals, but it’s over; you know it, I know it, and in the deep dark recesses of his soul… Nukem knows it.
And so goes the Duke’s career: a quick and steady build-up, a short but satisfying apex, and a long, languid descent into mediocrity, regret, and pining for the good old days before he fell out of shape. The perfect allegory for men approaching Duke’s age.
What? What’s that? Oh, I’m sorry, you just wanted a game where you blast a bunch of aliens with a crude, bad-ass, womanizing, one-dimensional action hero? A game that was actually good? Well that’s not what was being sold here. Duke Nukem: Forever is art, you plebs! And sometimes art has to hold up the mirror… and you’re not supposed to like what you see. You thought Duke could be the King again after so long away from the throne? That’s not how life works, buddy! One morning you’re going to wake up and your best days will be behind you; you either accept that, or you do what Duke did and make a mockery of everything you actually did accomplish.
DNF is not a title with cripplingly bad game design, but is the boldest, ballsiest, most underappreciated and undersold artistic masterpiece in history. I, for one, applaud 3D Realms and Gearbox for their unwavering dedication to this avant garde piece. It’s a shame no one else appreciates it, but that’s how art goes sometimes.
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