As the Internet is well aware, Duke Nukem Forever was finally released one week ago after fourteen years of troubled development. In less than a year, the game has gone from long-time Internet joke to over-the-top hype machine to unmitigated disaster. The game, which was saved from limbo last September by Gearbox Studios has managed to offend or disappoint all but the most die hard Duke fans with its unabashed sexism, unimaginative design and generous helping of bugs (though some of these are pretty entertaining). The game is the embodiment of some of the biggest problems in the videogame industry today.
I’m glad that amid the raging storm of Internet hate, a few people still remember the original Duke Nukem, back when it was just a 2D platform shooter. As a kid, the Duke Nukem trilogy was one my favorite computer game series. These games bore little resemblance to Duke Nukem Forever. There was no nudity, no feces, no violence against women. In fact, the only human that you ever kill in the original series is your somewhat clichéd nemesis, Dr. Proton, at the end of the third game. The developers made no attempt to sell the game on shock value. They simply made a solid, family-friendly action game. Even Duke himself was a different character. Instead of downing steroids, smoking cigars and frequenting strip clubs, the Duke Nukem of the original series drank soda, wore a pink shirt and enjoyed watching Oprah.
Despite lacking the adult content that the series would later be known for, the original Duke Nukem was very successful. At one point, it even surpassed Wolfenstein 3D, taking its place at number one on the shareware charts1. Following in the footsteps of Mega Man and Commander Keen, Duke Nukem took a proven formula and executed it well. Although most levels can be beaten fairly quickly, the level design encourages exploration, with power-ups and points hidden in every corner. Some of the levels in episode two feel particularly expansive, especially to a ten-year-old. The game even adds a few innovative twists, with items like robotic grappling claws and booby-trapped hand scanners.
With that said, not even the first Duke Nukem games were particularly original. A number of the sprites and tiles were swiped from other games, including Turrican and the DOS version of Mega Man, though this should hardly be surprising in a game that features the Energizer bunny as a recurring antagonist. As the series moved into 3D, Duke was remade as a crude amalgamation of macho clichés, his dialogue made up of little more than quotes from action movies. The games were still not particularly innovative (with the few innovations they did make being quickly overshadowed by the release of Quake, one month later), so the developers made their game stand out by making it the “edgy” choice, complete with pixelated nudity. While the game sold reasonably well, its sequel would turn into a development nightmare, coming to an end over a decade later with layoffs, lawsuits and a fair amount of mockery. In 2009, Duke Nukem Forever was declared dead…
…if only that had been true.
Gearbox’s announcement of the game’s revival spawned months of hype and anticipation (not to mention additional delays). When the game finally arrived, it was a complete mess. While many critics were unfazed by Duke Nukem 3D’s more controversial elements, considering them to be “campy” or “tongue-in-cheek,” Duke Nukem Forever’s hyperbolic misogyny has been almost unanimously deemed “not funny.” Even those reviews which have ignored the elephant in the room of the game’s sexism have found few redeeming elements, with uninteresting level design and outdated graphics. Indeed, the only value the game seems to have is shock value, whether it be throwing poop at the walls or sticking rodents in microwaves (and Maniac Mansion even beat them to that one almost 25 years ago).
As bad as the game is, its marketing has been even worse. Even before the game’s PR firm tried to blackball journalists who criticized it, the publicity surrounding the release brought out the worst in the game industry. While sexism and in the videogame problem is a serious and ongoing problem, rarely has it been so publicly celebrated than in the months leading up to the release of Duke Nukem Forever. In addition to the usual “booth babes” at conventions, press events for the game were held at converted strip clubs. Lydia Heitman, who works in videogame PR, wrote a telling article for Kotaku, describing her first-hand experience trying to work with the male-only attitude surrounding the game. While sexism in the content of a game is concerning, outright sexism in a professional setting is much more disturbing. As a recent post on The Border House states, Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t just contain sexism, it wallows in sexism.
Needless to say, I won’t be running out to the store any time soon to buy Duke Nukem Forever. From the look of things, I’m certainly not alone. If you want a more thorough analysis of the pros and cons of the game, I think Notch said it best. Though I’m sure plenty of people will buy it as it rides the fading wave of pre-release hype, it will forever be an example of the videogame industry at its worst. In stark contrast, the game that started it all stands as a relic of a time when shareware was opening up an avenue for new ideas and new developers to break through the industry’s barriers. Though it may not have sold as many copies as the triple-A titles of today, Duke Nukem was a success without any hyper-masculine fluff of its successors (though in my opinion, it takes a lot more moxie to tell your arch-nemesis that you watch Oprah than it does to hang out in a strip club by yourself). No matter how many copies Duke Nukem Forever sells, it will always be a fail.
1. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. David Kushner.