Duke Nukem Versus Irrelevancy «

Duke Nukem Forever bombed critically, if not commercially. Despite the vocal protestations of the Duke Defense Force, who want to make those game reviewer bastards pay for shooting up their hero, most of the talk on the internet and elsewhere seems to focus on just exactly how terrible the game was. In the midst of all this condemnation, Duke Nukem 3D, the classic that gave rise to DNF, seems to have found itself caught in the crossfire. It’s worth taking a step back and examining just what made Duke 3D so amazing. What did it do that its other, 2.5D cousins did not?

In many respects, Duke 3D was overshadowed by Quake a few months later, and the revolution in level design that D3D sparked is easy to forget. Until Duke 3D, very few first-person shooters even attempted to ground their levels in real world locations. Wolfenstein hardly looked like a European castle, Doom’s levels had more in common with Costco than they did a Martian base; and who know what the hell the levels in Hexen and Heretic were supposed to represent. Before Duke 3D, the only games of note that modern players would recognize as an FPS which also used “real-world locations” with any fidelity were Terminal Terror, Congo: The Lost City of Zinji, and William Shatner’s Tek War, and none of them did it particularly well.

Duke 3D made it seem as if games could do anything. If a game could have fully functional mirrors, pool tables, and light switches, the holodeck should be just around the corner, right? In retrospect it seems kind of silly and simplistic, but revolutions in gaming often make the future seem closer than it really is.

This is one area that Duke Nukem Forever gets right and where it remains true to the spirit of the original. Interactive environments are not something that FPS games have emphasized for the past decade or so, and Duke can not only play with any number of items, but players are encouraged to find them all as each one increases Duke’s health. Sure there are a few missteps (like picking up s*** out of a toilet) but for the most part it works.

Duke 3D did more than just ‘work.’ The levels were amazing beyond their interactivity. Despite being on the 2.5D Build engine, the creators of Duke 3D were able to integrate a surprising amount of 3D gameplay into their designs, and where they couldn’t get the tech to cooperate, they faked it. Rooms on top of rooms, vertically oriented levels, and enemies coming at you from all directions at once were impressive feats not of technology in ’96- after all, Quake’s free Qtest had blew away anything DN3D did- but of level design. It would take years before FPS designers really started to rival Duke’s levels.

When the levels didn’t carry Duke (let’s face it, the second episode has a few stinkers) the jokes did. The humor in Duke consisted mostly of references — to Aliens, to Terminator, to cult classics like They Live and Army of Darkness. These references weren’t made in a vacuum. To truly understand why Duke 3D earned its laughs, you have to remember what life was like for geeks in 1996. The internet had yet to truly take off, the idea of geek chic seemed absurd, and most fans of sci-fi movies and schlocky horror films enjoyed them in solitude or with a very small group of friends. Duke’s desire to kick ass and chew bubblegum was a dog whistle to nerds everywhere. Yeah, he was a walking Arnold Schwarzenegger parody, but he was also one of us. The references worked because they communicated this very specific message from the developers.

I caught a TV airing of They Live — the 1988 horror film that originated the bubble gum line — in seventh grade. I thought it was amazing, dumb in a self-aware way, and hilarious. Do you think any of my peers got it? Talking about it at school in the days after taught me that nobody cared about ironic yet dumb ’80s action flicks, just like nobody cared about Aliens, Terminator, or Star Trek. There may have been others who enjoyed those things in the mid-nineties, but to a 13 year -old in Montana they might as well have been on Mars. My peers might not have cared, but it was obvious to me that the developers at 3D Realms understood. Their references were funny because they let the audience in on the joke and communicated that they were just like us.

The references in Duke Nukem Forever accomplish the exact opposite. In the intervening 14 years, the reference as humor device has been beaten to death. As the phenomenon of the reference morphed into the “meme,” it lost its meaning. A reference made for the sake of making a reference isn’t funny, it’s embarrassing. I’ll prove it:

It’s a trap!

Get it? Was that funny? Hell no, and neither is Duke Nukem Forever. Duke quoting Ash from Army of Darkness in 1996 was cool. Duke quoting a GI Joe parody video that was popular eight years ago when he kills a pig cop is lame at best, patronizing at worst. 

With its combination of humor, level design, and interactivity, Duke 3D earned its place as a classic and the mediocrity of its follow-up shouldn’t overshadow its accomplishments. In the intervening fourteen years, the development saga of DNF earned a larger spot in fans’ minds than the original game itself, and it’s likely that its high-profile critical failure will ensure that when people think of Duke, they think of DNF. Which is a damn shame.

 

 

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