Hail to the King, Long Live the Duke

Duke Nukem Forever (DNF) was a long awaited game by many including myself. It was also a major disappointment to everyone who played it, with the highest praise I ever saw being a comment about the executable itself being stable. It has been slagged, slandered, and slapped in numerous languages, and much of it is deserved, however I would like to illustrate that not only are these complaints not wholly correct, but that their rear-view prognostications, “If only they had” scenarios, were also doomed. Their own suggestions in many cases would have resulted in an equally bad game.

Duke Nukem is raucous, crass, ludicrous, sexist (but not misogynistic), over the top, simplistic, juvenile, and unreserved. He is not deep or complex, and if he were we wouldn’t enjoy him nearly as much. Duke’s depth comes from our steering of him, we act out within his skin (and muscles). In Duke Nukem 3D (Duke3D) he is a cartoony figure in a comparatively realistic world, he has fame for his world-saving antics, but he is the exception and his behavior is tolerated in the immediately appreciable wake of his results: the world persisting. More specifically, he doesn’t talk all of the time, and though possibly an artifact of the technology of 1995 and 1996, it meant you didn’t get tired of him.

But in DNF? I did. He went from being vocal to loquacious, and loquacious to seemingly incessant. The quips were sometimes funny, but without any rest they had no pacing. Throw in the myriad of time settings the title was obviously developed in (When Harry Met Sally, and a Halo joke in the same game?) and you get a mish-mash that will confuse any listener, and bewilder them with sheer volume (quantity, not sound). More importantly, they didn’t set Duke apart from the world he was in. In Duke3D he was the exception, in DNF he is the norm. No one wants to play a game to be the norm, unless they are seeking to deviate from the meta-norm of video games themselves. Duke Nukem is an action hero multiplied by a porn star and his heroism comes in when the world actually needs someone like him. DNF shows him in a world where much of the population is some variant of that and he is simply the most successful individual in said enterprises.  The women being kidnapped by aliens in Duke3D were victims, but in DNF they are a punch line, uttering comments such as how they thought they were safe if they swallowed. Duke3D was sophomoric at times, but DNF went the route of making a lewd 12 year old blush. We don’t need a world of Dukes, we need a world, and a Duke.

Where in Duke3D they were plainly inspired by action movies, in DNF there seems to be no clear source of inspiration, the Duke we find in DNF is reactionary, diminishing the bravado in him that his fans loved. Duke3D maps were marked by excellence in their flow, depicting sufficiently realistic settings while still guiding the player without forcing their hand and providing a few big scenes along the way. Not only were the maps well focused, they were also well structured on the scale of the whole game, as the city levels were primarily designed by Richard “Levelord” Gray and the moon levels were primarily designed by Allen H. Blum III (this is per my memory as scouring for a by-the-map credits list didn’t return one in a timely manner). Obviously the ideal of two mappers making the whole of a game’s level content in a more contemporary engine is not realistic, though it could have been accomplished in DNF‘s development time, but these are aspects that made Duke3D great. DNF has the set pieces, the big moments, but it lacks a contiguous feel. The QTE where you are in a fist fight with an alien over a jetpack is a cool action movie moment, but you never do pilot that jetpack yourself. In Duke3D the jetpack is never required but always accepted, if you want to fly around an obstacle you can, but you are cheating yourself of certain areas. This is a core difference, Duke3D was a game for the players, and DNF, like most modern games, is a game for the developers to showcase what they have built. No additional amount of time would have saved the Duke from these attitudes.

Do not interpret these statements as a strict condemnation, DNF does have enjoyable moments, it just ensconces them in assorted cultural references over a very large time period. DNF puts its absolute worst foot forward, I myself played it for two hours and put the game down for over a year and then on a whim relaunched it. It turns out the worst was behind me, and though it never came close to Duke3D‘s levels, it did at least from time to time simply give me an environment, some weapons, and a variety of monsters to fight. It suffers from bad defaults (awkward binding for pipebombs, low default fov, weapon max set to 2) which can be changed, but it does a poor job of messaging. If you already own the game, you just might enjoy the later fights, assuming you can get past the rather terrible opening.

It sounds hopeless for poor Duke, with his most recent release being simply a repackaging of Duke3D and its expansions on Steam, but he can still make a comeback. The solution however involves abandoning the modern development style of games for the developers, and encourages a return to development for the gamers using modern technology. Keep Duke simple, give him relatively few things per level to say, do not emasculate him, make every weapon either a tool of unrivaled destruction (fully abusing and embracing the likes of Havok or PhysX) or something which humiliates his opponents. Have secrets in the levels, have bypass-able areas. Duke is the reigning king of power fantasies, so do nothing which would short change that. Return the king to his throne, and let the gamers come get some.