The Importance of Enemy Design

A perfectly functional game.

When you think about it, artwork in games is completely optional. Most games would still be perfectly functional if you replaced all the character models and intricate level geometry with untextured cubes. So, why then do we insist on spending so much time designing such detailed level environments and character models? Are highly detailed 3D character models really better than Atari 2600 sprites if the gameplay’s still top notch? The short answer, yes. The long answer, heeeeeeell yes. Despite what some (mostly indie) gamers say, graphics do matter. Or, more to the point, art matters. Now there were certainly some great Atari 2600 games back in the day (Enduro, River Raid), but now that game developers have the technology to render great art in games, appealing graphics have become an essential component, on par with functionality. River Raid is fun to play but because of the graphical limitations, there’s not much to get attached to. A good art style makes the game world look interesting and feel worth investing in. And this week, we’re going to be talking about the importance of interesting looking enemies and what they add to the gameplay experience. These games combine technical competence with appealing art, and especially stellar looking foes.

Pikmin (2001)

Emperor Bulblax is like a mutant frog combined with late-period  Marlon Brando.

This series has been getting mentioned a lot on CardinalVirtual, probably because we’re both excited for the long awaited Pikmin 3 later this year (did you see the bit at the announcement where Miyamoto made the Pikmin bow? So cute!). Anyway, like the rest of the game, the monsters on the “Distant Planet” in Pikmin are incredibly original looking. No generic dragons or trolls to be found here. Many of them resemble real creatures but usually with an alien twist (eyestalks, etc), or they’re a combination of two or more real animals (like the half bird, half snake Snagret). Using real animals as a base works incredibly well to help make the game more immersive, since a lot of the appeal comes from exploring and trying to survive in a strange and harsh wilderness, and the very animalistic aliens (at least from Captain Olimar’s perspective) really hammers home this feeling. Their designs also fit in perfectly with Olimar and his pikmin as well as the vegetation and plant life (all of which also look both alien and familiar at the same time). One of the game’s crowning achievements for us is how successfully it creates an environment that feels both natural and alien, and the enemy creatures do a lot to achieve this unique feeling.

Throw pikmin high onto the body and watch out for those feet.

Even though the monsters of Pikmin look very original, they’re also simple looking enough so that their potential danger and weaknesses are apparent to the player right away. These enemies straddle the divide between a unique artistic design and a practical utilitarian design well. The iconic Bulborb’s gaping mouth that takes up nearly half the creature’s body lets players know right away that this guy will eat a lot of pikmin if he gets the chance, so attack his unguarded back instead. Our personal favorite, the Emperor Bulblax (pictured above) has a long adhesive tongue that your pikmin will stick to, rendering them helpless. But once the player sees this attack in action a few times, he might think that perhaps something less savory might also stick to that tongue (the bomb rocks nearby also provide a hint). Visual touches like this make the already intriguing creatures all the more fun to fight. Whereas other games would give you cutscenes or dialogue to hint at enemy strategies, Pikmin’s design is good enough to do the heavy lifting on its own.

Bayonetta (2010)

Not the kind of angel old ladies collect porcelain statues of.

This game has become so well known for its sexually provocative protagonist (who we already talked about in this article), that people tend to forget about the incredible enemy design. It seems like sometime in the Victorian Age, we all forgot that angels are supposed to be powerful and terrifying. There’s a reason they always said “Be not afraid” in the Bible, a reason the developers of Bayonetta certainly understood. Now admittedly, if you had a gaggle of adorable cherubs as your basic enemies, you wouldn’t have very threatening battles (hilarious maybe, but not threatening). But this really isn’t some half assed attempt to put a “badass spin” on something unconventional. The dev team really did their homework when designing these angels. All of the different enemies are placed in one of the nine orders of angels present in Catholicism and often ascribes appearances (wheels within wheels, masses of wings and eyeballs) and roles that are fairly consistent with medieval end renaissance theology. The angels even speak a bizarre language actually created by an 18th-century French mystic who thought he could communicate with angels (in the Bayonetta universe he probably did).

Iustitia perfectly combines the beauty and the horror of Catholic artwork.

In spite of the overall menacing look that most of the angels have, there’s also a certain beauty to them. Many have these stone or marble faces, often resembling sculptures in Catholic Churches, that look serene and almost childlike, emphasizing the innocence that is such an important part of Christianity. These more beautiful features contrast nicely with the more monstrous body parts, creating enemies unlike anything seen before in a game. Sometimes, this stone or marble coating will crumble away as the angel is battered, revealing a more hideous form underneath. So while the angels do seem appropriately menacing, you still get the feeling that you are fighting something magnificent, which is definitely a quality all depictions of angels should have.

Mike Tyson’s Punch Out (1987)

He’s just so punchable.

Both of the above mentioned games are part of the past two generations, but Mike Tyson’s Punch Out shows you can have great enemy design on the NES. The sprites are detailed enough to convey real personality, a rarity for 8-bit graphics, and one of the reasons this game still stands today as such a classic. Granted, Punch Out’s gameplay style helps make this possible: since most of the time Little Mac and his opponent are the only characters onscreen, the developers could afford to make the sprites larger and more detailed than those in other games. The animations all feel very unique to the characters too– there’s a level of detail and complexity in the sprite work here that most other games of the generation couldn’t manage. You can pretty much see Glass Joe’s skittishness when he tries to throw a punch, or Bald Bull’s fury when he’s charging up for his bull charge attack. Each fighter has his own tells, and watching for them and knowing what they mean helps make each fight much easier. The animations also give you enough time to predict what kind of attack your enemy will use, incorporating the personalities of your enemies into the mechanics for fighting them.

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Power-Ups and Pitfalls: Ikaruga and Nights into Dreams…

[Our series, Power-Ups and Pitfalls, examines truly innovative and exceptional examples of level design in games.]

Level design is easily one of the most important disciplines in the video game industry. Things like an interesting art style, deep characters, and exciting new mechanics are all well and good but the entire game falls apart if the levels (the vehicles through which the player experiences the art, controls said characters, and preforms the mechanics) are poorly made. And that’s why we’re starting this Power-Ups and Pitfalls series, to highlight exceptional and interesting examples of level design (that and because writing about it’s a hell of a lot of fun). Both of the games we’re looking at this week manage to create fast paced and exciting levels that capitalize fully on the unique mechanics these games offer. So, without further ado:

Ikaruga (2001)

The game’s unique mechanics make this fight easier than it appears.

Like most shmupsIkaruga is a brutally difficult game– at least it’s difficult to play well (the more attempts you make, the more continues you unlock). However, what sets Ikaruga apart from other shmups is it’s simplicity. While most other games of this genre focus on gathering as many power-ups as possible to survive the extremely difficult levels (and not dying and losing said power-ups for future attempts), Ikaruga doesn’t feature speed boosts or spread shots. It structures all of its levels around one simple mechanic, the ability switch your ship’s polarity between light and dark and absorb the enemy shots of whichever polarity you currently have. Absorbing enough shots will fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen that will allow you to fire a salvo of homing missiles of either polarity. Also, in order to add  a risk/reward element to the gameplay, your shots do extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity, meaning that you’ll destroy a white enemy faster with dark polarity even though you’ll be vulnerable to it’s light shots.

Don’t worry, it get’s tougher.

The first level of Ikaruga is comparatively easy to the rest of the game. The game gives the player plenty of room to fly around the screen and, at least at the beginning, enemies don’t fire so frequently. This gives the player plenty of time to experiment with the game’s unique mechanics and get a feel for how to play. In order to defeat the first boss (pictured above), you need to be familiar with the basics of the polarity system. The second level forces the player to deal with more shots of differing polarity at the same time while making the player fly through a narrow pathways for much of the stage. Level three is where things really get tougher as it takes the narrow navigating room and increased enemy fire of level two and makes you deal with it at a much faster pace. The fourth level increases the rate of enemy fire significantly and the boss does the same, but gives you a minuscule amount of maneuvering room. Finally, the short fifth stage bombards you with projectiles of the same polarity, to get you in the habit of rapidly filling up your meter and using your super attack constantly, a strategy that will prove invaluable on the final boss.

So as you can see, Ikaruga does a stellar job of using its mechanics to create varied and increasingly challenging levels, the basis of good level design in nearly any game, but that’s only the half of it. You can play through the entire game without dying at all (a very difficult feat), and still get low rankings (C and C-) on all the levels. That’s because you weren’t taking full advantage of your scoring opportunities. Shooting three enemies of the same color will initiate a chain set at one, killing three more enemies of the same color (they can be the opposite color of the first three though) will set your chain at two, and so forth. The higher you get this chain, the higher the multiplier will be for your score and the higher your rank at the end of the stage. Surviving a stage in this game while making sure to only shoot an enemy of the color you need requires a huge amount of skill and planning, making Ikaruga’s levels optionally even more complex, while still catering to more casual players, since you can just choose to ignore the score and concentrate on surviving. This feat is why Ikaruga truly excels in level design and is definitely a game to check out, especially if you like shmups. Also, the boss theme kicks huge amounts of ass.

Nights into Dreams… (1996)

Not exactly the most self-explanatory game.

Nights into Dreams is one of those games (like Pikmin or Katamari) that is truly unlike anything else out there. What genre does it belong to? The game is a mix of adventure, action, flight, racing, even bobsledding. The game let’s you play as one of two kids (each one has four stages to play through), who have to travel to another world through their dreams to free a magic jester named Nights who then has to collect four multi colored crystals called Ideya while avoiding enemies within a time limit so he can fight the boss of the level *gasp for air*. So yeah, this isn’t the easiest game to describe. Essentially, while you’re controlling one of the kids (while searching for Nights at the beginning of the stage or after running out of time), the game is a 3D platformer/adventure, and while controlling Nights (flying around to destroy the cages the Ideya are kept in), flying as if in a 2.5D game.

In dreams, even flying through rings is fun.

Like Ikaruga, Night’s levels are entertaining, challenging, and certainly unique even when stripped down to the bare minimum needed in order to finish. But these levels also become incredibly hard to master for players who want to earn the highest possible score. During the Nights sections, which are the vast majority of the game, (if you’re good, you’ll only control the kids briefly at the start of a level), the player must collect twenty blue chips to destroy the cage holding one of the four Ideya. These chips are placed in such a way that the player can usually collect twenty within the time limit and recover the Ideya, which will allow the player to complete the stage with an adequate score. However, by exploring the levels, players can uncover hidden caches blue chips letting them claim the Ideya faster and use the remaining time to score extra points, by flying through rings, collecting stars, and other trinkets. In order to unlock the final stage in both of the kids’ quests, players must earn at least a C rank on the three previous levels. So the game forces the players to engage in some of this level exploration in order to complete the game. Some players may stop there, but the developers are hoping that this will hook other players into going for A ranks on all the levels. They’re essentially easing players into a more hardcore play-style in order to make the game (which is very different from any other) less daunting– the design allows players to “opt in” to higher levels of difficulty through exploration.

The Game of the Movie: Great Filmmakers and their Game Equivalents

As our upcoming Metropolis Remix should make clear, we’re not just video game geeks– we’re also pretty big film geeks. And, to celebrate the announcement of our remix, we thought we’d run an article that let us indulge both of those. Games and film are both visual mediums and communicate in a lot of the same language. So here are three filmmakers we love, and the games that talk about similar ideas and use similar cinematic/narrative techniques to do so. And of course, what better way to start than the director who started this whole debate?

The Movies: Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang is known for two things (well, three, if you count helping to create rocket science)– making some of the best German Expressionist films ever, and making some of the best film noir movies ever. His work in the silent era– MetropolisThe Woman in the Moon –are dizzyingly imaginative and grandiose, staggeringly ambitious and beautiful. His “talking” films–MThe Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and, later, The Big Heat— are some of the earliest examples of noir: they’re dark, brooding, intricate pieces with ambiguous morality and a weary pessimism.

The best introduction to the man’s themes and range would be to watch his two masterpieces, Metropolis (why not try our remix!) and M. The former is as big as the pictures ever got, an operatic and potent sci-fi epic filled with the best special effects work of the era, big political ideas, allegorical heroes and proletarian sentiment. The latter is painfully quiet, drenched in shadow and paranoia, anchored not by visuals or big ideas but by Peter Lorre’s career-making performance as a sad, isolated pedophile serial killer (in 1931, people!) and Gustaf Gründgens as the cold-hearted mob boss hunting him. They’re radically different despite being separated by only four years, both united by a sense of social awareness and humanity.

It’s not too hard to find games that are big and sweeping epics, and shadowy dingy noir experiences are equally easy to come by. But we knew we’d need a game that could cover both ends of Lang’s style; something that had the grandeur and majesty of a rocket launch and the gritty humanism of Lee Marvin’s sadistic mob enforcer.

The Game: Bioshock

Okay. This is… a pretty obvious choice.

It’s no secret that we love Bioshock. We mention it a lot. And, even leaving aside the twisting plot and player-driven storytelling, this breadth is

Pictured: Expressionism, Noir.

part of what makes its story great. It can go from the elegant and impersonal to the deeply human instantaneously: think of the first level, which begins with the towering skyscrapers of Rapture and ends with a horrifying look at Ryan’s paranoia and the human tragedy of the city’s denizens. It’s a perfect artistic match too: the world’s glamorous art-deco look and rich, light-and-shadow visual style owe a huge amount to the German Expressionism Lang was instrumental in defining (and, out of all the games we’ll discuss here, it’s most clearly influenced by its film counterpart), while its rough-talking toughs and dames, gin-chugging mob bosses, and jazzy score are a natural extension of hard-boiled noir. It also has the class consciousness, tortured characters, and keen sense of social order that characterize so much of Lang’s work.

It’s not just the general strokes, though. There’s a multitude of little details, stylistic decisions, and memorable moments that tie the game to his work. It’s hard to walk through Hephaestus, the industrial core of Rapture, and not think of Metropolis‘s chugging, monstrous machines (and, let’s be honest, this was almost certainly deliberate on Irrational’s part), or see the film’s themes of decadence, labor rights, and technological inhumanity reflected in the game’s philosophical debates. But Lang’s smaller, later films have every bit as much in common, particularly in a lot of Bioshock’s storytelling style.

It’s another half-hour before we see the main character’s face.

As soon as he got access to talkie technology, Lang became obsessed with sound, the overheard, and the power of the voice, and these are the mechanisms that Bioshock lets drive its narrative. Rosebud, for example, is a deformed splicer who scurries across the ceiling and behind walls, dropping down flower petals on the player and singing to herself.  This is incredibly similar to the way that Peter Lorre is first introduced in M, long before we see his face: as a shadow on the wall, a echoing whistle, a child’s ball rolling out of the bushes where he’s strangled her. Or his second sound picture, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, where the main villain is a voice without a body–most famously in a scene where a shadow figure behind a curtain is revealed to simply be a cardboard cut-out hooked up to a loudspeaker –feels like a definite forerunner of Bioshock‘s cast of characters speaking solely through radios and audio tapes (not to mention the reveal that a major story character is only a voice, and exists only on your radio). The game’s not solely influenced by Lang’s visual style; it shares his narrative obsessions and love of oblique, shadowy storytelling.

The Movies: Werner Herzog

The most revealing thing about Herzog’s style and passion as a filmmaker is that he doesn’t consider his documentaries and his fictional works to be distinct from one another– every film he’s made is in pursuit of “truth,” whether it’s to be found in stories or in the real world. This leads to a fair bit of overlap between the two genres: his documentaries have little vignettes and scenes in them that are totally fictional, while his fictional films incorporate real characters, non-actors and are often dependent on coincidental footage and completely real actions (such as in Aguirre, when the crew built rafts from local trees, lived on them, and ate the same food as the film’s characters).

The most relevant aspect of this is the way in which Herzog uses the camera as an active participant. In Aguirre, a film about a mad conquistador seeking El Dorado which was shot with a single handheld camera, water is splashed onto the lens, the viewer is shaken by the movement of the Amazon, and scenes from filming are incorporated into the story. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Nicolas Cage’s brilliant, manic performance is made uncomfortably close by a camera which simply stares as he descends into lunacy, letting him sink to new moral lows and not giving the viewer a chance to look away. Fata Morgana is a documentary about the Sahara that mainly lets the camera wander and encourages the viewer to put together the pieces themselves. It’s perhaps best demonstrated in his remake of Nosferatu when Dracula  first creeps into Harker’s room: rather than move the camera cinematically and build tension, he films it almost like surveillance footage, keeping the camera at a distance and letting the scene play out, highlighting the very real sense of invasion and shame rather than a more abstract fear.

The Game: Half-Life 2 (and episodes)

“Every man for himself, and God against them all” seems like an apt description of occupied Earth.

At “encourages the viewer to put together the pieces” a good chunk of you said “Oh. Valve.” And that’s absolutely right. There’s not a better

Pictured: somehow, NOT City 17

match for Herzog’s “leave the camera running” approach than Valve’s method of narrative, which rejects cutscenes and exposition in favor of simply letting the story happen in real-time (especially in Half-Life 2, in which as long as Gordon’s conscious the “camera” keeps going). They will never sacrifice a sense of realism and physicality in the name of making something more cinematic or exciting. Just as Herzog lets his view linger on the churning Amazon waters in Aguirre or simply lets his actors create chaos, Half-Life 2 creates a naturalistic world and turns the player into an objective observer of it. The slow walk in the opening through City 17, in which you’re reliant on intuition instead of exposition, the chaos that erupts when you send antlions into a swarm of combine, the first meeting with a Combine Advisor in which you can only stare, paralyzed, at it– these are all moments which feel like a natural counterpart to Herzog’s passionless, implacable stare. In particular, the series’ most traumatic moments– the Stalker car in Ep. 1, the meeting with the Advisor in Ep. 2 –feel like companions to the murder scene in Woyzeck, where the violence is center-framed and the camera remains immobile for the duration of the entire unbroken scene. And, just as the opening shots of Aguirre present a seemingly-solid jungle and waits for the viewer to spot the line of people walking through it, Valve guides the player through the world not with objectives or HUD symbols but by placing them in seemingly-infinite setting and using lighting, level design, and visual cues to point the way.

“A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger.”

Like Bioshock, there are also plenty of thematic parallels. Half-Life 2, like many of Herzog’s pictures, is about a conflict between destiny and powerlessness– Gordon Freeman, like the protagonists of Woyzeck, Even Dwarfs Started Small, or My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, has no control over his own future and is trapped in a world that he doesn’t belong in. This idea– the notion of a world rigged permanently against the heroes, of a universe so cold and violent that survival is a triumph– is what gives Half-Life its tone of unrelenting fear, and what gives Herzog’s works their grinding momentum. Similarly, Herzog’s other main topic– the “burden of dreams” –gets a fair bit of play. The band of idealistic heroes struggling against a dimension-spanning monolithic empire is exactly the kind of foolhardy nobility that Herzog loves. There’s also a good bit of the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder” that he focuses on in films like Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo: Half-Life finds you exploring areas like Ravenholm and the Sandtraps, where the world itself has been rebuilt to be your enemy.

The Movies: David Lynch

There are two David Lynches. There’s the one that everyone knows from pop-culture, who does weird, weird movies about sex and dreams and is probably high all the time. But there’s also the real one, who does weird, weird movies about sex and dreams but is an unabashed sentimentalist, lover of white picket fences and diners, has probably never had a stronger buzz than a good black coffee, and has one of the most optimistic views of the world of any filmmaker since Frank Capra. He made Eraserhead, yes, but he also made  Wild At Heart (a film that is almost painfully sincere and romantic), he truly believes in the kind-hearted wholesomeness of Twin Peaks, and he gave Blue Velvet— on of the most emotionally violent films of all time –a happy ending. (There’s also the David Lynch who made Dune, who was burned alive and buried in North Carolina under the filming locations for Velvet).

Thematically, Lynch is fixated on morality and desire. If we’re given permission to do what we want, how far will we take it? Mulholland Drive puts us in the head of a character who has done an evil thing and guides us through the process by which she justifies it, and views her own life. Blue Velvet uses Kyle McLachlan as an audience surrogate and forces us to confront our own cruelty and the way that we envy the freedom of evil and cruelty– probably the best single shot in his  filmography is  Dennis Hopper, torturing Isabella Rosselini, staring directly into the camera and hissing “you’re like me.” But for all this deeply ambiguous subject matter, Lynch’s fundamentally hopeful worldview is able to find a path out: the evil in his world (Dennis Hopper’s almost-Satanic Frank, Twin Peaks’ BOB, a spirit of pain and torment, the Winkie’s Man in Drive who functions as an embodiment of the world’s arbitrary cruelty, Willem DeFoe’s tattooed, rotten-toothed, rape-gargoyle in Wild At Heart) is inhumanly evil, something that we can recognize and reject. And there’s no more noble, kind, and altruistic hero in pop culture than Dale Cooper, a man willing to enter Hell itself in the name of love and good police work.

Aesthetically, you can go down a checklist: industrial machinery, 50’s Americana, jazz music, highways, coffee, cigarettes, hallucinations,  sex,   diners, blondes, cranial injuries,and deformity.

The Game: Fallout 3

“I’ don’t understand why people think Crazy Clown Time is something sinister.”

It’s not just the weirdness– so many people harp on how Killer 7 or Psychonauts is “the David Lynch of videogames,” which is a great way to show that they’ve probably never watched any of his work. It’s the way that surrealism butts up against the wholesome and romantic, the way that Lynch finds beauty in horror and grotesqueness in the ordinary. And that’s what Fallout 3 does. Like so much of Lynch’s work, it’s both a celebration of Americana and nostalgia (poppy music! cool cars! 50’s diners! baseball!) and an acknowledgement of the evil that’s inextricably tied to them (nuclear escalation! American imperialism! A culture of sexual violence! BOB just, oh god, please make him stop!). Its darkest moments and happiest moments are all twisted together and bound up in the same screwed-up world. Just like how Wild At Heart painted a romantic, wild-lovers-against-the-world story and then had it go exactly like those usually do, Fallout creates a world where the idyllic fifties never ended– and neither did the duck-and-cover paranoia, racism, and global cold war thereof.

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”

It also has a distinctly Lynchian sense of morality. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, who is presented with a submissive and broken woman and has to consider if he’s willing to become a monster, Fallout 3 gives us a nuke in the middle of town and the ability to push the button. Both ask us the question: “consequence-free, no judgement, opportunity in front of you: you wanna be evil?” And you can be evil— BOB, with his  “thing for knives” has nothing on the Ravager of the Wastes. You can also be good; like Cooper, like Betty Elms, you can be a cheerful force of do-goodery and a helpful angel.

And you can, of course, do this while exploring industrial machinery, decked out in 50’s Americana, listening to jazz music, strolling down highways, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, having drug-fueled hallucinations, flirting with the opposite sex, stopping in diners, traveling with (or being) a stunning blonde, inflicting brutal cranial injuries on the deformed. Matter of fact, that’s how the game encourages you to play it.

Failed Revolution: Duke Nukem Forever

[Our Failed Revolutions series is as an attempt to look at gaming’s most interesting failures: games that were supposed to change everything and didn’t. In these articles, we examine games that, through hype,innovation, or art promised to create a huge splash and instead landed with a whimper.]

This article is not safe for work or the company of decent human beings.

There’s a scene in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink which perfectly encapsulates what happened to Duke Nukem Forever. Barton, John Tuturro’s self-righteous “genius” at the core of the film, is trying to write the screenplay for a wrestling picture. He’s operating in a fugue state, hammering endlessly on the keyboard, working in a fit of what he assumes is genius inspiration. Finally, the audience hears the ending of his masterpiece…

And it’s the same ending as the last thing he wrote. All he’s done is a half-baked retread. And then the script is rejected and he’s condemned to Hollywood Hell for having wasted his employers’ time and money on a script that is bloated, rambling, and wholly inappropriate to what he was asked to produce.

That’s Duke Nukem Forever.

Pictured: the general critical response.

What it Promised:

Well, 3DRealms promised that it would be the greatest shooter of all time, but no one believed that. But the general belief was that DNF

We basically expected this in 3D.

would reflect its origins as a mid/late 90’s shooter: something chaotic and dumb, with a stupid and gleeful sense of humor. If it succeeded the game would be something of a throwback– another decidedly retro shooter to put alongside releases like Serious Sam and Painkiller.

The basic expectation– the more realistic one –was that DNF would be a fun game that simply took far too long to make. Some optimists hoped it would prove that Duke had always been the king, that it would usher in a new age of retro shooters and mindless fun, and that every year spent waiting would be justified. It’s doubtful that even they really believed this, though. For the most part, the world simply expected a run-of-the-mill old-school game, maybe a little rough around the edges, but with the simple and pure heart of testosterone and fun that the series had always been known for.

In essence, Duke promised to return in his old and glorious form, reminding us how much fun the pre -Half-Lifeera of shooters had been and being a burst of big stupid action. It promised, at least, to be old-school mindless fun.

What it Delivered:

The action game with “balls of steel” invites you to spend a solid half-hour doing finicky platforming inside a fast-food restaurant.

The Duke Nukem Forever that we got was not simply a disappointment. It was a neverending cascade of bad decisions, stealing the worst and most inappropriate elements from the past 15 years of gaming. It was ugly, non-charmingly stupid, terribly written, unfunny, and evil.

One of the game’s most egregious mistakes was its decision to be a “modern” shooter, and the baffling choices its developers made in pursuit of that goal. Take, for instance, the amount of the game that draws from the Half-Life series. When you think “what was Half-Life‘s biggest contribution to the art form?”, what comes to mind? Its ability to tell a story through setting and incidental dialogue? Its breathtaking art design and detailed world? The gravity gun? 3D Realms decided that the part of Half-Life most worth appropriating (endlessly– filling almost as much time as the actual combat) was the awkward first-person platforming from Half-Life 1. It’s honestly amazing– there are so many bad decisions and inexplicable choices made (endless platforming, weird attempts at horror, an entire level that’s just minigames and Myst-style exploration, jokey levels that feel cribbed from Earthworm Jim, weapons and gadgets that serve no real purpose, a level of detailed interactivity that is never used or justified). Playing it is a look at what 17 years of creation with  no editing or supervision achieves

What’s even more unbearable is the sense of superiority that DNF has towards other, better games.  In one scene early on, Duke is presented with what’s clearly Master Chief’s armor from Halo, which he rejects because “power armor is for pussies.” He says this despite having regenerating health, a limited inventory of two weapons, the ability to melee with his gun butt, and a dedicated grenade button. It would be one thing if the game felt cocky and smug about being the King of Shooters. But to do that while shamelessly incorporating elements from every popular shooter it can name– including ones, like regenerating health that rewards you for running and hiding, which make no sense in this game –highlights what a failure it was. If DNF had been the old-school, Doom-style shooter we anticipated, no matter how bad, we could have appreciated its charm and bravery. But its wholesale aping of newer, better games turned what would have been a bold-but-misguided game into an ugly mess.

Of course, the game’s other failure is its decisionnot to modernize as far as the writing and story were concerned. In the 90’s, Duke’s braggadocio and painful coolness actually worked because it was so rare for action games to have a sense of humor at all. Playing the game in 2011 just made a character who was once at least marginally charming into an unlikable boor. In the same year when Portal 2 came out– which had some of the best writing in any medium that year —DNF thought that titty jokes and movie quotes could still make up an entire game’s writing. Again, this could work back when having a voiced character alone was impressive and him making jokes about movies was just gravy. Bu there’s no reason for Duke to tell people that they are primitive screwheads and that he has a boomstick anymore. There are Evil Dead videogames, and they’re better than Duke Nukem Forever. We can actually hear Bruce Campbell say that, if we want.

(For that matter, we don’t even have to compare it to Portal 2. If we wanted an FPS that came out in 2011, had an overly-macho protagonist, bright and colorful graphics, goofy but lovable, writing, over-the-top violence, a deliberately old-school sensibility, tons of penis jokes, ludicrous sci-fi weapons, was made by a veteran of 90’s shooters, and was actually really good, we’d just play Bulletstorm).

We could handle a wisecracking, movie-quoting hyper-American macho man back when the engines and graphics were similarly crude. But Forever’s insistence that Duke is cool, awesome, the best, and that we should be honored to be playing him just felt painful and self-indulgent. One of the best comments is from videogame journalist/humorist Yahtzee Croshaw, who was asked to write the original script (after the game had already been in development for 12 years):

All I got told was that it didn’t suit the tone they were going for. I was taking the piss out of Duke himself and they wanted Duke to be relatively straight while the world and the people around him were silly. I didn’t submit a revised audition because that didn’t make any sense to me at all. I would think the only way an action hero as typically 90’s as Duke Nukem could survive today would be with as much irony as possible. I said as much, and thus ended my potential glittering career with 3D Realms.

“I just want to be loved.”

The entire first level of the game takes place in a building dedicated to Duke and how awesome he is. It opens with Duke playing his own game, getting oral sex from barely-legal identical twins in schoolgirl uniforms, signing autographs for fans, being loved and adored by all, and it never lets up. It’s supposed to be an escapist fantasy, but the only people who would fantasize about this level of adoration are sociopaths and narcissists. Again, this isn’t just a bad decision but wasted potential. The game had been the butt of jokes by an entire industry for a decade— if 3D Realms had come out with a game that was sly and self-deprecating, that acknowledged its own problems and the ludicrousness of its premise, the game could have been, if not good, at least charming. It may not have been the landmark achievement it so badly wanted to be, but it could have been special and likeable. It was not.

Finally, though. There’s the issue we’ve been dancing around. The one that means this game could never be likeable. The one that makes this game not just a forgettable whiff of stink but the worst game of its year by a significant margin. We have a standing policy that this is a blog for critical discussion, not Nerds Getting Angry About Video Games, but we can’t talk about this impartially without feeling dirty.

We here at Cardinal Virtual love video games and would never want to see them censored or controlled. We feel that they deserve the same recognition as all other artistic mediums. And we’ve got fairly dark artistic sensibilities and will adamantly defend the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Mass Effect, Mortal Kombat, and other sex-and-violence hellraisers.

But at the moment in Duke Nukem Forever where the oral-sex-twins from the opening are swollen with alien babies, fused to the floor, their breasts thrust towards the camera and jiggling, weeping and finally exploding into gore, and Duke’s response is to joke about it and then slap the fake boobs on the wall and giggle, we found ourselves saying “you know, maybe Jack Thompson has a point.” The rest of the level is full of raped women, lashed to the walls and moaning in agony, who Duke can put out of their misery. Throughout the level Duke makes jokes about Japanese tentacle rape and gay sex and laments that the aliens “took our babes.” (Then, in a perfect demonstration of the game’s ability to quote pop culture and miss the point, the player gets an achievement that referencesAliens, the ultimate feminist action film). The next level is a fantasy sequence in a strip club where the player completes (terribly-made) minigames (one of which is a whack-a-mole game involving aliens bursting out a naked woman’s corpse) and helps  Duke get laid.

Duke Nukem Forever wanted to prove that there was a place in gaming for games like it, and in a way, it did. The fact that this made it into the finished product, was released as a triple-A feature with posters and promotions, and has games journalists defending it as just “macho nonsense with a throbbing vein of humor,comparing it to Lolita’s use of an amoral protagonist, or fans defending it as “just jokes” says a lot about gamer culture. It’s hard to imagine this happening in film– a much-awaited movie featuring an hour of rape victims used as the subject of jokes and viewer titillation would be unthinkable. Even I Spit on Your Grave, as awful and exploitative as it was, at least made the rape victim its antihero. And, in all fairness, these opinions are the minority among critics (sadly, most forums we looked at while writing this seemed to disagree, and the word “feminazi” was used a lot).

We have a chance to have a picture of Christopher Walken instead of Duke’s smug, unlikable face and we’re going to take it.

Duke Nukem Forever didn’t change gaming, and– despite talk of sequels, its middling success, and DLC releases –it wasn’t the blockbuster it wanted to be. The long-awaited Return of the King was a critical failure which destroyed its own creators. But, as with every entry in our Failed Revolutions series, there’s still something interesting about it. While later entries we’ll talk about brought interesting ideas or stories to the table, Duke Nukem’s sad resurrection instead serves as a portrait of some of gaming’s worst impulses and ideas. As much as we’ve talked trash about its gameplay and writing, it’s still worth playing (though not paying for) for those interested in the medium who want to see a fascinating window into the creative process of artists who have lucked into having no one to say “no” to them and are throwing everything they have at the wall. (It’s oddly reminiscent of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in that regard, except that parts of Heaven’s Gate are actually really good).

As for the game’s… ethical issues? Those are indefensible and we can’t encourage anyone to even look at them. But it also got people talking and watching critical response to it was fascinating. It marked one of the first times a real, big-budget property in Western gaming crossed a definite line and, while the game has plenty of its defenders, it was also one of the first times we’ve ever seen in which game critics actually took an ethical stand on something. And, while the game’s response may have also illuminated how far the medium and industry have to come, we like to think that the shockwave of argument and revulsion is going to be remembered. And that, if it accomplished nothing else, Duke Nukem may have helped gaming grow up a little bit.

Constrained Randomization

Randomly generated levels are nearly as old as mechanics can get in video games. While initially this tactic was used due to memory constraints, now a-days it’s often perceived as a cost efficient method to add replay-ability to a game. We won’t lie, neither of us at CardinalVirtual are huge fans of randomly generated content in video games, preferring meticulously planned levels that introduce and then build on gameplay mechanics (with plot points woven in). But the idea of randomly generated content definitely has some potential, so here are a few games that use it efficiently and effectively.

Pikmin 2

Imperialism has never been more fun.

At first, Pikmin 2 largely resembles the first game, travel across immersive, natural environments while using your steadily growing army of pikmin to fight enemies and carry items. Aside from the inclusion of a second captain, this game seems nearly identical to the original. And then you enter your first cave. While the second game looses some atmosphere and immersion because of an over reliance on these caves (a discussion for another time), this area is where the game uses randomly generated content well. These multi-floored caves contain most of the treasures that you need to find throughout the game, essentially taking center stage and turning the game into a dungeon crawler. While the actual level structure for each floor does not change, the locations of the various treasures, the player’s starting position, the exit, and the enemy locations change with each attempt of the floor.

Life’s hard when you’re the size of a quarter.

This way of using randomly generated content adds a certain amount of variety and unpredictability, without removing the player’s ability to strategize and prepare on repeat playthroughs, since the content of each floor remains the same(which is important considering the emphasis the series puts on planning and strategy). The Pikmin series is all about exploring a strange and unknown world where you’re at the bottom of the food-chain, so adding this level of uncertainty can really add to the tone of the game on repeat playthroughs, without making things overly frustrating. Even this kind randomization can turn out to be frustrating sometimes (especially on the more linear floors), as the varying treasure locations can make you feel very unlucky sometimes, but even this fits the tone of the game. After all, surviving in the thick of nature definitely requires some luck.

Left 4 Dead

Oh well, at least there’s no Tank.

Like Pikmin 2, Valve’s tense zombie themed FPS, Left 4 Dead, makes use of randomized content in one specific area, the enemy placement. Okay, so technically Left 4 Dead’s “AI Director” isn’t really random, since the enemy placement is affected by players actions and performances, but the experience feels as if it is. You’re never thinking, “how is what I’m doing here going to affect what spawns later?” You’re focused on surviving and you’re hoping against hope that a hoard won’t spawn or that the sobbing you hear in the distance isn’t coming from a witch who’s weeping in a place you can’t avoid. It’s simply intelligent randomization, what you’d expect from the company that gave us expertly planned games like the Portal series.

Damn you AI Director!

Left 4 Dead and it’s sequel thrive as zombie games specifically because of the uncertainty that the AI Director can provide. It ensures that each time you play one of the game’s four levels, you’re in for a slightly different experience, which is very important since the game is trying to get as much replay-ability as it as it can. In fact, the game excels even more once you’re somewhat familiar with the levels. Walking through a city you know but being uncertain exactly where and what danger will strike is exactly how a zombie apocalypse should feel. That’s why the Left 4 Dead games stand as such definitive zombie titles.

The Binding of Isaac

The joys of randomly generated levels.

This final selection uses randomized content more than any of the previous two games in this article. In fact, being a roguelike in nearly every way except the ASCII graphics, The Binding of Isaac is much closer to a typical game that makes use of randomization and is usually not the type of game that either of us here at CardinalVirtual plays. If we had to say why it works for us (excluding the great art, the creepy tone, and the religious symbolism) we would say it’s because of the length. A typical playthrough of Isaac  will last a little over half and hour (closer to 45 minutes once you get better), so you’re never in danger of losing that much progress due to a particularly difficult setup of rooms, even in the later areas of the game. Also, since a big part of the game is unlocking new items and bosses into the rotation, you can still feel like you’re accomplishing something even if you don’t complete the game on every attempt (and believe us, you won’t).

Finding items also makes you look more…interesting.

Overall, the selection of items that you gradually unlock are fairly well balanced. There are certainly some maddeningly useless ones thrown in there as well as a few that actively hurt you (damn health lowering pills), but there are enough good ones so that you’ll usually have a decent shot at making it to the end. And then, there are the empowering playthroughs where you happen to find a great selection of items and power through the game, demolishing all resistance. These playthroughs make all the frustration worthwhile.