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.

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