DUKE NUKEM FOREVER (2011)
3D Realms/Triptych Games/Gearbox Software/Piranha Games
Like a movie that’s been media blitzed so hard that you wake up one day fully prepared to eat shit out of someone’s hand to see it, jazzed to such a degree that you feel like a part of your soul has broken off and become attached to the thing’s release date and you spend years idly wondering when it’s going to come out, and what it will be like, and if it’ll have missed you too, and you’ll wind up buying a multi-year calendar just so you can mark the release date and hang it next to your computer, where it sits untouched but carefully maintained for years until one day God smiles down and it really is The Big Day, and your heart swells, and your loins uncurl and you feel like maybe the last decade of hopes and errors and longing is finally, finally going to come together, that your failures have added up to more than just failure, that it all is finally going to mean something because your beloved movie is finally going to come out.
And so it comes out and you wait a couple more months for a good screener-rip to show up on Piratebay, and you sit down (in front of your computer (potentially this very one)) with a bowl of popcorn, and a large-size soda, and a foam #1-sports-finger mitt, and you double-click the file, and your favorite media player pops-up and the video plays and you sit there, smiling and feeling happy. It opens explosively, or hilariously, or dramatically, or whatever else you might like, and you sit there hooting in pleasure and then some more time passes as the film settles into its plot, and you are smiling because it has earned your trust by doing a good job in the first ten minutes by having an overture that delivers on everything you’d hoped for. You sit and you watch and the movie continues to unfold and people talk, maybe someone shoots another person, maybe there are some good graphics, but you’re waiting for the big hook. You’re waiting and without knowing, your expression begins to settle, sinking lower until it eventually fades into that slightly angry look that everyone’s face has when they aren’t making any expression at all. Eventually you realize that everything you wanted to see had already happened in the first ten minutes, and that all the things following are the desperate efforts of the cast, crew, creative minds and financial backers to deliver on that ingenious and immensely pleasurable opening, but having absolutely zero inspiration and just slogging it through, grabbing the easiest and most adaptable elements from similar movies that have come before it in a no-holds-barred effort to simply get to the end of the film and be done with it. It’s the kind of depressing, self-loathing failure that threatens to ruin everything you just experienced unless you disengage with it immediately, hand shooting for the mouse to X out the window and delete the file before you’ve even finished seeding it.
So, it’s sad to think about the implications of DNF opening with a re-creation of the final level from the first game, a game which came out fifteen years prior. I know it’s meant to be a nostalgic awesomifier, a sort of “look how much better this is than your memories” move, in which no matter how much you embellished the original in your own mind, you would never have gotten this far with it. But having played five hours of the game, I think it’s safe to say that it’s also the best part.
Jorge Luis Borges, an esteemed colleague of mine, once wrote an essay about re-creations, reworkings and revisions having a high potential to be successful pleasures, and perhaps even greater works, than the original that they drew from. Whereas an original spends most of its energy being conceived, gestated and birthed, re-iterations of its formula have a foundation upon which they can build a more aesthetically suitable house, replete with all of the due flourishes and curlicues of style.
And for what it’s worth, the opening sequence is a pretty cool display of current-gen aesthetics: glossy surfaces, swinging lights, ironically stupid dialogue, AI allies running around and getting shot, rain effects, big budget sound design, awesome scale; it’s cool. I will absolutely say that: the opening is cool, and probably even cooler if you’ve played the original incarnation. It’s a love letter to the Duke of yesteryear, and it is an amazing example of what’s possible with revision.
The game then transitions into new material and we, being pleased by a pleasant opening, are willing to go with it for awhile. The screen fades in on two women lifting their heads from Duke’s lap and making giggling sounds, word-sounds that I remember sounding like “oh Duke! That was fun teehee giggle giggle,” to which Duke responds with a more articulate version of “yeah ladies! Duke likes getting his dick sucked!” The game goes on to have you walk through the world of Duke post first-game and some revelations are made.
- Duke now lives in a penthouse on top of a casino, which is also named after him.
- There is a museum dedicated to Duke on the 69th floor.
- Duke is celebrity and people ask for his autograph.
- These people don’t seem to be literate.
- I got no reaction from the AI when I signed someone’s autograph book “FUCK YOU.”
- Duke is invited to speak on talk shows.
- Duke has a fast-food franchise which is called “Duke Burger.”
- When shit goes down and the aliens show up, Duke travels to his sci-fi-futuristic-esque underground command center, which is under the casino.
It sort of plays how I describe it, with bizarre jokes about Duke’s national influence continuing to unfurl well past the half-hour ramp-up into action, and there is a pervasive emphasis on parodying American meathead excess. Every AI buddy is a macho douchebag that says something really, skull-clutchingly bad before getting gunned down. Duke’s health bar is his ego, which is lowered every time he feels pain, but is extended whenever he does one of the several flavor-interactions the game features for the first time; things like peeing in a toilet, winning at slots, or slapping these alien wall-objects that look like breasts. It’s a permanent -~=“ego boost”=~- when you do any of these things, as if it were the first time Duke (or the player) had ever sipped from a water fountain or boggled some wall-tits.
To be sure, the whole DNF experience is meant to draw out and then coddle the part of you that wants to rumble a pair of breast-like things. Feedback systems of a permanent health boost encourage you to seek these tidbits out, and Duke’s funny-stupid comment upon successful interaction and ironically rockin’ guitar riff help the player acknowledge that the whole thing is stupid before taking pleasure in it anyways.
These things are fine, just fine, and I was actually somewhat eager for a game that was an extended ironic guitar riff on Ugly Americana Machismo/Players/Me, but there’s a point in the game where it stops being funny and takes on weird, disturbing dimensions. Much ado has been made about the naked, boobtacular and alien-impregnated women that you have to shoot until they explode into a pile of bloody teeth, and Duke’s strangely unpleasant, “Sorry ladies, not even I could save you,” bit of apologetic, event-triggered dialogue, but I posit that the problem came way earlier in the game, and is of an even more pernicious kind of exploitation.
If such a thing is even possible.
At about an hour and a half in, right around where you leave the Duke HQ exhaust vents and enter the casino proper, the player is hit with a shrink ray and then forced to drive an RC car around some Las Vegas hallways, dodging exploding set-pieces and driving over ramps to clear hazards, before they’re unshrunk and have to backtrack through those hallways at a normal size.
I know this kind of thing happens in a lot of videogames, that it’s become so common for a game to drag you through its tedium that it’s almost overlooked, but it must be said: issues arise.
|1.||Reseeing something can be illuminating.|
|a) A common way of reseeing that people experience is visiting a childhood haunt.|
|b) Duke simulates this by turning you into a child and then an adult within the span of ten minutes.|
|c) I honestly couldn’t see a difference.|
|d) Maybe because I’m more or less an adult in real life.|
|e) I guess given the current limitations of technology, I can hardly blame Duke for failing to make The Same Hallway Twice interesting.|
|f) It’s not like any other game has solved the tedium of re-traversal yet, you know?|
|2.||There’s this obsession that FPS developers have with inserting really tedious minigames because they feel constricted by the conventions of the genre.|
|a) Ex: Physics puzzles.|
|b) Ex.2: Vehicles with really poor physics.|
|c) Oddly enough, usually both in the same game.|
|d) I’m not going to point any fingers, but people tend to eat this shit up.|
|e) I will leave my opinion of people’s eating habits out of this essay.|
|f) I’m just alarmed that eating shit is no longer a fetish-level activity.|
|g) Like, I’m going to be playing the latest military shooter and after it tricks me into shooting a bunch of unarmed civilians, it will then lead me to a table with two heaping plates of shit and the lead bad guy. Text will display along the bottom, something along the lines of PRESS X TO EAT SHIT, and it will be a race between me and the bad guy to see who can eat the most in 30 seconds. Then when I win, he’ll shoot me in the stomach and laugh.|
|i) What I mean to say is that I think there is a major trend in major game development that is geared towards hating the player. Since a certain amount of player antagonism is inherent to game design, it almost seems natural for a game’s meta-narrative to basically be, “fuck you, you can’t do this! You’ll never do this, you fuck!”|
|j) What I don’t understand is how that kind of reverse psychology motivation has turned into long one-note screeds about how stupid the player is for wanting to play videogames. I’m talking Persona 3 (a game that takes at least 80 hours to beat) telling you to not spend all day playing games, CoD:MW2 (a game that features a level in which you attempt to convince a bunch of terrorists to like you by mowing down civilians in an airport) sucker-punching you for doing what it forces you to do if you want to keep playing it, Assassin’s Creed 2 forcing you into a game-long tutorial because it thinks both you and your avatar are idiots, Kane & Lynch 2’s whole thesis being one long piss in the player’s face regarding the prospect of fun.|
|3.||Could there be a link between how unpleasant shooting the alien-infested babes is and this incredibly boring driving/double-back segment?|
|a) Well, both of them are quite the miscalculation of what I think is acceptable.|
|b) Although one makes me feel bad for being helpless to help fictional people, the other makes me feel irritated that the designers think it’s okay to waste my time.|
|c) Maybe the game has an empathy problem.|
|d) Which isn’t so far out of character for the game, if we accept that its central theme is a particular kind of American self-interest.|
|e) Which, unfortunately, we can’t, since it is about a lone man putting it all on the line to save the planet.|
|4.||So then what is the point of traversing this same hallway twice and having it not be fun?|
|a) Well one time I was driving and the other I was shooting.|
|c) Also I was going through it backwards the second time.|
|d) Oh right.|
|e) Not to mention that I was on foot that second time.|
|f) A whole other mode of locomotion.|
|g) That’s right! So you see, it’s almost as if you were going through a whole new hallway.|
|i) Well, part of the pleasure of the conceit that it isn’t actually a new one. For all intents and purposes, though, it is.|
|j) But it wasn’t fun.|
|k) It wasn’t supposed to be fun.|
|l) It was a videogame that wasn’t supposed to be fun?|
|m) It was meant to deliberately cause unrest in the player.|
|n) To what end?|
|r) Ah, I see.|
I wonder what the source of these problems is, what combination of forces allowed a game that was in development for fifteen years and by four sets of developers to fall apart at the two hour mark, and I think: who can be held accountable for this? Gearbox? Piranha? The publisher, 2K Games? 3D Realms? George Broussard? You? Me? Duke?
Does Duke Nukem Forever have a soul?
There’s something to be said about a game that won’t stop being developed for fifteen years. I would go so far as to say that maybe it even exhibits some element of divine grace; has there ever been a game so unworthy of continued development? How many hours of how many lives have been spent toiling on some aspect of this game’s birth, including: modelers, coders, texture artists, writers, designers, voice actors, producers, marketers, quality assurers, executives, secretaries, concept artists, press agents, press writers, the countless number of people who had to write Top 10 Vaporware articles over the years (of which DNF always occupied the number one spot), podcasters, diehard fans, casual fans, detractors, sneerers, idlers and people who simply held a passing interest in what was happening with it.
If there was ever a game that had deserved so little of the attention and care it got, this was it. There is no need for a Duke Nukem Forever. Millions have been lost, thousands of hours in human effort have been squandered, and the game isn’t even passably fun. It was a fifteen year spectacle that culminated in little more than a series of set pieces that lost their juice to awe in two hours. And perhaps I’ll be damned, but there’s an aspect of grace in such a thing seeing it through.