Duke Revisited: How can we refresh an outdated image?

Perspective is a funny old thing. If you follow any modern discussion about the classic 90’s shooter Duke Nukem 3D, it almost always circulates around how out-of-date and embarrassingly sexist he seems now in in retrospect. Back in the 90’s trashy Howard Stern toilet humour was wildly popular – It gave rise to cultural icons with South Park and The Simpsons. Even wrestling got in on the act with a trashier, cooler product of “cool” bad guys and thumping metal music. 20 years later, though, the generation X of rock and roll culture has very slowly dissipated from memory and it’s no longer as funny or clever to laugh at sex workers and turds and naughty swears as it once was and criticism of how out of place old man Duke is nowadays is just as common as articles about how ground breaking the original Duke Nukem 3D was. Gearbox software have taken the reigns on the latest re-release of the classic 90’s naughty swear word shooter and this time they’ve crammed it full of new bits. Now, full disclosure, I absolutely adore Duke, and the out-of-date arguments we hear a lot of usually make me feel really confused, so what is it that’s pushed it just outside of people’s memories? 

Back in the late 90’s I used to sneak out of my house to go to a friend’s house to play Duke Nukem 3D on his amazing PC. The guitar riff of the title menu, the huge, firey explosions, the exotic dancers and swearing made me feel like I’d just stealthed out of my house to go and watch a really naughty movie I wasn’t supposed to see. Back then, playing classic Duke 3D felt really rebellious, and this was helped along by a high level of interactivity with the environment, adding real depth to the scenes. Glasses and beer bottles shattered realistically amid the bullet-riddled carnage, bullet casings ejected from your gun as you fired, mirrors could be interacted with, exotic dancers could be propositioned, CCTV cameras, particle effects, and all manner of tiny little details littered the level to either be exploded or played around with. You could even play pool in the opening few levels. This was far more than a gimmick; it added real believability to environments that would have otherwise ended up as esoteric doom-like monster mazes. Plus, blowing things up and watching the arching confetti of glass fragments, metal shards, and body parts soar gracefully in the air would have put a smile on any teenagers face. But duke was secretly far brainier than the action hero shtick would have you believe…

Duke in a more traditional setting… space stations, explosions, and huge arcs of blood

For one, the game was far more than target practice, especially in comparison to modern military shooter fare. Level design was based on an intriguing blend of exploration and shooting. This was long before beautifully decorated corridors came to dominate level design principles. This was back when level designers had to rely on well designed spaces to be interesting. The maps of Duke 3D have enough hidden corners and uniquely designed coloured key card puzzles to save them from being stale, and thanks to the (at the time) incredible build engine, levels looked like movie sets, authentic, but not realistic. An interesting distinction there. Hidden among the locales of Dukes world were secret areas too, a now oft underused means of adding an extra layer of challenge to key hunting and pixel shooting, uncovering secrets would net you rewards and, sometimes, especially deviously well hidden secrets would hide warps to entirely secret levels. That’s pretty neat. The level design was the real star of the show in Duke 3D. A smart blend of exploration and poking away at monsters weakness in combat meant it was far more than the kind of shooters we see now. Certain enemies were weaker to particular weapons, meaning that in huge crowds of monsters you had to prioritize the biggest threat first and frantically swap out to the correct weapon as you danced around the level to avoid projectiles and explosions. While you weren’t doing that, you’d be poking around the levels, hunting for coloured key cards, prying open secret walls, and generally feeling out the area. This wasn’t a fancy corridor; this was a lot of corridors, all sprawling out across the level, all going up, down, left and right. It was up to you to explore the space and tackle the challenges in your own way. That makes Duke smarter than 90% of shooters out today.

I often find it hard to contain my excitement for old duke when I write about it. To me, the level design was some of the finest in the history of the FPS, and coupled with the unique, comic book world of beer, American flags and strip dancers of our titular muscle bound hero meant that it was hard not to dislike Duke at the time, and even by today’s standards it strikes me as an especially well designed shooter that has been left behind in the 90’s. Though, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Despite how well designed Duke is from a design standpoint, tonally it hits a few bum notes nowadays and looking back on Duke with nostalgia goggles can be troublesome. Sometimes our hazy summer memories of old video games can overshadow the reality of what something actually is. Truthfully, I think Dukes irreverent breast flashing and cussing is… fine, especially given the timespan in which it came from, where being a little bit dirty was almost a fashion, though today looking at some of dukes humour can seem a little cringe worthy. In times where female gamers are actively targeted by bigoted, exclusionary types, it can seem a bit like hanging out at the boys club when you play a Duke game and you’re female. Especially when you see the famous levels where the man himself throws a few dollars at some half naked women and they reveal themselves for his (and our) amusement. There are no real female characters to speak of, save for the literal sprites that is the exotic dancers. Even duke himself has about as much depth as a small puddle of rainwater. It’s relatively easy to see how Dukes love of dick jokes and titties can seem groan inducing.

A custom Duke map, another reason to love this classic: Custom content.

Yet, even as I type these words, I find it hard to bring down the old guy. I don’t want to be the killjoy that turns off the politically incorrect fun – I think there is a rather queer sense of freedom around completely insane things, about being totally uncensored. I think there’s an irreverent joy to be had from being a bit cheeky, and saying, or doing something loopy off the top of your head can bring a kind of anarchic fun all of it’s own. Insanity is a value worth defending, weather you agree with the chaos or not. The real problems arise when those freedoms to swear, cuss and be dirty turn into political rhetoric, into social commandments, where standing up for women, or caring about an underrepresented social group is considered a weakness, pathetic or stupid. That’s when the Howard Stern sense of going against the grain to say something a little naughty suddenly isn’t funny anymore… it’s scary. In Duke’s defence, he never falls pray to this, and in the grand scheme of life is pretty harmless. I just don’t want female gamers to look at him with embarrassment. He was just a character devised by horny teenagers in a probably quite ill advised way. I’m not sure if that’s okay. It’s probably not my place to say. But what I will say is don’t be too hard on the old man. He’s just silly… and getting old.

I’m not ready to give up on Duke yet. I do believe he can be done properly; he just needs to be tweaked for the 21st century. Old school shooters still work, and just because linear shooters take centre stage now doesn’t mean a mainstream shooter shouldn’t be made with old school sensibilities in mind. You only need to look at the success of Doom 2016 and the latest Wolfenstein games to see that. What I propose is to shake up Duke’s character, double down on the satirical, double down on the spoof, and eliminate the sexism, or, instead, work the sexism in a way that makes Duke look stupid. I recently sat down to watch the movie Black Dynamite and I thought about Duke as I was watching. BD perfectly spoofs blacksploitation movies without ever having to resort to stupidity or ignorance, except only to mock the ignorant beliefs of the characters saying their piece. I think the same logic can be applied to Duke. Make the women stronger, and put Duke at their behest. Think about how the audience knows and acknowledges that Johnny Bravo is a complete doofus. The humour is Bravo’s desperate attempt at female Attention. Send up the men and make them look utterly silly. Duke can work. He can still be as bombastic as you remember, but let’s make it smarter. The game design is perfect; it’s just his image that needs a redesign. Much like the latest iterations of Wolfenstein and Doom, a modern lick of paint can go a long way. And the BJ Blazkowicz of 2014’s Wolfenstein is a sensitive beast and a gentle giant, a far cry from the silent killing machine of the past. He proves it can be done, so, lets do it for our beloved Duke.


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