The GodisaGeek Retro Corner: Duke Nukem 3D
Developer: 3D Realms (Apogee software)
Publisher: GT Interactive Software
Originally Released on: Windows PC
Currently Available on: Windows PC, Xbox 360, iOS.
With the impending release of Duke Nukem Forever, perhaps the most anticipated game of all time – with its infamous near-on fifteen years of development time behind it – the Godisageek team thought we should celebrate somewhat. Its an amazing story that the game got picked up by Gearbox Software and that it will finally be getting a retail release this June. The Retro Corner is going to mark the occasion the only way it knows how – by looking back at the game that cemented the legacy of Duke Nukem and made him a household name in the world of videogames and caused a whole lot of controversy – Duke Nukem 3D.
Duke Nukem first came to prominence in 1991 in a side-scrolling platform and shooting title of the same name. Along with its sequel two years later, these were simple sprite-based DOS games, where players progressed through near-future environments, shooting aliens in an effort to save the world. The games were fairly innocuous and whilst they enjoyed modest success, they didn’t stand out from a raft of similar titles of the time.
Duke Nukem 3D, the third game in the series was set to change all of that – and quickly. Released at a time when the first-person shooter genre was gaining a huge following, thanks largely to earlier games such as Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, Duke Nukem is often regarded as the last great sprite-based FPS, before full 3D polygon rendering was embraced by game developers. Because of the fact that the game didn’t use 3D sprites at a time when it could have, being given the title of Duke Nukem 3D already suggests to us that we aren’t in for an entirely serious experience.
The game sets itself up as a cheesy B-Movie where the stereotypical muscle-bound American hero must fight to clean up the streets of his hometown and then go on to save the world – whilst rescuing women who have been captured by the aliens. It doesn’t take itself seriously as it parodies other games. The game constantly makes references to well-known films, with cameos from Luke Skywalker and a Terminator T-800, for instance. The protagonist from FPS competitor Doom also makes a brief appearance. Interaction with the environment was more in-depth than most of FPS games, whereby Duke could even use public urinals. Even in the arsenal of weapons, the sense of humour in the game shines through – illustrated best by the Shrink-ray, with which Duke can shrink his enemies, before employing his big boot to squash them underfoot.
But what is best remembered about Duke Nukem3D – both by fans and detractors alike – are the sexual references. Being a typical American Jock, Duke seems to enjoy spending his time in Strip clubs, pornography shops and XXX rated cinemas – and gamers were given the chance to do just that in-game, all in the first in-game world. Scantily-clad women would gyrate in the strip club, until Duke was offered the choice to “interact” with them. Offering the ladies money would reward Duke with a quick flash whilst he made a selection of macho quips, such as the famous “Hail to the King Baby” (a quote borrowed from the Evil Dead series of films).
Naked and near-naked women didn’t only populate the first stage of the game however, and would appear throughout the levels. Both when naked, bound and gagged, as captured prisoners of the aliens or when simply there as eye candy, the portrayal of women in the game led to wide-spread outrage and the game was banned in several countries for its sexual nature and the fact that the women could be killed – apparently promoting violence against women. So was Duke Nukem 3D being irresponsibly sexist, or was the whole matter tongue-in-cheek and played for laughs? It was certainly gratuitous and over-the-top, but was is harmful?
One claim that was levelled at the game was that killing the women was encouraged, and players would gain extra points for violently dispatching them. This angered equality activist groups and made waves in the media at the time. However, when playing the game, you can see that the game has no formal score-keeping and allocating method. Killing a particular human or enemy doesn’t appropriate any specific score value, so this claim was clearly baseless. True, on one level, if Duke kills a particular scantily-clad woman, he can find a hidden extra weapon – but as an Easter egg and secret item, this is hardly a core game issue and something that the majority of players would experience.
The fact that the player could simply throw money at the ladies in the game in order to get them to strip was also contentious. This obviously led to the game being labelled as being guilty of objectifying women. Of course, this is true – to an extent. The strippers found in strip clubs will remove clothes for money (as they would in real life), however if Duke approaches another NPC lady in the same level and tries to throw his money at her – there is no response and no consequences. Whilst this does of course still leave the fact that players can pay women to strip, it is contextualised in the sense that only the strippers will strip (I hope you can keep up with all of that!). Factor in the point that the game was released originally as an 18-rated title, and this sort of content can’t really be deemed quite so inappropriate. As always seems to be the case when all violent or controversial games are discussed in the media and in open debate, people forget that if a child is playing a game that is not suited to their age, it is the responsibility of their parent to ensure they know what content is in that game, and for the parent to make a judgement as to whether or not said content is acceptable for their child.
Duke Nukem was never a particularly graphic game. The nudity was pixellated and unclear at best – true that was a graphical limitation of the time, rather than an intentional measure, but it still reduces the overall impact of the images presented. Sure, Duke spouts a lot of misogynistic rubbish that would offend a lot of people in real life – but what eighties action films didn’t feature protagonists who did exactly the same thing? In order to parody the material it is based on, the creators of Duke Nukem 3D had to take the established Sci-fi action film and video game conventions and skew them, to create a caricature of them. As we know from parody Movies and books, exaggeration is key in much of parody. So the creators of the game would have been aiming to push the envelope in order to hit the desired level of insanity and humour.
Like any good joke, it will most likely offend a certain percentage of the population. But you need only to look at the sales figures for the game and all of the Duke-related spin-offs that followed in order to see that it struck a chord with a lot of gamers. The sense of humour was key, but the gameplay was still solid and competed admirably with its contemporaries. Its sexism and over-the-top machismo was its unique selling point that made it stand out above other titles, but it was not the be-all and end-all of the game. People wanted to carry on playing between the jokes because the gameplay was compelling. It doesn’t stand up well when played today, alongside more sophisticated shooters, but it was innovative for its time. Of course, the developers of Duke Nukem Forever will most likely try to be less offensive, but with multiplayer modes such as “Capture The Babe”, where the player will have to occasionally slap the “babe” in order to “clam her down”, it seems they are trying to capture the same mood as the original.
Time will only tell if it will cause as much of an uproar this time around. Duke Nukem 3D was released at a time when PC gamers were invariably young men who would play their games as a solo activity and the developers were designing a game that would appeal to that target audience and would make them laugh. In the modern day and age, the video game buying audience is much broader and crosses all age and gender divides, so the potential for the game to be played by those who may find it offensive is much greater now. However with the advent of ultra-violent games such as Manhunt, and Kleptomaniacal games like the Grand Theft Auto series, the antics of Duke somewhat pale in comparison. After fifteen years, the durability of the franchise shines through in the fact that the game is still going to see the light of day. If it survived that hellish development, it is sure to survive any media frenzy that might be whipped up due to its content. Long live The King, baby!
Duke Nukem 3D is currently available on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch via iTunes for $0.99, can be purchased for Windows PC from gog.com for $5.99 or can be purchased via Xbox LIVE on Xbox 360 for 800 Microsoft Points. The God is a Geek Retro Corner will return on the first friday of next month.