It's no secret that Duke Nukem Forever was not particularly well received. As a self-described snob of first person shooters, I'm certainly not wild about the game. Broken encounters, weak level design, and an inconsistent sense of humour held Duke Nukem Forever back from being a great game. Duke deserves better. Duke Nukem 3D is one of the most important games ever made. So how does someone go about fixing Duke?
What Is Duke Nukem?
Duke Nukem Forever seemed like a grab bag of ideas from other shooters. There's nothing wrong with having great encounter variety, but a lot of ideas felt like they were just in the game because other games had done those ideas first. It's the difference between a Quentin Tarantino flick and a student film; Tarantino is a deejay, remixing his influences for great effect, students are often imitators.
Duke Nukem is a leader, not a follower. When Duke Nukem 3D hit in 1996, it changed the way we talked about first person shooters; they weren't simply Doom clones any more. One of Duke's most interesting features was how it let players interact with non-game objects to do interesting things; Duke Nukem Forever let you draw on white boards or play on arcade machines. Completing some of these actions, like pumping iron, would actually increase Duke's health bar.
Duke himself is no mute first person shooter protagonist. He spouts one-liners. He emotes. Gordon Freeman wordlessly races through Black Mesa, shooting aliens and pressing E on scientists to make them do things. Duke Nukem scores basketball goals and congratulates himself. Conventional wisdom, for years, has been that players can't relate to first person shooter protagonists if they talk, but Duke Nukem's brash attitude makes a different argument; his voice gives players a frame of reference, a viewpoint to experience the world from.
There's plenty of other stuff as well, but it's mostly related to aesthetics. Duke games are set in modern, mundane world, but he fights aliens, which are generally way more interesting than boring human design cliches. His guns are cool too — instead of boring, real-world weapons, Duke uses cool things like the Freezethrower and the Shrinker.
So that's Duke, a brash 90s dude with a 'tude who uses cool weapons to fight space aliens to save our world, which feels more real than most game worlds because you can interact with so much completely useless stuff.
Where Forever Went Wrong
My feelings on Forever are complex, but instead of writing a lengthy novel on the game's design problems or excoriating it for its bugs and weak encounter design, I'd like to talk about its approach to women and ego.
So, first off, I think Forever misunderstands who Duke is; the game treats women like objects instead of treating Duke like the hedonist that he is. It seems like Duke's entire motivation in anything is seeking out pleasure; that's fine, but if Duke's supposed to be the quintessential 80s/90s action hero, then women need to be presented as more than just mission objectives, and nobody needs to make any tasteless rape jokes.
John Carpenter's movies have characters like Laurie Strode and Maggie. James Cameron's movies always have great women, like Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, and Jenette Vasquez. The Conan films starred the warriors Valeria and Zula. If you're going to make a game that borrows so much from the world's best action movies, shouldn't you borrow the women too? Even when Sarah Connor needed Kyle Reese to save her, she was still a complete human being, rather than a meaningless caricature.
A few years back, when Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel released, the writers seemed keen on making sure their game was more inclusive and less offensive. While it was a noble goal, the end result was an uneven, preachy game with a weak story and unmemorable characters. I don't need Mister Torgue to explain to me why the "friend zone" is a myth (and come on, it's literally just another way of referring to unrequited love, so it's not like he was even correct) in a game about hunting for treasure in outer space. Having a lesbian character sexually harass Moxxi and Athena isn't interesting or fun, it just makes us hate the harasser.
Fixing Duke Nukem doesn't mean suddenly turning him into a radical feminist in his next game; it would feel inconsistent with the character and super annoying. Duke is an egotistical hedonist; he doesn't think he can do anything wrong, and nobody wants to play a Duke Nukem who talks like a bad '90s educational cartoon.
Another problem with Forever was that it was too much of a power fantasy. Sure, Duke's an egotistical hedonist, the living embodiment of a cheap action movie hero, but none of that means our protagonist has to be portrayed as some sort of invincible god who everyone loves.
One thing that makes action movies so compelling is a genuine sense of risk. Who can forget Ellen Ripley's infamous "get away from her, you bitch!" or Indiana Jones fighting a giant Nazi while narrowly avoiding an aeroplane propeller, or John McClane walking across broken glass? These moments matter because our heroes are in peril; they're cool because they overcome the odds.
Duke Nukem is more like a Steven Seagal character; Seagal's movies are nowhere near as interesting as good action movies because he's too powerful to have to worry about overcoming any obstacles. Jack Ryan trying to protect his family from Irish assassins is tense, thrilling, and memorable; Steven Seagal in the same situation would be boring, because all he'd need to do is some cool kung fu moves, and then the scene would be over.
People often mistakenly assume that players want to play out the Steven Seagal power fantasy, that players want nothing more than a vigorous ego massage, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Look at the incredible popularity of the Souls series of games; players love a good challenge. They love feeling like something is impossible and overcoming it anyways.
Sure, Duke's all ego, but all that really does is make him Jack Burton. One of the reasons that Big Trouble in Little China is so enduring is because Jack's constantly facing down the impossible, and often, he's not even the most heroic character in any given scene, even though he believes he is. Duke would make so much sense as a Jack Burton character; neither he nor the player needs the world's praise. He praises himself enough.
Forever's constant ego massaging meant the game never had any stakes, and its treatment of women was just super uncool. A hypothetical new Duke Nukem game doesn't need to change Duke at all; he should remain as egotistical, as hypermasculine, as hedonistic as he's always been. It just needs to change the way the the world treats both Duke and women. Show us this world's Ellen Ripleys and Marion Ravenwoods. Heck, show us Daisy Nukem.
Duke Nukem 5
Let's say the next game is a direct sequel to Forever. I'd start it with a Duke who's been disenfranchised. After his battle with Dr. Proton at the end of The Doctor Who Cloned Me, the most recent Duke story we have, let's say Duke went out and partied so hard that he jumped into one of his monster trucks and drove it off a cliff. It's a stupid intro, but hey, this is a hypothetical.
This newer, smarter Duke game starts by parodying Wolfenstein: The New Order. Duke's paralysed, watching the world go by, helpless as vegans protest Dukeburger, the aliens return and claim everything was all a big misunderstanding and they're really here to help, and his fanbase diminishes.
By the time he's able to move again, the aliens have successfully invaded earth peacefully, and without Duke to stop them, humanity has fallen under the alien spell. Duke is defeated. Dejected. Someone recognises him in a park, then berates him for being such a bigot against the aliens. Duke waves him off with a sigh. "I'm just here to chew bubblegum," he says, blowing a bubble. The Megadeth soundtrack is replaced by Enya. There seems to be no place for Duke Nukem anymore.
Then, one day, he goes to buy a burger, only to discover it's a mushroomburger. There is no meat, he's told. The aliens have been relocating the cows to some sort of cow refuge on a distant planet — eating hamburgers is considered illegal now. Duke snaps. Those aliens want to come and steal our burgers? Now they have gone too far.
What follows is a first person shooter about a 90s action hero who just wants to eat one more hamburger.
Yes, I know, it's ludicrous, but it's Duke Nukem. When has it not? The rest of the game can unfold in the ways you'd expect: the aliens have been trying to invade Earth because they want to open their own space burger joint, and Dukeburger was competition. They had to get him out of the way so they could get a monopoly on intergalactic fast food. Set pieces should reference and comment on other games.
"Remember, no Octabrain," an alien says to a badly-disguised Duke in elevator, right before they infiltrate an illegal ranching operation. Duke 5 could invoke plenty of moments from other shooters, rather than just making snarky jokes about Master Chief's power armour like in 4.
This is all tongue-in-cheek nonsense, of course. I like playing as Duke. He's loud, dumb fun; no shooter protagonist is more of a joy to embody. Doom's straightforward narrative and silent but impatient protagonist reminded us that it's ok to have heroes who like nothing more than shooting aliens in the face. Duke games still have a lot to offer, being one of the few FPS series with a voiced protagonist and frequent world interaction. The series past problems are easily solvable without upsetting fans of the originals by trying to reverse any sort of damages.
Forever tarnished the Duke series. Its lengthy development schedule and dissatisfying delivery benefited no one, and the end result was less than satisfying. A new Duke doesn't have to change things radically; as long as its characters are good and players feel like they're actually accomplishing something, it will be a great game. Whatever the case is, I'm itching for a brand new Duke Nukem.