How To Save Duke Nukem

How To Save Duke Nukem

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.


  • I might have enjoyed Duke Nukem Forever more if it had a more forgiving difficulty curve and/or didn’t have half-hour loading times to respawn. The story and jokes were weak but I think yeah, the point about Duke being a hedonist rather than a misogynist is pretty fair. I don’t think I made it as far into the game as slapping wall-titties, I imagine I wouldn’t have gone much further if I had.
    I’d like more Duke but, you know, better. And sending up awful 80s action movies would probably be a good way to do it, but then again many of the bad 80s action movies we look back on as relics to be parodied now were rampant with sexism and homophobia, which is part of what makes them so horribly dated. How do you use those tropes in 2016? I guess by lampshading them, which is exactly what Gearbox/2K Australia tried to do in the Pre-Sequel. Unfortunately you can’t just do things ironically, because if it’s subtle too many people need to have things pointed out. If it’s overt, the other people will complain about being condescended to.

    • Someone was doing that (maybe not in UE4 though) and were told promptly to knock that shit off. Which is extremely disappointing.

  • Dukes standing in an elevator on a space ship as it descends to the floor of the evil vegan space aliens head quarters.

    *Ding* the elevator stops on the wrong floor, the doors open to a nightmarish scene of a guy in a spacesuit shooting the limbs off space zombies, the walls are covered in blood and strange symbols.
    The space man backs into the elevator blasting away at the oncoming horde. Stepping on Dukes boots in the process.
    Duke: “You got blood on my boots” *pushes the spaceman back out into the corridor as more space zombies crawl towards the elevator*
    *Duke presses the close door button as the spaceman is torn limb from limb, the spacemans arm gets thrown through the gap in the door at the last second, Duke picks it up and uses the remains of the sleeve to wipe the blood off his boots as the elevator continues down*

  • I liked DNF, *but* not because it was anything like a good game; I liked how playing through it so clearly illustrated the different stages of design – the level layout shifts from switched engines, the sections clearly riffing on Prey, the tonal shifts following trends without seeming to understand them…

    I liken it a bit to Die Hard – to me the recent movies tried too hard to be things which weren’t Die Hard, compared to White House Down which I feel captured the idea far more successfully. The same seemed to happen somewhat to the Serious Sam games as they lost their bright colours and interesting multidirectional gravity after the kooky but thematically disjointed SS2.

    I’d like to see a new Duke where he’s still cool and popular, but maybe getting a bit out of touch with technology – he could radio in on a chunky old mobile phone while an exasperated Q-type character tries to idiot-proof wacky new guns for him between missions. Maybe he could sneak aboard a ship to Mars for a level and make fun of Doom while sabotaging a secret base.. could be Proton’s or the aliens – heck have both and make Duke grump about how ‘back in the day’ he only had to deal with one global threat at a time! You could even take an Expendables approach by adding a few other action movie archetypes for him to riff off or allow co-op play (especially a few strong females to sass him).

  • I’ve had this same set of ideas rolling around in my head for years now. My theoretical Duke 5 would be “Duke Nukem V The Universe” (because, incorporating the number in the title is how it was done with 3D and Fo(u)rever).
    In my version it starts of similarly with Duke disenfranchised. There’s been no aliens in a long time, his popularity is diminished, he’s run out of cash and working some mundane job to make ends meet. (In my vision, he’s actually flipping burgers on the moon in reference to a Zero Punctuation review before Forever came out). One day, while he’s flipping burgers, aliens attack the moon and Duke jumps immediately into action, still wearing an apron and armed initially with nothing but a frypan.
    He picks up weapons as he goes, decimating aliens, generally being a fun, action-y, frenetic shooter. It all builds up to beaming up to the alien ship, sabotaging it so it explodes and crashes into the moon with a massive boss battle in the wreckage.
    Afterwards, the public decides it’s the biggest disaster in the planet’s history, and the blame falls squarely on Duke Nukem. He’s arrested, put on trial, found guilty and sent to prison. A short time later, Duke gets a note indicating that he’s being busted out. This leads to an uncharacteristic stealth sequence where you break out of prison and discover hints that Duke was setup to be handed over to the aliens in exchange for them leaving earth alone, a plan which Duke screwed up and so now the aliens are coming back in force.

    The details after that are fuzzy in my head, but it involves Duke, now on the run from the world authorities having to avoid capture AND stop the alien invasion. Throughout his journey he teams up with other well-realized characters like a same-but-opposite clone of Duke who prefers hand-to-hand combat, sticking to the shadows and physical training over steroids; A badass female who hates Duke with every fibre of her being because it turns out she’s his daughter he never knew he had; and possibly a stereotypical nerd-slash-conspirasy-theorist on a power trip who is Duke’s “biggest fan” and a massive bigoted troll.
    The idea would be to force Duke Nukem into situations that don’t particularly suit his character and watching how he reacts and is forced to consider other aspects of his character and evolve as a person, all the while maintaining his bro attitude outwardly. Unfortunately, it would take a level of writing finesse that no one who would ever go near a franchise like this would possess.

    Btw, sorry about the wall of text, but I’ve had these ideas rolling around for ages, and it’s nice to finally get most of them out somewhere.

  • I believe that it is almost impossible to replicate what was great about DN. It was crude, hyper-violent, self-effacing and politically-incorrect, but it was not made /to be/ so. It was simply the genuine product of young, crude, self-effacing and politically incorrect people during the mildly bizarre post-80’s pop culture environment. Attempting to recreate that now will feel like satire at best, like a cynical and uninspired try-hard nostalgic cash-grab at worst.

  • I think a successful Duke Nukem reboot must get rid of his dude-bro, frat douchebag attitude.

    But saying that, the appeal of his character was a parody of 80’s action hero’s which doesn’t fit into todays culture.

    But ultimately, the character will forever have the stain of DNF, whatever game they decide to make will be judged by Duke Nukem Forever.

  • 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.


    So have Dude stay as Duke but just not act or think anything like the Duke of old…. Just change the gender to female and everything will be fine.


    • That is the exact opposite of what he’s suggesting.

      You’ve played Bulletstorm hopefully. What Doc’s suggesting is dropping a character like Trishka into the world. She spends most of Bulletstorm deflating Grey’s ego & one step away from killing his dick. That kind of character would be gre…

      Now I’m just sad we aren’t getting Bulletstorm 2. screw duke, give us that instead!

      • Oh man, Bulletstorm was almost like having a 21st century Duke Nukem. You might have cracked it man, give Duke a vulgar hedonistic female counterpart instead of eyecandy playthings.

  • DNF was awesome. The opening levels… YEAH! The only gripe I had is that he didn’t save the girl in the hive.

  • I think if they could bring the degree of self awareness that Shadow Warrior managed they could turn Duke Nukem into something that could work. It’d need to recognise that Duke and his game are relics of the past and that, like Build-engine era Lo Wang, Duke is kind of an arsehole. Take that character and drop him into a game with modern game world with more modern values and you could potentially have an interesting game… or a complete disaster if it wasn’t really well written.

  • 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 literally the definition of hedonism.

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