The Hidden, Destructive Legacy of 'Duke Nukem'

Duke aged poorly and so did the games starring him, but we're still stuck with more clever imitators.
February 1, 2021, 2:00pm
A pixelated monster wields a machine gun in front of a distant Griffith Ob
'Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour

It’s the 25th anniversary of Duke Nukem 3D. You knew that, right? With everything else that’s going on in the world, I’m sure you had marked this on your calendar. He was one of the iconic video game protagonists of the 90s. Maybe not as famous as Lara Croft or Solid Snake, but certainly on the list. You remember the game, even if you didn’t play it. You remember the commercials. The red shirt. The sunglasses. You remember him lifting one-liners from movies like They Live! and Army of Darkness and literally shitting down the decapitated throat of a defeated boss. You made space for all this in your brain, I’m sure, alongside your memories of Titanic and the Clinton Impeachment. Duke Nukem was a thing, maybe not the biggest thing, but a thing, and remained a thing for years to come. And now its thing-ness cannot be ignored, so here we are. God help us.

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As embarrassing as it is to write “What does Duke Nukem mean in 2021?” it is a pertinent question, mainly because he’s such a clear, distilled example of a still-pervasive trend: bad-faith satire as cover for enjoying toxic masculinity. While Duke’s failure as satire and/or parody isn’t exactly news—some journalists were clear-eyed enough about this when his last game, Duke Nukem Forever, was released in 2011—his status as a forerunner to more subtle forms of masking toxicity with humor is worth unpacking. Gaming culture still does what Duke Nukem did. It’s just gotten better at hiding it.

We all know what bad-faith satire is. It’s the “just kidding!” defense for doing anything ugly or hurtful, and often involves deliberately exaggerating sexist/racist/etc. tropes as a kind of preemptive self-defense, as if exaggeration was proof of self-awareness and therefore commentary. While exaggeration alone might make something parody, satire is supposed to exaggerate for a reason. Proper satire has a political point of view and cares about whether or not its audience is actually getting its message. This is one major reason why comedian Dave Chappelle famously packed up shop when he noticed too many white people were laughing at his sketches about race for the wrong reasons. Even though it wasn’t his fault, he did care enough to adjust his output so he didn’t contribute to a larger ecosystem of toxic meaning. This is the opposite of what we so often see, which is creators knowingly profiting off their ironic work being taken unironically. At that point you’ve just become the thing you are criticizing, assuming your criticism was even genuine to begin with.

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Duke Nukem is a kind of patient zero for this in games, not necessarily the first but certainly the most concentrated “send up” of hyper-masculine tropes in a single package. It’s no accident that he appeared in the 90s, the decade that invented bad-faith satire. Someone more invested than me could surely pinpoint the exact season The Simpsons went from being a critique of middle class America to a grotesque collection of tropes and references without a target, but it might have been around the time Duke Nukem 3D was released. This was also the decade video games “came of age” so to speak, with the rise of adult-oriented PC gaming and Sony’s aggressive bid to combat Nintendo’s family image with M-Rated offerings on the Playstation 1. It was the decade when blood, sex and foul language not only found their way into more video games but became their selling points. Games like Phantasmagoria on the PC or RELOADED on the PS1 were in a big hurry to prove how “adult” they were by showing how R-rated they could be. Duke Nukem was arguably the lowest variant of this, the gaming equivalent of a 12-year-old boy proclaiming his impending manhood by drawing boobs in his textbook.

I was theoretically Duke Nukem 3D’s target audience when it came out in 1996. I loved movies like Army of Darkness and Aliens. I had played and enjoyed Doom and Wolfenstein. And yeah, I liked boobs, sure. On the other hand I had cried during Final Fantasy VI and mainly liked RPGs and Adventure games. I had just played Full Throttle, which was based on a lot of the same hyper-masculine tropes as Duke Nukem but managed to avoid overt toxicity. This might be why the game landed with such a ‘thud’ for me. It felt embarrassing even to my pre-feminist 1990s boy-brain. I couldn’t articulate why at the time, but in retrospect a lot of it had to do with what Duke Nukem leaves out of the films it’s referencing. 

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Army of Darkness's protagonist Ash, while also a send up of 1980s Reaganite action heroes like those played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, is more than just macho one-liners and ass-kickery. He is also a ball of insecurity who cries, screams, gets hurt, and embarrasses himself. Bruce Campbell brings a Jackie Chan-like vulnerability to the role that offsets a lot of the macho bullshit, which is the explicit basis for its comedy. While this hardly makes the character more progressive (it’s still portraying masculine vulnerability as something to laugh at) it does make him more human, and it’s telling that this is precisely what Duke Nukem omits. Ash is hapless. Duke is perfect. Ash is capable of doubt, fear, making mistakes. Duke isn’t. Duke Nukem is clearly how Ash sees himself inside his own head, but without the waking reality where he repeatedly gets taken down a notch, or several.

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Bruce Campbell's Ash, in a more grandiose moment from 'Army of Darkness'

I did revisit Duke Nukem 3D again, just to see if its references or humor landed any differently for me now. I remembered the idiotic one-liners, spoken with the panache of a phone answering service. I remembered the over-the-top blood, the comically big weapons, though they do beg the question of how Duke’s over-the-top-ness differed from Doom’s, which it basically doesn’t. Doom, adolescent as it was, had a fairly focused Satanic Metal vibe about it, like a Slayer album come to life. While not a satire, its aesthetic of exaggeration made sense as “occult camp” and has proven to have some amount of longevity and flexibility in various sequels. By comparison the guiding aesthetic for Duke Nukem 3D seemed to be “Doom + boobs” - the utterly gross sexism is really the only thing that distinguishes it at all. 

I remembered the strippers you can pay, the softcore porn movies that abound on every screen. What I didn’t remember were the extremely problematic Aliens references, where you come across naked women begging for death encased inside alien parasites. This is precisely where thoughtless reference becomes a big problem, because you always bring some piece of the original context of the reference with you—otherwise the reference would be unintelligible—and that context here, as anyone who’s seen an Alien film should know, is interspecies sexual violence. Her “kill me” line is copied verbatim from the film, making the context unmistakable, yet we’re meant to encounter it as little more than “Aliens reference! Cool!” before we shotgun her in the face and move on.

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Thinking you can just cherry-pick loaded cultural symbols like this and arrange them willy-nilly without having to address any of their baggage is typical of masculine gaming culture’s zero-accountability stance that claims bad-faith satire as its persistent alibi. It should seem familiar to you even if you’ve never heard of Duke Nukem, because we’ve spent the last 20 years with more insidious variants of it in games like Grand Theft Auto.

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At the end of the 90s bad-faith satire was evolving. Shows like South Park became adept at playing both sides of the fence: they adopted a political point of view when it suited them and indulged in shock for its own sake when it suited them. In other words, they mixed bad-faith and good-faith satire, often leaving the audience with conflicting messages as to whether they were criticizing anything, and this is the sort of strategy that defined Rockstar and its imitators. At the time GTAIII impressed everyone with its fidelity to the films it was referencing. Unlike Duke Nukem, Rockstar’s imitations of Goodfellas, Scarface, and other crime/gangster movies were reasonably well-written and well-acted. In a world where quality writing and voice work had yet to become the standard, this felt thrilling. However, if you looked past the well-crafted presentation, GTAIII had little more to say than Duke Nukem when it came to women, masculinity, and violence. For every cut-scene that felt like it could have been lifted from a respectable HBO drama, for every radio bit that felt like an incisive commentary on American hypocrisy, there were dozens more where “Awesome! Boobs!” and “Awesome! Blood!” was the only real take-away. It was The Sopranos one minute, Duke Nukem the next, and this was by design. This kept you off-balance, constantly questioning whether it was satire or not, making it a kind of rorschach test for differing politics. If you wanted to believe it was satire, there was enough real satire to convince yourself of that. But if you wanted to just ogle strippers and watch people bleed after you shotgunned them to death, the game did nothing to stop you.

This is essentially the landscape we live in today. Game makers have not abandoned these toxic masculine fantasies, but have just become much more adept at walking this line between satire and indulgence, catering to audiences that essentially still want Duke Nukem but wrapping them in the plausible deniability of a much more sophisticated self-awareness. In that way Duke Nukem is kind of like a ghost that haunts video games, an eternal avatar of toxic male desire that can find hidden expression anywhere. Is the cleverly written, well-acted game you are playing now secretly, somewhere deep down, still just Duke Nukem? Does it essentially treat women the same way? Does it indulge in the same sort of empty, problematic references? And does it ever seem like it’s excusing those things by appealing to a lazy sense of irony?

We all know Duke Nukem is terrible garbage, but in a way that’s made him a convenient strawman, something we can always use to excuse ourselves from not doing better. It’s easy to point at Duke Nukem and say “Well, we’re not doing that!” the same way it’s easy for an alt-right troll to point to a literal neo-Nazi and say “Well, I’m not that!” But you don’t have to be “that” to be carrying on its legacy. You just have to not care whether your audience thinks you are.