How Duke Nukem Can Be Saved for the 21st Century
A misogynistic piece of trash best left in the past? Not quite. Duke's got his problems, but he's a gaming icon who deserves a new start.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Duke Nukem 3D, one of the three founding pillars upon which the first-person shooter stands, alongside DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D. To mark the occasion, Duke will be returning to our computers and consoles in October with Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour. And, uninspired title aside, it looks like a very attractive package for any Duke aficionado.
Duke Nukem 3D has been remastered in full and brought into the realm of actual 3D, as opposed to the faux effect that the original employed. There is also an entirely new fifth chapter, with levels crafted by the original designers. Throw in developer commentaries and rerecorded audio from Jon St John, Duke's inimitable voice actor, and all the nostalgic boxes are ticked. But what about a new outing for Duke? World Tour is a nice cash-in for makers Gearbox, and a neat trip down memory lane for anyone who wants to take it – but how about more than a spit shine on Duke's dusty old balls of steel. What about a true return of the King?
Duke is a wisecracking, ass-kicking S.O.B. cut from the same cloth as 1980s action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone. Between his bulging biceps, unhealthy obsession with beer and cigars and oddly irresistible appeal with the ladies, Duke is such a ridiculous caricature of the male power fantasy that he makes Macho Man Randy Savage look like Regular Man Randy Savage. He's also a chauvinistic asshole. In the world of Duke Nukem, women are nothing more than trophies awarded to him for his successful thwarting of the alien menace's latest plot to invade our world and steal our babes.
"It was pretty clear by the time Duke Nukem Forever was finally sharted onto the gaming landscape that its leading man was a washed-up has-been."
This sort of behaviour was the norm in Duke's heyday of the early 1990s, back when Duke Nukem 3D released and the blonde beefcake took the world by storm. Sadly, it was pretty clear by the time Duke Nukem Forever was finally sharted onto the gaming landscape in 2011 that its leading man was a washed-up has-been. And yet, despite his chequered past when it comes to the ladies, I think the character of Duke can, and must, be saved.
Right off the bat, it's vital that a new Duke Nukem game doesn't attempt to whitewash the series' past and turn Duke into some kind of feminist icon. This shit won't fly with fans of the series, or its detractors. Duke is who he is. You can't just wave a magic wand and make all the sexism vanish. Instead, you have to tackle it head on and address who Duke was – and who he will become.
And I've some ideas on that.
'Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour', teaser trailer
Duke's triumphant return, as I see it, starts exactly where the brown smear of Duke Nukem Forever left off. Duke is a middle-aged, womanising arsehole still living off his glory days when he saved the world. Following the events of the 2011 game, Duke actually became the 69th President of the USA, because of fucking course he did. But without the aliens and pig cops and whoever else to fight, Duke's presidency proved a colossal failure. You might want Duke to save the world, but you sure as shit don't want him running it.
Now, Duke sits in his gaudy penthouse, drinking beer, chain-smoking cigars and wondering where it all went wrong. He doesn't have long to reflect, though, as his mortal enemies return once again. Duke chugs his beer, takes one last drag of his cigar, tosses it aside and then heads out to do what he does best: kick ass and chew bubble-gum, and he's all out of bubble-gum.
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But there's something different about this invasion, and it's nothing to do with the aliens themselves. This time the women that Duke used to objectify are fighting back too, and this is where his road to salvation begins. Duke's still a condescending piece of shit, content to fight beside women in a purely "isn't this cute" kind of way – but his allies are shown as equals. When he tries it on, he gets shot down. The result is a Johnny Bravo-like character: a self-obsessed douchebag who can't go within eyeshot of a woman without being pepper sprayed. Both of these characters, Johnny and Duke, represent everything the stereotypical hyper-macho man thinks women want; though while Johnny is actually incredibly self-aware, Duke Nukem has, until this point, played it straight.
Obviously this is Duke Nukem, not Gran Torino. Duke Nukem should be heavy on the one-liners, intense on the action and incredibly light on plot. I'm not suggesting we spend hours focusing on Duke's transformation into a sensitive guy, or even that this needs to happen at all. Duke doesn't respect anyone, so all we have to accomplish is that he shows the same level of disrespect to everyone, regardless of gender. Don't focus the plot on his overdue personality change; just let that play out naturally, across the course of the game. Perhaps have him pulled out of a tough spot by that same female soldier he saved earlier – no pick-up line necessary. Tell the story of Duke coming to respect the women he fights with through in-game actions, what we see in the heat of the moment to moment play, rather than a condescending cutscene that lays on the melodrama.
It's worth stating that this entire discussion – or pitch, if Gearbox wants a word (hey, guys) – is based around how to save Duke as a character. None of this will matter if a future Duke Nukem game is a steaming pile of shite – but I know what to do on the gameplay front, too. Just copy DOOM. By which I mean: copy it again. Bethesda's DOOM reboot of earlier this year was damn near perfect for what it was, a fast and fluid FPS that didn't fuck about, and all the team behind a new Nukem need do is basically copy that, but with "hilarious" pop-culture references in place of those little marine collectibles. Result: instant GOTY contender. Or at the very least something that'll get one of those "Game of the Year" releases, twelve months later.
Much like the DOOM marine, Duke is an icon of gaming. He gave us so much in the early years and helped to define what is now arguably the most popular genre in gaming. Reboots like DOOM and Tomb Raider have shown us that series from gaming's past can be pulled back from the brink of obscurity. Lara Croft had become remembered for little more than her chest and a repertoire of pithy one liners before a successful reimagining in 2013, while "Doomguy" went from a generic space marine to one of the most fantastically realised mute characters in gaming history in his 2016 comeback. We owe Duke more than to let him fade into obscurity.
Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour is released for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on October the 11th.