It might be easy to dismiss Duke Nukem 3D, a first person action videogame released twenty-one years ago, for its bizarre misogyny, or its flat cardboard cutout environments, or its hammy one-liners shamelessly ripped straight from popular B-movies like Evil Dead or They Live. It seems so desperate for cultural legitimacy and its players’ approval that it can be painful to look at with contemporary eyes.
The character of Duke Nukem was an ugly blank slate of profoundly idiotic, hyper-masculine nihilism — the only kind of character who had the stuff to go up against a hellish, dystopian world and win. That masculinity defined the future image of the gaming industry at large.
Duke Nukem 3D came from an era where video games were still trying to find their footing, both artistically and in the cultural landscape. Maybe this is why it’s so hard to figure out what the game actually wants to be: it’s a big, maximalist pile of jokes, references, and tropes that never really go in any coherent direction. References to the OJ Simpson trial and The Simpsons sit alongside a bunch of gratuitous porn and movie references with no clear purpose.
It seems obvious that on the surface, anyway, there isn’t an intention for coherent artistic expression here outside pure fulfillment on the part of players wishing to see every possible new technological gimmick at the time. It’s not exactly hard to place everything in the game within its 1996 cultural context.
Yet there’s also a fascinating economy to its experience, especially when compared to video games of today. Ken Silverman’s Build, the not-technically-3D graphical engine Duke 3D was constructed in, cobbled together a hefty list of smaller features:triggered events, conveyer belts, the ability to shrink your player and other enemies, jetpacks that let you fly around the world, rooms that could break laws of physics by overlapping with other rooms while still not actually being in true 3D.
By contrast, the Quake engine, which debuted the same year as Duke 3D, would serve as the future model for graphical 3D engines, with its support for true 3D environments, polygonal models, and 3D hardware acceleration. Yet the Quake engine did not adapt many of those interesting smaller features of the Build engine. This allowed the technologically inferior Duke Nukem 3D to expand its game design language into new and bizarre directions.
The game’s levels gleefully exploit all of the Build engine’s features, sending players hurtling through strangely absurdist, highly interactive set pieces that sometimes require a little bit of puzzle-solving or navigational prowess to progress. The apex of this is in the much-unsung second episode set in space (“Lunar Apocalypse”), which features far less of the cringey anachronisms of the game’s city levels.
It holds up pretty well today, all things considered. These space levels display far more inventive and narratively rich ideas than nearly anything you’re likely to see in a first person action game of today, in spite of the latter being far less technically advanced. The amount of ideas conveyed within the boxy, low-resolution, highly-abstracted world of a Duke Nukem 3D level make it feel much more in line with the playfulness of a game like Mario than the far more drab, hyper-realistic environments of a contemporary, big-budget, first-person action game it might more closely thematically resemble of today.
The industry has doubled down on applying a sort of austerity approach towards the art of game making, particularly in the last two decades. A lot of this can be attributed to rapid technological progress in game production resulting in ever-increasing market demands. Design anomalies and technological liabilities of the past have been mercilessly pounded out by industrial processes which emerged towards achieving a more universalized, one-size-fits-all approach to design. Some of it might also have to do with the young medium’s search for cultural legitimacy by the move away from embracing the tools that make it unique towards universal adoption of movie-style pre-rendered cutscenes and storytelling.
Two map designers are credited as design all of the levels featured in the first commercial release of Duke Nukem 3D. In total, twenty-three people are credited for the creation of the original game. By contrast, a small army of hands touched its horrific long-delayed sequel, 2011’s Duke Nukem Forever, before release.
All of this is also interesting because Duke Nukem 3D is one of the first games to attempt to represent realistic modern spaces in a more or less “3D” space. And the way it’s done is far stranger and more anarchic than almost any mainstream game of today.
It’s hard to play the game for very long without noticing how security devices are everywhere in its world. Cameras, laser tripwires, electrified doors and gates, sentry guns, and drones litter the environment. Shotgun-wielding LAPD cops that have been transformed into giant pig creatures (they wear vests branded with LARD) are even one of the game’s enemies.
An intense feeling of paranoia, often emphasized by well-placed dramatic lighting and sometimes violent mood-shifts in the progression of the levels, hangs over many parts of the game. All of this goes basically unremarked upon in the minimal fiction the game does have, making it feel all the more mysterious. Most places feel like they’re either in a state of decay or about to fall apart at any moment. Because the world is broken, there’s nothing particularly comforting about occupying any of it for very long, or sad about blowing up any of it.
In the game’s story, all of the Earth’s women have been kidnapped by aliens. Duke Nukem, the second-rate meathead we get to play as, must rescue them. But in spite of being the primary motivation for saving the planet, women are barely incidental to the actual experience of playing the game. In-game women either stand in place dancing in order to play a stripping animation for the player when interacted with, or they’re imprisoned in alien pods that can’t be interacted with at all outside of being blown up.
That women are merely a prop echoes the entitlement and wish-fulfillment of players the game caters to — at the time, adolescent young boys — as well as a crass marketing gimmick to offend and titillate, and differentiate itself from other popular 3D action games of the time which clearly did not feature that level of titty.
The more peculiar thing here, though, is how the story makes no attempt to explain what’s happened to the planet’s men, despite them being conspicuously absent from the game. The story, in fact, seems beyond indifferent towards trying to explain basically anything to players. More or less the entirety of the experience of the game happens in the moment, right in front of the player, with nothing outside environmental clues to contextualize any of it.
In the many apocalyptic wet-dream scenarios littering media today, there’s often some lingering sense of nostalgia for the old order before chaos descended upon the world. Maybe things could have been different, they pine sadly, before becoming fully entrenched in existential despair. But no — in Duke 3D, the old order is chaos. Aliens are utilizing human-built technologies as much as any human would. They’re the ones maintaining cities, and manning all the security devices. They’re the literal LAPD.
That’s because the aliens in Duke 3D, in the fictional world of the game, are really just thinly veiled stand-ins for human men. Men with power and authority. Men with superior access to resources and technology. Men that are that strange paradox of laughably weak yet also threateningly all-powerful. They’re both the lizard man in power at the center of every anarchic, system-toppling fantasy and the scary foreigner at the end of the bullet in every xenophobic, reactionary fantasy. Men as aliens are the unknown, detestable creature that sits in the way of realizing dreams and desires of a new world; they must be destroyed at all costs.
After saving Earth’s women as a plot point is exposed as a ruse at the end of the game’s second episode, the game even gives up on even pretending this wasn’t about all about men all along. The final boss of the third episode is a giant cyber alien motherfucker you fight in a football stadium, while being cheered on by two-dimensional cheerleader women who act as more level decoration.
After the big boss dies, our hero Duke kicks his giant bulging eye through a goalpost. It’s good.
In this act, Duke successfully caps off his enacting of the classic self-destructive masculinist struggle — effectively our reward for completing the first release of the game. This kind of basic empowerment fantasy of exceptionally virile male loners conquering the world is everywhere, from Arnold Schwarzenegger films to popular music, from sports media to the highest echelons of power. But video games, especially of the first person shooter variety, do it best.
Yet it’s hard to think of a piece of media that understands itself less than Duke Nukem 3D. It’s just too weird to be reduced to a singular narrative.
There always seems to be something else lurking behind the flimsy facade of the game’s fiction, un-pulverized by the years of austerity in the game industry which followed. While the game’s environments were ostensibly built towards realizing an empowerment fantasy for its players, there are a lot of elements to them that feel a bit off when looked at now. There’s a sense of mystery — that the world lies beyond rational explanation and things are a bit too menacing and alien to put them out of memory completely. It’s like there’s some kind of hidden vitality and knowledge in the midst of this empty fantasy, lying always just a bit too far out of reach to be able to accessed or seriously articulated.
Darker levels like “The Abyss,” a decaying canyon outside LA, or “Dark Side,” a disturbing adventure on the Moon, could not exist in a game of today without thoroughly compromising the integrity of their experience. They singularly hint at a different way of looking at the world, yet to be fully articulated. There is actually some kind of hope and humanity peeking out in the midst of the crass nihilism.
This brings us to the game’s third level (“Death Row”), an escape from the electric chair. It seems almost like punishment for the indulgences of the porn theater and strip club presented to players in the first two levels. But it’s relatively easy for our hero Duke to simply walk out of the chair and arm himself to escape the prison he’s being held captive in. It is, after all, only the third level of the game. And no prison can hold The Duke.
But maybe there’s a different narrative being told here. I’m reminded of the famous short story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce: a man miraculously escapes his untimely fate at the gallows and proceeds onto a fantastical adventure — beyond reality, beyond his body, bending the fabric of time to his will. But in reality, he can’t escape. His body stays on the gallows and he dies.
In reality, you can’t just get up and walk out of the chair and conquer the aliens that control our world all by yourself. For the vast majority of human beings on this earth, when the state says you’re dead, you’re dead. You stay on the chair and you die. State power wins.
This is the power of the fantasy Duke Nukem as a cultural figure represents: that through raw machismo, the series of oppressive neoliberal forces that form the framework of our society can be conquered and transcended. Duke cannot exist in a rational world. He can only exist in a one filled with internal contradictions, crossed wires, and broken down buildings.
His world is never stable. It can only ever be dominated by irrational fears of the unknown and one-dimensional, cartoonish archetypes. His world never resolves any of its cognitive dissonances, and sometimes even seems to be aware of its own self-destructiveness.
But Duke Nukem 3D only reveals this briefly before quickly moving on. The fantasy can only hold so much injection of reality before it completely topples in on itself. This world must continue on, as if nothing had ever happened, in order to sustain itself. That world is still our reality.