Friday, June 03, 2011

Why I'll play Duke Nukem Forever

On Twitter, Rich Clark linked to a Eurogamer interview with Randy Pitchford that is like catnip for people who enjoy reading between the lines. Pitchford makes several pronouncements, one of which is that the launch of Duke Nukem Forever is the most important event in the history of games, and another of which is that reviewers are going to give it unfairly low scores, because reviewers are petty. Beneath his bluster, which includes comparing DNF to Half-Life 2, he sounds like a man who knows that his game is in for a drubbing. If you watch the launch trailer, you can see why. It looks pretty bad.

Maybe DNF isn't bad. Maybe it's as great as Pitchford says it is. I haven't played it, so I have no idea. But I have heard a lot of people say they refuse to play the game. Mostly, they don't want to play a game that perpetuates a culture of misogyny, or to financially support a company that profits from that culture. This is valid. I would not try to talk anybody out of such an opinion. In my own mind, there could be a distinction between how good the game is, and how offensive its content might be, but that is likely thanks to my privileged position: even if I don't find the joke funny, I'm not the butt of it.

Still, I feel as though I am making an exception in this case. Were this a completely new IP, I probably would not play it based on what I know about it -- at least, I would not seek it out -- but I can't imagine not playing Duke Nukem Forever. Why?

The simple answer is legacy. Duke Nukem 3D was a seminal game. It's a part of my DNA, just as much as Contra, Mega Man 2, and Super Mario Bros. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Fifteen years on, it's easy to focus on what was crude about Duke 3D. Scat humor, gyrating strippers, dick jokes -- Duke 3D was as lowbrow as it gets. I was 14 when it came out, which put me smack in the middle of the target audience. I'd like to say that I enjoyed the game in spite of its excesses, but if I'm to be honest, I really did spend a disproportionate amount of my playtime giving dollar bills to strippers and peeing in urinals.

But adolescent content isn't the totality of Duke's legacy. You cannot minimize what Duke Nukem 3D accomplished for video games. Not only was it technologically advanced for its time, its gameplay philosophy was one that that some games still struggle with -- that the world should feel real. Light switches should work. Toilets should flush. Glass should break when you shoot it. Fifteen years later, we're still playing games where a rocket launcher doesn't even make a dent in the side of a building. Duke 3D had higher ambitions.

In a time when online play still meant connecting directly between two modems*, Duke 3D brought unprecedented depth to the multiplayer experience. When we played Duke, we leaped out of windows on jetpacks. We circled around each other through shortcuts. We shrank one another and set traps. This was far beyond the experience of Doom, in which we ran around some rooms real fast and shot at each other. As simple-minded as the story and the characters were, they inhabited a sophisticated game.

Duke 3D was a great game, and an important one. It also exemplified the culture that produced it. Similar to how a modern filmgoer can appreciate the craft and artistry of Birth of a Nation while cringing at its naked racism, a modern gamer should be able to accept Duke 3D on its own terms. When most gamers really were teenaged boys and 20-something men, and "extreme" was the buzzword, Duke Nukem captured the zeitgeist. More to the point: if you had skipped out on Duke 3D in its time, your reasoning may have been sound, but you would have missed out on some incredible new things.

Of course, we're not talking about a relic anymore. We're talking about a new game (albeit one that seems to have slipped through a wormhole from another place and time, like the Romulan ship appearing at the beginning of the Star Trek reboot), and it should be judged by 2011 standards. If Birth of a Nation were made today, nobody would give a shit about how great its cross-cutting is, and when Duke Nukem Forever comes out in a week and a half, nobody will care if it is competent in ways that every other contemporary FPS is competent. It has to be good for 2011, not for 1997 or 2001 or whenever else it was supposed to come out.

So I guess Pitchford does have a point. It is impossible for anyone steeped in gaming culture to ignore DNF's protracted development. When Chuck Klosterman reviewed the Guns 'n' Roses album Chinese Democracy, which followed a similar trajectory, he started it by saying:
Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?
Swap out three words in the first sentence and you could just as easily be talking about DNF. So what is the answer to Klosterman's last question? If Duke Nukem Forever is half as revolutionary for its time as Duke 3D was, then it will get terrific reviews regardless of content. If it is the perfected version of George Broussard's vision circa 1997, ignoring the intervening decade and a half of progress, then, sure, it probably won't get very good scores. Why should it be any other way?

Duke Nukem Forever may be an embarrassment. It may be the unlikeliest comeback story ever told in gaming. It probably is a bit of both. I won't know until I play it. And I have to know.

*Unless you were subscribed to the Total Entertainment Network!


Etelmik said...

I just played the demo. This game will break your heart, Mitch. Calling it now.

Mitch Krpata said...

I can accept that. I just need to see it for myself. I'm like the kid in the War of the Worlds who needs to go over the hill to watch the spaceships, even though it means his certain death, or would have meant his certain death if somebody less sentimental than Steven Spielberg had directed the movie.