If you’re a gamer, chances are you’ve at least heard about the recent release of the long-awaited sequel to the old Duke Nukem shooters, entitled Duke Nukem Forever. DNF spent years being catastrophically mishandled by its original developer, 3D Realms, until the studio finally shut down and the game was officially scrapped. Last year, however, Gearbox Software and 2K Games decided to pick up the license and finish the game, to the joy of nostalgic gamers everywhere. After fifteen years of rumors and development hell, DNF finally arrived on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC in early june.
However, critical response to the game has been underwhelming at best and downright vicious at worst. The consensus in the gaming press seems to be that the game is a half-finished nightmare of poor gameplay and weak writing. Judging by the videos and the reviews, the game takes all that is worst about the first person shooter genre and stretches it over several hours of lackluster entertainment. Dull visuals are combined with lame puzzle mechanics and boring turret sections, and even the basic shooting portions are being described as mediocre. And that’s just the gameplay alone. Duke Nukem’s famously oversexed antics are dragged by their heels into the modern age, and the results are as bad as you might expect. The humor of the previous games has apparently decayed so much in the intervening years that it simply reeks when exposed to fresh air. In light of such aggressive mediocrity, one has to wonder why this happened.
Let me start by confessing that I have never played the original games, nor have I played the new one. I don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s not as if I had it out for DNF; if I had my way, every game would be great, and I would play them all, and be happy. I have done my best to become acquainted with the new game without playing it, because I refuse to subscribe to the smoldering bullshit that the developers have ironed out and attempted to sell for full retail price. To me, this game isn’t just a poorly executed attempt to revive a once-respected franchise, though it certainly is that. Rather, DNF is an affront to the gaming world, a disgraceful example of what happens when a developer smells blood and dives in for the kill without bothering to offer a product worth the time and money of the customer.
Duke Nukem Forever is a unique game because despite the overwhelming press it received prior to release, it really only appeals to a very particular demographic of gamers: those people who played the previous games who are also still interested in the new ones. Fifteen years is a long time for fans to wait, and the game’s audience has surely declined in that time. Those years have had the effect of filtering the remaining audience down to a group of gamers who are legitimately invested in the game as a source of nostalgic pleasure and as a strong entry into the modern gaming canon.
And in truth, these are the people who seem content to distill whatever enjoyment is available from a broken title like DNF. The internet currently abounds with apologists who claim that the game didn’t have to be good by modern standards, because it only exists as a function of nostalgia. To me, this is the same as saying that it’s OK if the game sucks, because it was the butt of so many jokes to begin with and the fact that it’s been released at all is amazing. But for a medium that struggles daily to maintain its credibility as an art form, such excuses for this lapse in quality are unforgivable. This kind of thing rarely occurs in other forms; the closest analog I can think of is the Star Wars prequels, though the circumstances were slightly different. No one really knew what George Lucas was doing with the lotion in the bathroom, but we at least knew that he would eventually emerge anew. He did, and the backlash against his self-indulgent FX-wankery was considerable. But his reputation, and film as an industry, will survive a few bad sci-fi movies.
Video games are not afforded such forgiveness. We’ve all seen the news reports. Some self-proclaimed “expert” shows up on Fox and tells the world that this week’s newest war simulator will have children gunning down their schoolmates in no time. Considering the outright sexism of the new Duke Nukem game, one can only imagine the festering rot that will spew forth if and when the news media chooses to rear its ugly head on this one.
And that’s really the crux of the issue. It is inexcusable for a respectable publisher to release a half-baked bore of a game to an eager and loyal fanbase, especially when the game leaks offensive bile every time the protagonist opens his mouth. Yes, because video games are an art, they should be allowed the license to shock and offend in the same ways that a medium like film has done for decades. But until important ideas like sexism are engaged with in meaningful, insightful ways, video games will never receive the respect they deserve. DNF’s publishers have committed the same sin as EA’s notoriously childish marketing team: by releasing an unfunny, unintelligent game, they have once again made the entire gaming world look like a pack of drooling adolescents. And if we as gamers continue to facilitate this kind of behavior by buying their shitty games, that’s all we’ll ever be.