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Why Duke should’ve stayed dead

Duke Nukem

My dad had a running bet with the rest of the family that there’d be a Terminator 3. This was back in 1995 or so, and the thought that Hollywood would make a sequel to it seemed unlikely. We cajoled him about it all the time. Didn’t Terminator 2 leave no dangling plot holes? Wasn’t it the apex of special effects technology and the action genre? It was always funny, until in 2003 it actually came out and we all had to judge it on its own merits. As circuitous an analogy as it is, I feel it’s similar to the strange and lengthy saga of Duke Nukem Forever.

As of September 3rd, 2010 AD it was announced that Gearbox is finishing up its legendarily long development. Every website has the news splashed on their front page. Duke is back, they say, and this time he’s brought an entire warehouse of bubble gum with him. Cue the usual cynical responses, nerd-gasms, and rhetorical questions like “Can it live up to the hype?” or “Is Duke still relevant?” I don’t know, do you consider the O.J. Simpson trial still relevant?

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Let me say that I have no real malice towards Duke, his programmers, or the fanbase that’s kept the king of alien a-kickers close to their heart after over a decade. I’m here to say that it’s in Duke’s best interest to either remain dead or permanently on hold. The best thing that can happen to Duke Nukem Forever is for it to never come out.

It’s important to see why people are even looking forward to the sequel in the first place. Though Duke already had several games under his belt, it wasn’t until 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D that he became a true gaming icon. The game came out at just the right time. It came out just after the DOOM heyday, and was enough of a technological leap to get people’s attention, but it was also under-the-wire just before true, polygonal 3D became the standard.

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Duke as a first-person shooter had a lot going for it. Crude humor, nudity, and buckets of gore went hand-in-hand. It typified everything that made a shooter great in 1996. Levels were varied and didn’t have to necessarily flow in a logical sense. The arsenal consisted of tactical fare like trip-bombs and pipe bombs along with sci-fi weaponry like the shrink ray and freeze ray which produced interesting, grisly effects on the enemies. Add on top of that pop-culture references, a protagonist that was an amalgamation of every square-jawed action hero from the ’90s, and of course gyrating strippers, and Duke Nukem 3D became an instant classic.

A sequel was announced in 1997, and the legend of Duke Nukem Forever was born. What followed was many years of ridicule and skepticism with a few blips on the radar happening once in a blue moon. Screenshots and a trailer would pop up once in a while, but otherwise the word was mum on Duke’s sequel. He still got the occasional gig—third-person shooters kept him busy, and even returned to his side-scrolling roots. But that’s not what the public was really craving. They wanted Duke, they wanted it in glorious 3D and in first-person to boot.

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The trials and tribulations of The Duke Nukem Forever Story have been written many times before and a synopsis is unnecessary. Its universality makes explanation pointless. Duke Nukem Forever is an idiom for development hell. Its been in production so long now that every gaming website has to convince gamers that Duke Nukem Forever is real, its playable, and some day over the rainbow it will occupy the disc tray in your PC, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Hopefully.

Duke Nukem Forever has existed for so long as a myth and abstraction that it’s hard to imagine it ever having something so concrete as a demo, let alone a full, playable game. “When it’s done” has now been changed to “Just a little while longer.” The project can’t seem to be killed, not even a nasty lawsuit or having the original development team getting fired could do it.

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Which brings me to my point: Duke Nukem Forever is awesome as vaporware, and even better as a failed production. As a game, it will end up as much, much less. Had it come out several years prior, I probably wouldn’t be arguing this case, but the sequel was in development in 1997 and it’s 2010. It has gone beyond just a mere sequel with a protracted development cycle. Duke Nukem Forever is a myth. A story to tell children around a campfire on a dark night. A cautionary tale on the inflated ego and quest for perfectionism.

The myth is always more interesting than the reality. As a game, it will be played by consumers and critics, then thousands of opinions will flood the internet. It will be picked apart and dissected. Numbers and letter-grades will be assigned. Verbal jabs will be made at how it apes modern gaming cliches, or is a throwback, or strays too far away from the original or too little. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Duke Nukem Forever is the greatest or worst game ever. No matter how good it is, it will never be as good as the Duke Nukem Forever you’ve dreamed about for over a decade in your head.

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Had it stayed dead, the myth of Duke Nukem Forever would’ve grown even more. The what-ifs start to take over, and the imagination envisions how it was to be the pinnacle of the shooting experience. Weaponry becomes deadlier and the breasts of the strippers become all the riper. A game valiantly struggling for greatness, brought low by hubris and a world not yet ready for its brilliance. As a game, though, with load times and leaderboards and cutscenes, it no longer has those qualities. It’s just a video game now. What a terrible end for Duke Nukem Forever to actually come out.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

Gentle persuasion

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