I want to preface this with two things...
The first is another reminder that I am not a paid creative writer. I have only ever once been paid to write creative fiction for people, and that was twenty bucks for a special piece of erotic fiction I sincerely hope never gets seen ever again by anyone. I am not a scriptwriter, a Hollywood guy, or otherwise “qualified” in the objective sense of the world. I just write and read a bunch and sometimes my fanfiction gets a like. Regardless, I think I’m pretty good at it, and I like writing these kinds of articles anyway, so, if you feel my opinion isn’t valuable then feel free to click that back button in the corner.
The second is that I don’t really want Duke Nukem to be saved. I think much of gaming history, especially in the 90’s, is littered with bold yet often regrettable attempts to create iconic characters and mascots, and the fact that Duke Nukem is even remembered at all is because the developer decided to add as much immature humor and bare tits as it could to appeal to an audience that theoretically shouldn’t even be playing the game. That said, no matter why he’s endured to the modern age, he’s endured nonetheless, and since Gearbox seems insistent on trying to make him relevant and ‘cool’, they might as well do something good with him.
And that’s the whole reason I’m writing this. Because if Gearbox is going to continue to roll out Duke, the have to realize sooner or later that the ways they’ve used him in the recent past--namely in Duke Nukem Forever and Bulletstorm Full Clip remaster--isn’t going to work anymore. And if they want Duke to be someone that players will follow and enjoy again, they’re gonna have to get a few things straight.
First of all: video games have grown up.
Look, you can argue that video games were never exclusively for kids, fine, but you’d have a much harder time arguing that they weren’t the primary demographic for most of its early life. Maybe you wouldn’t go so far as to call them “toys”, given the whole artistic angle, but they certainly fulfilled the same functions. And when Duke Nukem 3D came out--the first Duke Nukem to give the titular character personality beyond “sunglasses and hair”, we were still very much in the “games are for kids” era.
So while it may have been an M-rated game, it did not have M-rated sensibilities. The sense of humor was crude, the jokes were dirty and off-base, and the ‘wit’, if you wanted to call it that, relied entirely on pop-culture references. And that might have been enough back then, when standards were super low and naked breasts was enough to turn heads. But by the time Duke Nukem Forever came out, the primary audience for games changed. It wasn’t frat boys and chuckling teenagers, it was adults. And while I’m sure there are plenty of adults who enjoyed that game’s sense of humor, for most people, it felt dated. Like it was trying to appeal to sensibilities that haven’t been “popular” in years. It was an old dad who didn’t realize kids don’t still listen to Led Zeppelin.
Sometimes it was more than just dated, it was downright backwards. While the games industry was having a frank and honest discussion about women’s roles in video games and their persecution in our culture, Duke Nukem Forever opens up with literally every “babe” on earth getting kidnapped. Just as games were starting to add nuance and class to their characters and stories, Duke Nukem Forever goes for the simplest, stupidest plot in the world. And I’m not saying there’s not a place for stupid, campy stories, but I am saying there’s no place for stupid, campy stories that lacked any of the necessary irony to make them funny.
In short: we had grown up. Duke Nukem hadn’t.
But there’s another reason Duke Nukem doesn’t work: his character alone is so utterly flawed it’s almost beyond salvaging. That’s not a rag on him personally (ok, it is a little bit), but rather the whole trope he was built from. Duke Nukem started as a parody of 80’s and 90’s action stars: the all-American white man who was always ready to throw down. The problem with Duke is that not only is his source material terribly dated, but at least in Duke Nukem Forever, the “parody” part seemed to be entirely secondary. Duke Nukem literally just tried to be the perfect, flawless jerk hero who can do anything and is loved by everyone. Back in the 90’s you would get it and laugh, but now? It’s impossible to take seriously, either as a joke or as the actual thrust of a story. Maybe for a short 3-hour game I could get behind a guy like Duke, but asking me to spend 10 or 15, perhaps even thirty hours with a protagonist like that? The joke would get old. Fast.
But all that culminates in one final problem with Duke that seems almost impossible to get away from: all the things that make him terrible are also all the things that make him friggen’ Duke Nukem. Hate him or loathe him, Duke Nukem as a distinct character is defined by his massive ego, his casual misogyny, his bad one-liners, and his ‘edgy attitude’. If you take any of those things away in order to make him a more serviceable, interesting character, you’re not really dealing with Duke Nukem anymore. That’s another character in a Duke Nukem outfit. In some sad, unavoidable way, it defeats the purpose of even making the character Duke Nukem.
So, how do you fix that?
Way back in 2011, it was revealed in a TWiT video (which I’ll embed here, it starts around 1 hour 35 seconds) that video game critic and sole lifeforce behind The Escapist Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw was asked to submit a test script for Duke Nukem Forever.
His script was rejected because in it, he turned the irony up to 11 and the heads at Gearbox wanted Duke to be “a very serious guy” and “not a parody”. Which was a mistake for a number of reasons, but if we’re going to assume that Gearbox is still so stuck up its own butt about making Duke Nukem a serious guy, then what I would propose is making a game where Duke, the very same over-the-top self-loving ego-swollen Duke, has to confront a world where his attitude and his style is as backwards and as hollow as it is in our world.
That wouldn’t be hard to do. Super simple example plot, the Aliens, tired of being thwarted by Duke, send him to a parallel dimension more like our world so the Aliens cab take over his 90’s themed world without a problem. In this new world, Duke would have to get back to his own dimension, but not only will he be thwarted by some evil--let’s say a Call of Duty style paramilitary group so we can take some jabs at generic modern military shooters--but he’ll also have to deal with the fact that his attitude and style are uncool in this new world. And for a man who’s literally powered by his ego, that could make for some very… “interesting” plot moments.
It would be too much to ask Duke to “grow”, but it would at the very least force him to develop a character, and adapt to a situation where he’s not worshiped with every step he took. Maybe have him confronted by a female co-star who won’t, in fact, sleep with him. Maybe he’ll get weird looks when he starts grabbing poop from the toilet and throwing it against a wall. Maybe he’ll try to make a stupid one-liner and everyone will shoot him a dirty look because he shouldn’t be belittling the death of a beloved soldier who died fighting for what he believed in. Duke would still try to get home, but maybe he would learn something like empathy while he was here, and discover some way to protect himself other than his giant ego.
And hell, you can make jokes about modern FPS’s too, if you stick to his traditional run-and-gun style. Maybe he can call BS on soldiers magically fixing their wounds and ask where the floating health boxes are. Maybe he could start running wildly through a cover-based level and leave soldiers baffled as to why he’s not “taking turns making potshots”. One joke about picking bullets out his ears after a rough firefight, that could be pretty damn fun.
Duke, as it turns out, isn’t beyond saving. What’s beyond saving is the world where he comes from, as much like the time it was created, it’s a world where Duke has become too comfortable, and the audience too alien. But put him in a different world, and actually reflect on what makes him a character in relation to that, and you could have a really solid game.
But again, that doesn’t mean it should be made.