I’ve been thinking a bit about the character of Duke Nukem recently following the critical cratering of Duke Nukem Forever’s launch. In some ways I did the safe thing – wait until DNF came out, saw how bad the review scores were, now write something – but I felt the same way before DNF came out:
Duke Nukem has always been a weak character.
In The Time of Chimpanzees, I Was A Monkey
I’m old enough to have played the first Duke Nukem game when it came out. No, not Duke Nukem 3D, but Duke Nukem (sometimes Nukum, in case those Captain Planet people tried to sue), the platforming side scroller that was released by Apogee back in 1991. At the time I thought of Duke Nukem as a slight variation of Commander Keen (also from Apogee, but developed by id Software) since it was pretty similar in game mechanics.
At this point the Duke didn’t have a husky voice, wore a pink shirt and his radical attitude extended to calling his main enemy “Proton breath”. Given that the bad guy’s name was Dr Proton, it was hardly a razor sharp bon mot.
Duke Nukem II was more of the same with prettier graphics.
In talking about the modern character Duke Nukem, very, very few people are thinking of any other title other than Duke Nukem 3D. Duke Nukem: Land of the Babes (Playstation), Duke Nukem: Zero Hour (N64) and Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project (PC) exist, but all were sidelines to Duke Nukem 3D (which made Duke into the icon) and then Duke Nukem Forever (which was going to … well, be a worthy sequel at least if all the hype had turned out to be true).
During an age when FPS characters didn’t say anything, having Duke spout off one-liners from movies made him the one-eyed man in the country of the blind. That what he said was a direct rip from other sources didn’t matter; he said SOMETHING compared to the nothing of his contemporaries. It was enough to make the character stand out.
Can’t Ya Take A Joke?
The novelty of having an FPS character speak was enough to hide other flaws, plus the chance to see stripper boobs on screen raised Duke Nukem up in the minds of its pre- and early-teen players. Some have called him a parody of the 90s action hero, but he isn’t – he’s much more of a pastiche than a parody.
Without going into semantics too much, a parody is meant to be a humourous copy that often mocks (gently or severely) the source. Duke Nukem isn’t a parody because everything is played completely straight. He isn’t a pallette- and accent-swapped Arnold Swartzenegger imitation for the purposes of mocking that form of 90s action hero – he IS that stereotype exactly. The player isn’t meant to be laughing at Duke for his ridiculousness or his actions, but rather laughing with Duke at his X-TREME behaviour and ripped off sayings.
A parody should have some depth to it, a subtext to the text; Duke has always had the character depth of a reflecting pool in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The world he inhabits doesn’t mock him either, or play off the ridiculousness of a character who’s biceps are bigger than his head.
A key point of Duke Nukem Forever is that everyone recognises how awesome Duke is. Women want to have sex with him, men want to be him. (Men do not want to have sex with Duke because the only homosexuals in the Duke Universe are robots.)
So how did Duke Nukem get labelled a parody? Reason 1 is that he said some stuff that was vaguely funny (which, again, was ripped straight off other sources) and reason 2 is that the game needed something to deflect controversy that it was just a mysoginistic power fantasy. By labelling a parody, Duke Nukem got the protection of being something that those who criticised it “didn’t get”, a defence that blocked any accusation thrown at it. Too violent? Too sexist? Too rude? It’s a parody! Can’t ya take a joke?
It’s possible for a rude, crude game to parody a genre – Conkers Bad Fur Day did this by having the cute little munchins that normally haunt platformers turn into something that might look the same at a glance, but mocked that entire game style. Observe:
Duke, on the other hand, was never a parody – at best he was a stereotype that cracked a few jokes. At worst, well, he was an unoriginal, pale imitation that only held any status because it was the first time players heard a spoken one-liner in a video game.
(Oh, Duke Nukem 3D also had multiplayer that helped elevate the game, but that hardly would have made the Duke Nukem character famous.)