So Gearbox's Randy Pitchford wants to make a new Duke Nukem game (opens in new tab). A brand new, fresh, not-started-12-years-ago Duke Nukem game, made as a co-production with an outside developer. People seem understandably surprised, but despite the slow-motion street carnival of crashing clown-cars that Duke Nukem Forever ultimately turned into, the advent of a new Duke game perhaps shouldn’t be too much of a shock.
After all, Gearbox bought the rights to the whole series when it bought the development of DNF, an act which was, at the time, flagged as a show of good will, a contractual implication that it actually cared about the series and wasn’t just picking up the long-gestating shooter as a cynical PR-exercise-cum-fire-sale. And let’s face it, Gearbox could probably do with a bit of good PR right now. Something that feels a bit more genuine than the linguistic gymnastics of Pitchford's non-address (opens in new tab) of Aliens: Colonial Marines’ poor quality.
And what’s more, 2015 could be the right time for a proper Duke Nukem comeback. But I mean a proper one. Nothing like Gearbox’s messy, flailing ejection of DNF’s various, stapled-together gameplay sketches. That was less the delivery of a complete, directed work, and something more akin to your cat shuffling a month’s worth of half-chewed garden ‘offerings’ onto the kitchen floor, because he’d forgotten to bring them in when they were still alive. No, 2015 could be exactly the right time for a real, thoughtful, focused Duke Nukem project to take form.
Many are questioning how Duke’s brash, sometimes problematic tone – exacerbated monstrously in DNF - could ever not shatter his relevance in these more enlightened days. But for me that’s exactly the point. The days in which we could rationalise Duke’s sense of humour are long gone, even the – once entirely legitimate – irony defence now worn out by the multitude of ‘80s-inspired games and movies out there, from Bro Force, to Far Cry: Blood Dragon, to The Expendables. If we’re going to have a new Duke game today, it just has to be a fresh take on the material. And that, ironically in the other sense, is exactly why the series has a fantastic opportunity in front of it.
The new Duke can’t be a straight sequel, but it can be something much more interesting – important, even, if we get really lucky – if it delivers a combined sequel and reboot. The problem with Duke Nukem Forever was that while in 1996, the Duke of DN3D had been a knowingly hypermasculine parody of cinematic hero tropes, by 2011 - with the joke played out and only a decade’s worth of diminishing returns to add to it - he was already way out of date.
The real world had moved on, but Duke’s in-game world had not. It was still a cartoonish place of strippers, blowjobs, self-aggrandising aggression, and uncomfortably misplaced boobs in otherwise horrific situations. It was a world largely consistent in its own internal tone and values, but one totally inconsistent with the values of the real world it was released into. An anachronistic pocket-universe that had no real point of contact, no kind of meaningful relationship, with ours. But with the next Duke Nukem game, much like in most aspects of real-life, there’s great headway to be made if we can start a dialogue between the two.
I don’t want the next Duke game to drop the series’ past and become just another FPS. There would be no point in that. There would be no point to be made in that. Rather, I want the next Duke game to acknowledge the inconsistency between Duke’s little ego-fuelled hero bubble and the real world. Let’s have him exist not in a whole game-world dedicated to reflecting and massaging his own self image, but in an increasingly small envelope of importance, recognised and supported only by himself.
Basically, let’s acknowledge and address the real-world challenges faced by this game by dropping Duke into something similar to the real world and seeing how he sinks or swims. Let’s have the game be a metaphor for the game, a sequel to a long-running series that acts as a commentary on the difficulty of maintaining long-running series. Then, by God, we’ll have a Duke Nukem game that justifies itself. Maybe even one that justifies its troublesome past, too.
And fun-fans, fear not. This can all be done without becoming an exercise in high-falutin’, pretentious meta-design. Look at MachineGames update of Wolfenstein in The New Order. That game is nothing if not a very successful trial run.
Where the original Wolfenstein series had been rooted in knowing, lurid, pulp magazine schlock-and-war, by The New Order’s appearance, World War Two had been covered a million times, in a raft of genres, and given every treatment from goofy, broad action to much more reverent, serious, modern respect. BJ Blazkowicz, like Duke Nukem without the restraining orders, seemed a hero out of time. So MachineGames made him literally that, transporting him forward 30 years, and using the dark changes he’d been unable to stop as a means of eroding and discussing the usefulness of his old, tried and true, one-man-army status.
The best part? MachineGames did that while keeping Blazko a rattlingly capable hero. The New Order’s gunplay – facilitated by BJ’s continued badassery – is still a fantastic, empowering, kinetic thrill. It’s just that the mechanical joys of the game now exist free of accusations that balls-out action means brain-off narrative.
So by all means keep Duke Nukem a charismatically egocentric ass-hat. Have him start the day with whiskey and cigars, and walk to the bathroom along a hall full of mirrors and self-portaits. Have him comment on his own chiselled good looks as he cleans his teeth, and turn his morning chat with the doorman into a discussion of the cool day he’s going to have because he’s a cool guy who does cool things. But then let’s have the first passer-by he encounters in the street point and laugh at his ludicrously dated, camply heroic garb. Have the bartender question with concern why he already reeks of booze and tobacco at 11am. Have his leery one-liners greeted not by eager threesomes, but by thrown drinks and rapid calls for security.
Have him be a hero, yes. Have him save the world when the inevitable alien menace arrives. But have him do so not after being praised as humanity’s greatest hope and idol, but as a hulking old relic, an expendable asset, an anachronistic, single-minded slab of meat with just the right, deluded mentality to maybe, just maybe, pull off such an incredulously planned suicide mission if all other, more sensible options fail.
And let’s have him realise that along the way. Let’s have him win, but let’s have him learn something too, developing an awareness of his place in a world that doesn’t function for his benefit, that no longer thinks he’s particularly cool at all. Let’s have big, creative shooting with a dash of The Wrestler, of Demolition Man. That way, we can not only bring Duke back, but we can bring back a Duke who we might actually want to keep around for the long term. Not a misfiring stab at nostalgia, but a character who just might have a future, too.