CW for descriptions of sexual violence.
Duke Nukem Forever is repellent. It seems to almost emanate a stench when it boots up and a splash screen shows its protagonist, Duke—a muscle-bound guy with a blonde flat-top, sneering in wraparound sunglasses—chomping a cigar and standing with gun in hand in front of a pile of alien corpses and a rippling American flag. But, as tempting as it is to cordon off Forever’s noxiousness as something singularly awful, isolated in its own unique pool of filth, the game’s just a particularly noteworthy representation of broader trends that extend after and before it. The product of 14 years of troubled creation, Forever was passed from studio to studio like an unwanted Christmas regift until it finally released in 2011 as the sequel to 1996 shooter Duke Nukem 3D. Picking up directly from where its predecessor left off, it’s a game whose humour consists of lines from popular films repeated verbatim—it pulls from They Live, Dirty Harry, Die Hard, Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, and many more—and tossed-off sight gags about piss and shit. Otherwise, its jokes come from the limited mind of a macho character whose worldview reflects the showy horniness of a junior high school boy desperate to reassure friends he’s hit puberty on time. Unlike 3D, whose frenetic design and screaming obnoxiousness can charitably be read as parody, Forever is a plodding, joyless crawl through bland environments where the tone is so resignedly, straightforwardly mean that any nugget of genuine satire curdles in a larger stew of basic, retrograde nastiness.
Forever’s a despicable game for a lot of reasons, but its misogyny sticks out above the rest. After an opening sequence where Duke relives his triumph over 3D’s alien overlord by playing a videogame based on his exploits, the scene shifts to him giggling and groaning as he receives a blowjob from Mary and Kate Holsom, a pair of women in “ … Baby One More Time” schoolgirl outfits meant, in 2011, to parody the Olsen twins. The two fawn over him throughout the game, spurring the story into action when they’re kidnapped by aliens along with, as Forever’s website puts it, the rest of “Earth’s women, especially the hot ones!” Later, Duke finds them in one of the invader’s goopy, nest-like lairs filled with imprisoned women who explode with buggy monsters and, god damn it, disembodied breasts jutting from the walls with a “slap” button prompt hovering in front of them. The twins are fused into thick, Alien-style organic stalks, bodies absorbed into the environment except for, of course, their still-human faces and bare breasts. They tell Duke they’ve been impregnated with alien babies, plead for him not to be mad at them, promise “we’ll get the weight off in like a week!” and must die either by the player’s hand or when creatures burst from their writhing frames before the area can be left. “Looks like … you’re fucked,” Duke says to them. If we’re going by Forever’s official copy, this must be an example of “Duke’s constant stream of hilarious one-liners” promised to “have gamers rolling.”
By contrast to the fawning women that fill the game, Duke and his soldier buddies are broad-shouldered tough guys, yelling insults at each other as they charge into a battle against evil aliens the simpering in-universe president still seeks to placate. (Forever, for a reminder of the context, released in the middle of the Obama years.) Duke crushes cans of beers to power up, munches steroids to punch harder, and, when he’s knocked unconscious at one point, dreams of nothing bigger than playing air hockey with the boys while running errands for a dancer at a strip club. It feels unnecessary to point out that Forever, even with the most generous possible interpretation of satire, has a pretty troubling outlook.
There’s more to go through, but this is probably enough. Instead of running down other examples, it’s worth looking here at the jingoist style of Americana already mentioned through the game’s wimp president and the menu screen’s gloriously centred flag. Duke Nukem, as a manly man, is meant to represent a specific brand of masculine hyper patriotism defined by driving big old, gas-guzzling monster trucks and a love of guns. He celebrates the virtues of heroic individualism through a one-man army campaign against overwhelming enemy forces and relaxes in a luxurious home filled with tacky framed photos of his accomplishments and golden statues of himself.
In 3D, these kinds of trappings were part of a loose satire of ‘90s culture. Duke was still pretty much the same, but, in 1996, he was fighting literal pigs in LAPD-style uniforms that patrolled a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where the only forms of entertainment for its fictional citizens consisted of strip clubs, porn theatres, run-down bars, junky supermarkets, and theme parks. Here, the dystopian stinger is removed and America is presented only as an monolithic symbol of good, its cultural trash a decent alternative to the alien’s destruction. The Stars and Stripes fly all over the game, accompanying the hard-ass soldiers determined to kill the monsters and blow up everything they can find. Though the beginning of the game introduces the possibility that these aliens might have come back to earth for non-nefarious reasons—hence the president urging caution rather than Duke and Co.’s all-out aggression—nothing comes of this. The American leader is shown to be a coward, too scared of the necessary fight to strike even when prompted, and Duke and the US’ “Earth Defense Force,” as the nation’s salt of the earth, are the only ones prepared to do what’s got to be done. A real populist hero, the post-credits clip that plays after the game’s alien-vanquishing conclusion abruptly promises that Duke will run for the 69th President of the United States.
If a lot of the bullshit described above sounds familiar, it’s because videogames in general, including many of the best received among them, are vile for many of the same reasons that make the more easily derided Duke Nukem Forever so terrible. Far from an anomaly, it’s both the result of a ‘90s context where shock humour proliferated and, in its way, an exaggerated portrait of the sewer current running just beneath—or erupting in occasional, mostly mil-sim geysers—of so many celebrated mainstream games since.
The misanthropy that defines the game’s humour is less sophisticated but just as lazily referential and sub-Mad magazine puerile as the revered Grand Theft Auto V or the Borderlands and Saint’s Row games. Forever’s sexism abounds in those games, too, replete as they are with varying degrees of sub-adolescent (and/or just plain bad) jokes. Its portrayal of women as blank, player-worshiping husks isn’t unique: it’s a blown-up version of the same lack of characterization that causes Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance to worship a goateed piece of cardboard, so many Princess Zeldas to fall all over a silent elf, or the myriad tight-lipped make-your-own-character RPG protagonists to romance any woman in proximity with five gold coins worth of flowers in their inventory and a bit of determination. As for the glorification of militant American individualism, the examples are nearly endless, but the recent Tom Clancy’s The Division or Wildland games, Battlefield Hardline, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus serve as just a few recent versions of the same tendencies.+.
Even if it’s not so blatant as in Forever, the same conservative social outlook that makes Duke a hero can be found in the majority of successful big-budget games, from the seemingly innocuous to the more obviously repugnant. What’s disconcerting about Duke Nukem Forever isn’t just that it was made, but that playing it again close to a decade after its release shows how little the videogame mainstream has really changed. While not every example is as readily gross as Forever, it’s shortsighted to assume that the medium has somehow moved on from the regrettable early chapter it represents, whether that’s its ‘90s origins or 2011 release. Games like Duke Nukem Forever—or like 2018’s Agony or 2015’s Hatred—are positioned as sin-eaters for an entire segment of culture that would rather not have to engage too often with the scum it’s seemingly unable to purge when it crops up in games that are more enjoyable to play. Looking back at it now, it’s remarkable not just for being as tremendously shitty as it appeared upon release, but also for being an unsettling reminder of how prevalent its failings really are in in the years before and after it. Rather than relegate Forever to the trash heap of videogame history where it can be easily ignored, it might be better to remember what it represents and look out for how the slug-line of its slimy lineage manifests again and again.
- Even the much-maligned way Forever plays, its design consisting of bland industrial environments and dripping alien nests, its objectives consisting of powering up generators or figuring out how to bypass a series of blocked terrain on the way between an intro cutscene and cliffhanger conclusion, is the same sort of junk that serves as supposedly iconic narrative structure in so many acclaimed shooters.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.,