header is screenshot from Duke Nukem Forever
Hail to the Kings
Ed Smith

“Three years ago you assaulted a superior officer for ordering his soldiers to fire upon civilians. He and his body cast were shipped to Pearl Harbour, while you were transferred to Mars … with no action for 50 million miles, your day consists of suckin’ dust and watchin’ restricted flicks in the rec room …”

— DOOM user manual, 1993

In the ‘90s, Duke Nukem and the Doomguy had a lot in common. They lived in similar worlds, both built on 2D grids and flat, blocky sprites; they were violent, bloody, and controversial, especially Doomguy with his pentagrams, Duke with his strippers; and just as one loved to rip and tear, the other rejoined with a commitment to kicking ass and chewing bubblegum. Doomguy attacked the rule and absolute power of the Devil himself. Duke slaughtered literal pigs, dressed in cop uniforms. They were both anti-authority.

But fifteen years later, in his latest and likely final incarnation, the feeble and sad sepulture for a franchise that is Duke Nukem Forever, our man has switched sides. Duke now lives in an enormous penthouse, surrounded by golden, pharaonic monuments to himself. On the main menu screen, in some dim grotesque of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, he stands astride an alien he’s killed, encompassed by a giant, rippling Stars and Stripes. He goes on chat shows to talk about himself. He’s co-operating with Hollywood to make his own biopic. He wants to run for President, for crying out loud. This guy wouldn’t assault a superior officer, or anything like it. This guy would shoot the civilians, light a cigar, and imprecate one of his famous catchphrases, that he’s practised in the mirror and sued people for using without paying him royalties. This Duke isn’t against the system. He is the system.

So what happened to Duke? The same thing that happened to videogames themselves⁠—he got rich, or rather he got rich, and but in the process of getting rich didn’t evolve in either his politics or his attitude. In the ‘90s, Duke could bully and brag and wave his cash around; hang around in porn theatres and strip clubs clutching his pipebomb, and it could feel authentically, meaningfully sleazy. Like Divine chewing dogshit at the end of Pink Flamingoes, or GG Allin rattling his cock at live audiences, Duke’s lurid- and objectionableness, in the 1990s, formed part of a larger, more significant counter-culture. Like new wave movies or shoegaze music, games were made on lower budgets (with the exception of three of them, every game on this list of most-expensive games ever made was released after 2000) and by fewer, less-experienced people: compared to the hundreds of individuals responsible for a modern first-person shooter, the core DOOM team was around ten people. Whereas a job in videogames nowadays demands expert knowledge of software and design, only one of the 25 staffers who made the original Grand Theft Auto had previously worked on a videogame.

Videogames, during this era, at least more than they do now, leaned away from commercialism, its potentially sanitising influence, and into iconoclasm. This is not a judgement of quality. Contrary to what reviews of Borderlands, Just Cause, Dead Rising and others like it might insist, videogames adhering to the so-called “true” nature of videogames⁠—that is: being efficiently frivolous, deliberately amoral and “apolitical,” and fun above all else⁠—does not improve them automatically. The 1990s was not a better era for videogames as such; rather, videogames’ squalor, infantilism, and obliviousness to taste, which nowadays seem retrograde and (given the amount of critical attention and money that games have earned) inexplicable, in the 1990s, were all consistent with games’ cultural status. Duke Nukem’s rejection of propriety, back in a time when he represented a culture likewise rejected by good taste’s and the mainstream’s vanguards, felt righteous: if parents, politicians and the established art forms and their critics thought videogames were low, videogames became determined to prove just how low they could be; to show that they rejected the legitimacy and significance of the moral grounds upon which they were being rejected. Duke, like games themselves, flouted good taste, and in the process helped to plant a flag in an emerging form of abject art.

But videogames, as their corporate leaders and specialist media often enjoy boasting, make more money than films, now. Many of its celebrity developers are middle-aged men, and the power they have to influence young people’s minds⁠—owing to their popularity, and increasingly-embedded position in popular culture⁠—is substantially greater: it’s something of an irony that during the 1990s, when videogames were an obscured, less-polished kind of under-entertainment, papers and television news were consistently concerned by their simulated-violence’s poisonous effects. Nowadays, when games are everywhere and, owing to their better technology, capable of delivering more-accurate recreations of reality, debates regarding their sexism, racism, and sometimes extremist politics are limited to industry publications and a few left-wing broadsheets.

Nevertheless, games have become a part of the mainstream. It doesn’t matter how many times Yves Guillemot poses on-stage with a big toy gun, or Gabe Newell tells us his email address, or Phil Spencer stands there in a Limbo or State of Decay or Rare t-shirt. The message is deafeningly clear: if for any reason you feel mis- or unrepresented by the mainstream⁠—if you’re not rich, not middle-class, and not a man⁠—when you buy a videogame, especially one that comes in a box and is sold at full price, chances are most of the people who made it, and certainly the people who run the system that catalysed it in the first place—the kings of the industry—have nothing in common with you.

We used to like Duke Nukem because he embodied the idea that you could be individual, be seditionist, be socially “improper” and still have power over authority. We reject him in the modern era because he’s a stark reminder, a grotesque, a caricature, of one really awkward truth, which is that despite getting richer, older, and more influential, games haven’t matured or gotten wiser⁠—and not in a way that means they’re still true to themselves or true to their creative roots, but a way that’s just vaguely sad. Duke lives in a penthouse. He goes on chat shows. He’s running for the presidency. When he cracks the same old one-liners, or jokes about his dick, or brags about his screwing groupies two at a time, it’s no longer impressive or cool or shocking. Now, it’s pathetic.

Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.