header is screenshot from Duke Nukem Forever
What'd You Expect?
David Wolinsky

The final improbable joke greeting Duke Nukem Forever after its bumpy 14-year gestation was that, in the end, the game had been rushed. I remember just before it came out a game-critic friend instant messaged me his review before it was published online—a couple sentences at a time, or whatever AOL Instant Messenger’s character limit was—and it included that kicker. Back in June 2011, lots of videogame writers gave their brains a high-five after concluding they had to be the only ones clever enough to come up with that one-liner before italicizing it with a low low grade. It’s a funny, familiar, and dickish way of closing the subject by waving goodbye and saying, “Hey, let’s shift our energies towards getting caught up in the next thing we all agree to collectively swoon over before later also destroying that. The time has come!”

By now, you’ve read a few thousand well-considered words dutifully rendered by other wanderers also curious what lessons the beleaguered game can offer today. I say “dutifully” not to imply that any of us went in kicking, screaming, groaning but rather to highlight the general widespread acceleration from forming an opinion to voicing it. Chances are if you have any memory of Forever today it’s likely some variant of the shorthand that has eulogized it: It sucked it sucked it sucked lol. I’m less interested in doling out why the experience of playing Forever is a stumbling bland ride. I’m more interested in why people who never intend to play it think the only way it can be approached is kicking, screaming, groaning.

I don’t think this dismissive attitude is isolated to Duke Nukem Forever or even to videogames, but is pervasive in the most outspoken and least lifted voices throughout whatever it is we’re referring to when we say “videogame culture.” The unspoken, mutually agreed upon official-and-only opinion on Duke Nukem Forever you’re allowed to have is that it’s a garbage fire punchline that isn’t worth your time. This distillation happens with pretty much everything we fill our lives and time with, but other previous examples specific to videogames include that Konami should be hated for killing its golden goose and shifting its business practices, EA should be hated just for existing, BioWare should have had the foresight to know that Mass Effect 3’s ending really should have been crowdsourced, and whatever fourth illustration you had in mind when I started this list and hadn’t yet named. It’s a thing we’re all guilty of because, man, who has the time to form your own opinion based on firsthand experience? We can’t not participate in the conversation. CliffsNotes sure help.

To talk and think about videogames online means to participate in a mindset where love and hate aren’t separated by a single coin’s width on either side. No, those impulses fritter and fry and run hot and cold on the same nerve ending where fun, appreciation, and enjoyment derived from time invested in a videogame take a backseat to bludgeoning others with your opinion online. Hating games—even those you never plan to sink your money or time into—fulfills the requirement for a participation grade even if there isn’t much sport in the hunt. The danger in this is the lazy and prevailing assumption that players—not humans, but “consumers of products”—always know what’s best.

Duke Nukem Forever is not a hill worth dying on. I’m writing this after playing through the entire game and its less remembered add-on The Doctor Who Cloned Me, and I can tell you: Every criticism of the game you’ve half-heard or half-remembered was and is valid. The game is a clothesline of try-hard juvenile humor, uneven gunplay, and unpolished moments. A lot of professionally-published reviews at the time latched onto all that, its “when its ready” loading times, and—interestingly—also abhorred its nostalgia.

Nostalgia for what? I didn’t read a single review that elaborated on this fault. It sticks out as perhaps an intriguing tell at what aside from the obvious people nearly a decade ago deeply resented about this game’s release at the time. Writing this during E3 week, when we’re reminded that staying interested in new videogames means we’re expected to cheer and pre-order after being shown sequel after sequel, remake after remake, re-imagining after re-imagining, and re-release after re-release is unveiled, paints this rear-view look in a sharply different light. In what ways have we moved on exactly from throwbacks, guilty pleasures, and recycled ideas?

Duke Nukem Forever is not relevant in 2019. The game was not influential by any stretch. But it is and was emblematic of a certain impulse we all seem to have to point at something that is understood to be bad—or maybe just more for people who aren’t us—and let others know that we think it’s bad.

We don’t seem to trust each other to not elevate perceived lesser thans to the level of acknowledgment via dismissal, and so together we pollute our shared oxygen with easy dunks to run up an individual’s score. This is something I wonder about a lot and have for a long time: Does the “no skin off my nose” attitude empower undesirables to spread? Or was Forever prevented from being a big deal because so many people had for so long publicly mocked what its 6,442 megabytes comprise? What combination of these two fused with other unnamed mechanisms to solidify its current reputation?

For all the protesting Duke Nukem Forever provoked—including a surprising FOX “won’t someone think of the children?” story—the reality is the game is, today, largely forgotten. The biggest irony swirling around its surrounding and sprawling narrative is perhaps that Gearbox Software’s CEO Randy Pitchford, serving as Forever’s 11th hour savior and champion, is today more controversial for labor practices and an alleged underage pornography collection than putting out provocative games. Fewer would remember that publicist Jim Redner reacted to Duke Nukem Forever’s bad reviews with heated threats against those critics, warning that “we r reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom.” But the videogame? Nobody talks about it anymore, really.

Which isn’t necessarily a comment on that game specifically. Almost by definition, all videogames are meant to be forgotten. For the most part, videogames literally become unplayable every few years as new systems come out—an acute awareness and desire to counter this with obsessive engine upgrades was part of what made Duke Nukem Forever take, well, forever to come out. After any game is released, it’s only a matter of time before it’s no longer usable. They just fall out of favor. But this is also true of almost anything involving computer technology. You can’t play HyperCards anymore. You can’t use 2009’s Facebook.

But Duke Nukem Forever wasn’t killed by the unwinnable arms race of big-budget videogame development. We, the big bad public, killed it. Revisiting the game in 2019 isn’t a trip down memory lane but an autopsy with something like fresh eyes. And what strikes me as particularly odd about the belittling wake it caused in response is: What really on the surface is the difference between Duke Nukem Forever and Family Guy? John Waters? Troma? Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes? Adam West’s Batman? Andrew “Dice” Clay? Spencer’s Gifts? The WWE? Grand Theft Auto? Some of these have had their basic existences argued against, but not all. Why? Who gets to decide what others decide they want? Why should we hate the people who make things we never were going to spend time with anyway?

Late in The Doctor Who Cloned Me, you come across an arcade game called Pimpslap 5000. You cannot play it, only hear Duke intone: “No fucking way I’m playin’ that piece of crap!” Upon walking away you’re awarded the “Hedonist, Not Misogynist” trophy, whose caption reads: “Discover and reject the videogame that lets you slap women.” (My PlayStation Network account informs me that this is an ultra-rare trophy that only .9 percent of players have earned.)

It’s doubtful there’s a single person who experienced this bizarre moment—and believe me, I know how made up it must seem just reading about it—and understood it as an enlightened and evolved meta re-assessment of the many hours that preceded it where everything’s a crass and clunky joke. My honest and semi-educated guess is this wound up stapled onto the end of the add-on because of an alleged argument that broke out among the development staff over whether it’s in Duke’s nature to kill women. I forget where, but vaguely remember hearing this as postmortem discussions that took place after Duke Nukem 3D about what to do differently next time. That this was contentious and a spirited debate should come as no surprise to fans and detractors alike—whether they be fairweather or ride or die.

Maybe this has less to do with people’s ability to recognize Duke Nukem Forever carrying on in the long-standing tradition of John Waters and the others I named as being an abject alternative offering, and more to do with the internet subtly manipulating us and our daily interactions to demand a consensus on every single topic. Whether viewed as benign trash or severe toxin, that videogame and the internet both tap into and feed on something deeper inside us all. We have this unnamed and impossible push-pull drive to be heard without standing out—without really considering the price, the consequences, or whether it’s even a good use of our time.

Videogame marketing departments have been hip to this since at least the ‘70s—so, the beginning, nearly—with Death Race sparking controversy by making it possible to run over humanoids in an arcade game. An early wave of post-release marketing comes from the word of mouth this inspires in the people who experience it firsthand, high on the gonzo rush. This builds up for a time before a later wave of marketing occurs in the spotlighting and moralizing outrage coming from the media and the public. On the heels of that is the volume-raising wave fighting outrage with outrage over the outrage, defending the distasteful thing. This momentum arcs back to the game company, who then chooses how surprised and/or equally disappointed they are while privately grinning and knowing a reputation has been minted, awareness has been raised, and hopefully more money has been earned in the process. See: Mortal Kombat’s ascent to United States congressional scrutiny and becoming a household name and also possibly, arguably, probably the new Sonic movie. Our reactions are predictable—so much so they’re accounted for and part of the plan.

If we as a group repeatedly get amnesia about looking to hate the thing we once were excited about every time about each and every videogame, we also forget about the nature of hype. Hype benefits a product and company’s bottom line—and turns each of us into a sleeper cell marketer just waiting to be activated. It, too, has little impact on our ultimate enjoyment of the thing, whatever the thing is. Although the story behind Duke Nukem Forever’s eventual release is a good and cautionary one, it’s peripheral to the game itself. Hype sparks a fuse that explodes in our inevitable disappointment.

What’s really the difference, in the abstract, between Duke Nukem Forever and The Last Guardian? Kingdom Hearts III? Diablo III? Prey? Persona 5? Shenmue III? People want what they want, are willing to wait, and as I’ve come to learn at least about videogame culture (whatever that is) people who enjoy things aren’t making noise online. They’re busy chasing their bliss. (A concept also demonstrated by a recent and overdue New York Times look at how Twitter doesn’t represent the entire world.) Vocal groups might be loud but don’t necessarily reflect actual numbers. We didn’t think about it much in 2011 but we get it now: The internet gives a distorted picture of the public, and consumer groups especially. Or maybe that’s just something we need to tell ourselves to make it through.

Communities—groups of people—are sometimes defined by what they hate as much as what they love. Maybe that balance has slowly shifted and they are now more defined by the former. Which means possibly one way that videogames have gone more mainstream is by catching up with the broader trend of people being concerned, upset, and angry about problematic media consumption. They’re just like TV, movies, music, books, the waltz, etc. And just like TV, movies, music, etc., if you’re in whatever the cultures they comprise are, you have to concern yourself with not being caught X-shaming. Whatever that thing is, you have to let people know you belong because you hate that thing, too. Even if it seems implausible that that many people even played this game. But what I always find funny is no matter the public sentiment, there’s always a glowing pull quote on every box. Duke Nukem Forever’s was from this GamePro preview, hailing it as “a booze-chugging, stripper-ogling, baddie-blasting good time.” So obviously between that and the FOX story, something has changed here over the years.

One 2011 forum post I came across—and have lost the link to, sorry—tried to unpack its unenthused reception by explaining that the cohort who were drawn to Duke Nukem Forever, teenagers way back when it was announced, have simply outgrown it and were too mature when it was finally released. Many others agreed (after the first response was quick to point out the irony that this commentary came from someone with “p0rn” in their username).

It’s not a terrible insight, though. One thing that’s as true today as it was in 2011 is that the “M” on the game box still doesn’t imply anything more ambitious than aspiring to what a kid might think of as mature. Many M-rated games today do grapple with themes like parenthood or more meaningful examinations of loss—but against the backdrop of an amount of murder that would fit even the loosest definition of serial killing. That many big-budget games all flock to these themes and haven’t yet figured out what they want to say about them suggests another sort of arms race, but one that’s arguably just as shallow as fetishizing so-called realism. It’s also all counterbalanced by a steady stream of games about shooting Nazi zombies. (That’s not a reductive wisecrack: In the course of writing this, I got press releases for three such games, and one urgently inviting me to stop by their booth at E3 please.)

It’s doubtful Gearbox Software’s board would have gone for it, or the originating teams at 3D Realms when they had more of a say, but maybe Duke Nukem Forever should have adopted the Mark Twain model: Release your opus a century after you’ve died so it can be without compromise and brimming with raw honesty. Maybe in 100 years Chinese Democracy and the next Rambo will be acclaimed as new American classics. I’m kidding. It’s doubtful.

There’s another part of this repeated memory loss that’s probably integral for all of us getting hooked again and again—and why creators choose to work on yet another videogame that many of us wind up getting interested in playing someday in the future. To get invested again must in some way demand we forget that we’ve been burned in the past—but somehow in constructing our expectations of something new on the wreckage of what we once held a space for, it slips our minds that we’ve been there before many times. Especially in the moment when you press “start” and your imagination, hopes, and fantasies collide with the reality of what the thing is that someone else—not you—made. Especially in the moment. But wasn’t it obvious what kind of game Duke Nukem Forever was going to be?

David Wolinsky is a writer and the moderator of Don’t Die, an extensive independent interview series and living index fascinated by the conflicts, evolutions, triumphs, past, and future of videogames and what people think of them. He’s also the author of an upcoming book being released by Read-Only Memory.