Review: Duke Nukem Forever

Like many schools flirting with the internet during the late ’90s, my high school was in the midst of negotiating exactly how its students would use this new online world. The computer lab was helmed by poor, tow-headed Mr. Sigmund, the rowing instructor demanded by the necessities of higher ed to possess some semblance of academic utility and who, like, many sports coaches at small, academic-minded schools, was parked in a secondary role he neither seemed qualified for nor was interested in. That a man who seemed to barely understand computers was tasked with ushering a generation of teenagers into the one of most significant technological and ideological shifts in human history is truly unbelievable.

Mr. Sigmund’s arch-concern was defending the yearly rowing titles that adorned the awards case. It was, however, the same discipline that kept his rowers in good order that also maintained stability in the computer lab during waking hours. The freedom of the internet (you can search for anything!) combined with the budding libidos of the two-dozen-odd teenage boys stuffed in the lab created a unique problem for Mr. Sigmund. This was chiefly about preventing this one thing when we weren’t learning how to build webpages or research assignments. That thing, of course, was pornography.

I wouldn’t say that people feared Mr. Sigmund, but they respected him. He looked like a man who could summon a temper if needed, so these daylight sessions were occupied mostly by endless sessions of Mavis Beacon and the occasional webpage cobbled together on Microsoft FrontPage. Given the 300-esque odds of the task, Mr. Sigmund did a reasonable job of maintaining order.

But when his coaching duties called him away, Mr. Sigmund would pack his bags and shuttle his team to the banks of the Schuylkill River, a site known for its now-yearly ritual of uncovering dead bodies in the scull’s wake. His absence left responsibility for the lab in the hands of Mr. Schmiedekamp, an avian man with a bristling briefcase who, as far I can remember, never actually left the confines of his aquarium-like office, but chose to occasionally peek at the lab though the window.

One of the first things that you learn at an all-boys high school is boundaries. One’s ability to commit a given indiscretion is circumscribed only by what the teachers actually see. Without the distraction of a blossoming opposite sex, this ability defined those four years at La Salle College High School.

As a child who grew up in a nameless Protestant denomination, this was my first insight into the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants; namely that sin, as such, for them was only reified by getting caught. In this particular instance, Mr. Schmiedekamp’s presence created a panoptical structure wherein the computers that were within his sightline were the models of virtue and the others made a Lord of the Flies-like descent into madness and depravity. On a given day, the arrangement might look like this:

Row 1: Visible to any schoolteacher. Reserved for actual, SFW activities such as checking the Sarah Michelle Gellar legal-age countdown timer. (Yes, we were underage also.) Also, actual schoolwork.

Row 2: Close enough to the teacher’s perch that it felt naked, but in reality, was far enough away for a quick Alt-Tab window-switching maneuver. This was where we put our networked PCs to good use—playing first-person shooters.

Row 3: The row of profound stupidity. Chum in shark-infested waters. Where newcomers sat, mistaking the relative distance from authority as an invisibility cloak. Reserved mostly for freshmen.

Row 4: The pit of hell. A proto-4chan. This was /b/. Reserved for crime-scene photography; non-human vaginal intercourse, if I am correct from my single visit to that row; and a public viewing of a sex comic entitled “Jamie Lee Coitus.” I am positive that everyone who sat here is dead or in jail.

La Salle had the added benefit of a T1 line, which we were told was the only of its kind “on the East Coast.” This was one of many “truths” that were shared with me as a freshman. I believed it with the same incredulity that I believed that our sister school “smelled like douche” and that having sex was “like sticking your dick inside of a toaster.”

/ / /

It is 5 p.m. and the back row of the computer lab at La Salle is effervescent. I am sitting in the second-to-last row—not quite willing to commit to the damnation that is the furthest row, but far enough back that I could play games without fear of a wandering parent, in search of their little angel, judging me. I am playing Duke Nukem 3D, the latest iteration of a 2D side-scroller.

There is little to tell about Duke Nukem 3D. This game had almost no semblance of plot. Just guns and a smacking of bubblegum. To my adolescent self, the game achieved its raison d’être in its first scene—establishing that Duke was a badass.

There is a moment where Duke finds himself inscrutably in a strip club. You have a fistful of dollars. An exchange is made and the woman bares herself, rewarding you with a illicit flash adorned with tassels. This was a rare, early encounter with the breast on-screen, which to that point had only been preceded by a fleeting jumble during a particularly arresting sequence in Airplane II involving a metal detector masquerading as X-ray goggles. That particular scene of ham-fisted nudity appalled my mother, who had rented that film (inexplicably rated PG) from the library. “An honest mistake,” she said.

Without the weight of expectation, the embarrassment and thrill of adolescence, the tinge of the illicit, Duke Nukem Forever is nothing.

But here, here, in this place, an all-boys Catholic school, where contact with females was illusory at best, was this partially-clothed woman, offering herself to me. Well, actually, it’s to Duke, and Duke has money and a gun. I have neither.

I was generally terrified of anything dealing with girls, and engaged in I would call a “tactical” (read: cowardly) approach to adolescent sexual development that generally involved hiding and staring at the floor. The idea that women could be friends, partners, or lovers was curious—but that a woman could be objectified? That was completely alien.

And so, I dealt with this alluring, confusing encounter as many boys of my generation did. I fired a rocket into the lurid expanse of that exotic den, killing every woman on-stage.

I was 15 years old.

/ / /

For nearly the last two months, my copy of Duke Nukem Forever, the erstwhile sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, has sat mostly untouched on the edge of my desk. Our editor Ryan has been bugging me about this albatross around my neck, sending me encouraging messages that I am indeed capable (later, obligated) of completing a review of this game, this curse.

There is little I could tell you about Duke Nukem Forever that you do not know. The plot, much like its predecessor’s, is desert-bare. Aliens are kidnapping Earth’s women. You need to get them back.

You also know about the Wait. The Wait is Ahab’s white whale; it is America at Ellis Island; it is the night sky to the Greeks. The Wait is a disgusting amalgam of dreams, memories, hopes, desires, and expectations. In fact, barring all else, this may be the only thing that you know about Duke Nukem.

The 15-year-long story of Duke Nukem Forever is best told by others—specifically, by Clive Thompson, who chronicled the franchise’s seeming demise in a lovely Wired story almost two years ago. After that piece, Gearbox Software wrested the title from the grave and set Duke Nukem Forever on its way towards completion.

In the last 15 years that I, like millions of others, have perched for this game, much has happened. I finished high school. I shipped off to college. I finished college. I got a job. I left a job. I started a business. I got married. I filed for divorce. My friends have children, careers, and 401ks. I am ostensibly an adult now. I can with certainty tell you that having sex with a woman shares no similarities with a toaster.

In 2006, Spin published a false and humorous April Fool’s Day review of the Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy, which had been shuttling toward its second decade of nonexistence at the hands of mercurial frontman Axl Rose. What author Chuck Klosterman reflects on should almost instantly resonate with every Duke Nukem fan—the burden of expectations in the face of surely-disastrous reality.

“There is really only one way for Chinese Democracy to avoid utter and absolute failure: it needs to be the greatest rock album ever made,” he writes. Pause. “Chinese Democracy is not the greatest rock album ever made.”

Like Axl’s despondent fans, we grew up, but the question remained whether this burly, muscle-bound frontman (this is Duke I’m talking about) grew along with us. At this point, you most likely know that Duke Nukem Forever is not the greatest videogame ever made.

/ / /

This game!

I would not say that this review of Duke Nukem Forever is the victim of procrastination. That would imply some type of momentum that started and then stalled. My desire to review Duke Nukem Forever was a stillbirth. From the moment that Ryan and I jokingly decided that I would do the damn thing to the moment weeks later that I actually opened a Word file named “Nukem,” there was not a single bone in my body that actually wanted to write this. I desired to write a DNF review the way that Lee Harvey Oswald wanted to shoot John F. Kennedy, Jr. or the way that Joe Jackson tortured his children into becoming superstars. And as these perpetrators knew, their actions were the culmination of a long line of mistakes that led them to that very precipice. My critical path started by being of age when Duke Nukem 3D arrived. Writing this review was my green mile.

In part, this is because reviewing Duke Nukem Forever is a bit like reviewing your adolescence. You are being asked to tell the drunken, spray-tanned uncle that his moment has passed, or you have caught your high-school teacher sipping margaritas as gargantuan as his loneliness at Applebee’s. Duke is having his Norma Desmond moment. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

There is a tendency to think of modern games as acontextual—to ignore their past. We trick ourselves into ignoring those previous iterations, such as the gap between Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid, because frankly they do not matter so much. This is the future. We are beyond those childish days, and their constraints no longer shackle us.

Duke Nukem Forever is the diametric opposite. It is hard to conceive of its present without the past. Without the weight of expectation, the embarrassment and thrill of adolescence, the tinge of the illicit, Duke Nukem Forever is nothing. And that is exactly where I’ve found myself—staring into the pit of some of the most beguiling feelings I have ever faced as a videogame player.

At the very beginning of the game, you play through an eerily familiar sequence. It is, in fact, an updated version of the final boss battle from Duke Nukem 3D. Inside this videogame in 2011, it’s perhaps meant as nostalgia, but arrives with the same effeteness of a former athlete polishing his youth league trophies. The alien boss is defeated and the camera pulls back only for you to realize that you are Duke playing a former version of his self.  That’s when the twins appear, both of whom seemed to have been comfortably fellating you. Now that they’ve finished, the real game can begin?

(It’s worth noting that, given the vantage point and the position of the girls’ heads, it seems almost impossible that they were servicing the same person. This leads me to advance a “second penis” theory that draws the scene into coherence.)

What am I to make of this? These were the exact characteristics that had drawn me to the series as an adolescent. It was this flirtation with the illicit that dovetailed with my own budding sexual awareness that made Duke Nukem 3D such a profound experience for myself and my peers.

“Does eating more shit give one a more nuanced understanding of the shit that he has eaten or the shit that is to come?”

I had hoped that Duke Nukem Forever would inspire the same juvenile nostalgia that animates Judd Apatow films. But I felt none of that. Only a tinge of sadness every time I was compelled to slog through another 30 minutes of gameplay. Here was poor Duke, that friend from high school you run into years later, stuck in the same routine, begging for my time and my attention.

Herein lies a chief problem and confession that will surely draw the ire of game critics everywhere. I didn’t finish Duke Nukem. Not even close. Four hours max.

There is a defensive side of you that will be instantly inflamed as I write this. To naysayers, I ask: “How much shit does one need to eat to know that it is shit?” And a follow-up: “Does eating more shit give one a more nuanced understanding of the shit that he has eaten or the shit that is to come?” I think you can walk through the rest.

What arose in me was a larger question of why I was “reviewing” this game at all. I am arguing that the moment I signed up for this task I was left with two predestined and disagreeable options:

Give Duke Nukem Forever a high score: There is a bit of latent knee-jerk music criticism still resting in these bones. The type that sees opportunity in tragedy. It would go something like this:

Remember, the interminable wait is not unusual in the world of entertainment. It’s been more than a decade since the last D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill records. There was a 12-year lull for James Cameron between Titanic and Avatar and a seven-year pause between Terrence Malick’s The New World and Tree of Life. There were nine years between Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, and fans of J.D. Salinger waited nearly a half-century (in vain, mind you) for the recluse to reclaim the public pen.

Duke Nukem Forever’s goodness or badness is, in fact, irrelevant. We should just be happy to have the damn thing. This game is about closure. In ending any relationship, particularly the abusive decade-long torment that this game has wrought, the most important thing is walking away. Living well is the best revenge and all that. Duke Nukem Forever is perfect in that it exists. It’s a pyrrhic victory, but a symbolic one.

If you do this, you are an asshole.

Give Duke Nukem Forever a terrible score: This is a race to the bottom as you and every reviewer in the world trudges through the thesaurus, searching desperately for words to describe what has transpired. This is a frantic race to the bottom. Pit. Abyss. Nadir.

So where then does this leave me? Add both these of these unsavory options to the reality that we have a scoring system. This is where things get tricky.

/ / /

Several months back, we published some thoughts on reviews. We described why we were writing them, what we were trying to do, and what we wanted our readers to feel. In particular, we gave a rousing defense of our scoring system that was intended to abide by the letter of normal distribution.

As it turns out, this was bunk.

We learned two things: 1) That people liked our reviews. 2) People were confused by the significance of our scores. All of a sudden this pensiveness we had about our reviews was lifting. We were writing things that were being read and the appearance of math was only clouding the pool.

This is where Duke Nukem Forever comes in. A numerical score could not possibly do this game justice. The weight of expectation (or expectoration AMIRITE) was simply too heavy to begin to distill into a simple number.

One could argue that this chasm between the maximum good and maximum terrible isn’t at odds with the nature of criticism. This struggle to choose a direction and learn more about my values and my critical stance is kind of the point of writing a “review” to begin with. The problem arises now that I must assign a number to this conflict that has plagued me for weeks. It has nothing to do with being a critic and presents the task of writing as reductive, number-out-of-the-hat act.

So in an act equivalent to firing a rocket into those hapless strippers, Duke Nukem Forever will not be recieving a score. In fact, from this moment on, no game on Kill Screen will receive a score.

We didn’t think it would be possible for a single terrible game to change our entire scoring system. Congratulations, Duke, you’ve broken us.

Illustration by Daniel Purvis