October 24, 2015

Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

developed by 3D Realms (Dallas, TX)
concept by Todd Replogle and Allen H. Blum III
produced by George Broussard and Greg Malone
map design by Allen H. Blum III and Richard Gray

Games from the pre-Youtube era were much less likely to have trailers, but someone seems to have dug up this authentic quasi-trailer from 1996. I’m guessing this was made to be edited into in-store video loops. (If you feel like this is a little too fuzzy and vintage to give a clear impression of the game, here’s the trailer GOG cut together in 2009.)


6/12/12 — bought L.A. Noire (2011) on $4.99 sale and subsequently played to completion. Review: satisfying, because of the appealing concept and lavish production, despite obvious shortcomings in the gameplay and the plotting.

8/18/12 — bought Alan Wake (2010) on $7.49 sale and subsequently played to completion. Review: unsatisfying, because of obvious shortcomings in the gameplay and the plotting, despite the appealing concept and lavish production.

10/31/12 — bought Bioshock (2007) on $4.99 sale. Haven’t yet played, and still can’t play it for the moment because it requires a 3D graphics card, and of the two computers in my household that fit the bill, one is broken and the other is currently on a tour of the US. Stay tuned.

11/19/12 — bought access to the Double Fine “Amnesia Fortnight 2012” documentary, which did ultimately include 8 game prototypes, several of which I looked at and some of which I didn’t. But I’m not going to write about them here; they’re very much just prototypes, and from an audience perspective are more like interactive supplements to the documentary than vice versa.

11/23/12 — bought Portal 2 (2011) on $4.99 sale. Again, holding off until I have access to a 3D-capable computer.

11/26/12 — bought Ben There, Dan That! (2008) / Time Gentlemen, Please! (2009) on $0.99 sale and quickly played them to completion. This is a pair of dinky, proudly amateurish comedy adventure games that had a reputation for being actually funny. Sure, they were mildly funny, in their nervous British geek way. $0.99.

Also 11/26/12 — bought Puzzle Dimension (2010) on $0.99 sale. About a year later played it to completion with pleasure. I love puzzle games but I’m not a sucker for bad ones; they need to be pretty good to keep my enthusiasm up. This one had a very well-graded difficulty slope and offered an acceptable trance space in which to cogitate. The puzzle designs hit that paradoxical sweet spot of seeming to be cosmic and impersonal yet also witty and communicative. More on this theme someday.

12/13/12 — GOG gives away Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition for free to all comers. I click “okay.” So here we are.

It turns out that it doesn’t much matter what games are about or what they contain. The medium is the message; the form is the real meaning.

Duke Nukem 3D is a “badass” game for repressed 14-year-olds, with a glut of “ha ha naughty” content like ha ha naked babes and a ha ha porn shop and ha ha toilets where if you press the use key, Duke Nukem will ha ha pee. And yet it hardly matters, because this is one of those games of architecture-as-drama, of traversing imagineered three-dimensional space, and that’s simply too powerful an experience to resist in the name of some flimsy principle like “taste.” Mere taste is no match for the primal power of discovering a secret panel that opens onto a staircase that descends to a flickery underground tunnel that caves in as you run through it toward a narrow opening onto a vast chamber glowing red from below…

First-person shooters are made of such primal stuff, skinned with one or another silly rationale. I said that Half-Life was strong because it “was what it was” — i.e. the skin accorded well with the deeper essence. Duke Nukem 3D, which predates Half-Life by a couple of years and anticipates it in many ways big and small, is just the opposite: the skin has just about nothing to do with what’s going on spiritually. To my surprise, that ends up meaning that I’m able to enjoy it almost as much. To me this was almost exactly the same game experience as it would have been if it were called “Dora the Explorer 3D” and all the bad guys were Koosh balls (with angry eyebrows). Yes, I suppose it’s not totally clear why Dora the Explorer would be destroying the nuclear reactor of a space station… but frankly it wasn’t all that clear why Duke Nukem was either. I guess to stop an alien invasion?

Duke Nukem is ha ha “offensive,” but I just couldn’t find it in me to care one way or the other. There’s a vast difference between being offensive, in the sense of making people feel hurt and alienated, and being “offensive,” in the sense of displaying conventional signifiers of transgression (e.g. a stripper who will flash her tasseled breasts when Duke Nukem throws money at her). Is anyone actually offended by such things, by the things themselves? I think it’s rather that some people feel obscurely menaced by the fact that we live in a world where people such as the authors exist, who are inclined to a posture of willful transgression; i.e. the fact that the stripper is deliberately “offensive” is the only thing that’s actually potentially distressing about it. And I’m not sure “offended” is the right word for that feeling.

In any case I mostly found myself naturally disregarding all that. By contrast, the obsessive emulation of the specific morbidity of Alien once again befuddles me. A lot of fleshy growths and half-mutated humans murmuring “kill me.” I found the sour taste of that kind of stuff harder to block out, since it seemed more sincere, less calculated, than the scatological and pornographic stuff. I feel different degrees of comfort with different hangups; I trust people who are anxious about sex more than I trust people who are anxious about mercy-killing.

I should note that generally I found this game quite scary. Suddenly hearing a “brraaaagh” sound and turning to see that a floating red-eyed demon-alien-head-thing has materialized right behind me has given me quite a few bursts of adrenal shock. The more rudimentary the materials, the higher the stakes when one becomes immersed in them. Taking these doubtful planes and wobbly vertices to be my world means opening myself to almost infinite risk. It’s like when Bob Hoskins goes to Toontown: the less grounded your reality, the more likely that you are about to lose it all at any moment. Physical fantasy is a kind of mortal peril. This is why I was much more acutely on edge playing a romp like Duke Nukem 3D than playing a horror game like Amnesia, which for all its haunted housery nonetheless takes place in a sturdy spatial reality.

The important thing to be said about this game is: these are good levels. They are unpredictable, balanced, varied, full of goodies and gimmicks, tension, atmosphere, and dramatic reveals. All of which runs deep down into the psyche, into that dreaming part of the mind where all spatial experience goes. The credit “map design” here corresponds to the role of “writer”; in this genre, architecture is the text.

It is an unending source of aesthetic astonishment to me that such intensely meaningful stuff can be dished out so cheaply and unprepossessingly. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space discusses these kinds of imagined spatial experiences with a suitable sense of their profound resonance, but what he doesn’t get across is how immune they are to questions of class, and of quantity. Bachelard’s examples are all from works of relative taste and distinction; he makes it seem like these deep dream-images are somehow allied to the high and the fine and the rare. Not so! All his psycho-philosophical musing holds equally true for tacky 3D games with dime-a-dozen levels cranked out by dudes like these. (That’s a photo of the Duke Nukem 3D team the night before its release.)

On the one hand, I am stirred: we all can dream richly, and pass those dreams one to another; yes, even those dudes in the photo are part of the spiritual life of the human race. I am connected; I am not alone.

On the other hand, I feel a kind of vertigo of overabundance: if even something as overtly benighted as Duke Nukem 3D can put me in touch with my Jungian roots, is anything really better than anything else? If all experience is equally valuable, how am I ever to know where to go and what to do with my time on earth? And if even those dudes in that photo are the sources of such deep stuff, what can I possibly contribute that will matter?

Sure, I have good answers to that vertigo (to wit: “these questions are just an attempt to give rational form the irrational vertigo, which will pass on its own, so they don’t need answering”) but I’m still highly susceptible to it.

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