The original Duke Nukem was released by Apogee Software back in 1991 in a digital world far removed from the one we inhabit today. There was no Playstation 3 or Xbox Live; the game was distributed via Apogee's highly successful shareware model which saw their titles being split into three "episodes" — the first was available for free, but if you wanted the complete game you had to send off a mail order that had you waiting with baited breath for a set of 3 1/2-inch floppy disks. The game was available only on MS-DOS, an operating system that anyone born later than the mid-90s is unlikely to even have experienced.
Most of Apogee's titles weren't known for their innovative stories and plot lines, but the Duke Nukem franchise became popular for its crass humour, incorrigible sexism and general juvenility. This was pushed to new heights with the release of Duke Nukem 3D that was at the epicentre of so many controversies that saw it being banned in Brazil, refused classification in Australia and added to Germany's "List of Media Harmful to Young People."
A brazen disrespect for women has certainly trailed the series since the original game, but up until Duke Nukem 3D it managed to walk the line between "politically incorrect" and outrightly offensive — 3D had you gunning through porno stores and strip clubs in pursuit of women's breasts. Pixel nudity ran rampant as did naughty language and offensive jokes. Video games were seen as the domain of adolescent males and those living in their parents' basements (while the latter is still sometimes thrown around as a pejorative, back in 1996 it was the general stereotype for anyone who expressed an interest in gaming) so this sort of toilet humour wasn't just accepted, but targeted. One did not buy a Nintendo 64 expecting Requiem for a Dream, after all.
That's not to say that 3D did not upset people; it did, in spades, but that upset came from media watchdogs and feminist groups whose complaints about the title were dismissed by fans and gaming journalists as "not getting it," or simply pushing outdated political correctness.
Fast forward to 2011, and there's a very curious difference around its very-late sequel. Following fourteen years of development hell that saw Duke Nukem Forever branded the textbook definition of vaporware, Gearbox Software has picked up the discarded carcass of the franchise and released a title whose entrance has been greeted with anything but critical acclaim.
While the majority of gaming reviews have dismissed Forever as a failure over issues like outdated gameplay mechanics and a visual aesthetic that makes it clear development originally started back in the 90s, a surprising number of complaints have been directed at the game's sense of humour.
The first glimmers of something unsettling became obvious when details of Forever's multiplayer mode were leaked. Scans from the Official Xbox Magazine made their way to the internet in March, revealing that Forever would have, among other modes, a "capture the flag" variant that replaced the team objective with a "babe" who would be slung over Duke's shoulder caveman style when captured. Adding to this, the "babe" would sometimes "freak out" when caught, requiring a smack on the ass to shut her up. A PAX East 2011 trailer revealed a suggestive video depicting vibrating sex toys and "lesbian schoolgirls" who begin making out in front of the player.
While this sort of nonsense has been a trademark of the series from the beginning (though to be fair, the original MS-DOS games were more satire on action movie heroes than sexed-up misogynists) Forever's critical response would begin to suggest that people are increasingly growing tired of it.
At its heart, Forever is a first person shooter that basks in its own heritage, more interested in reminding the player of how awesome Duke is — and by extension, the series itself — rather than providing any new reason to think so. "I'm amazing because I think I am" is the motto of 2011's Duke, and Gearbox's implementation seems more interested in being offensive for the sake of it than for any sense of funny. President Randy Pitchford made it clear in February that the title was a "satire," but at no point is it clear what it's supposed to be satirising. If it's the Duke's ego and overcompensating machoism, why does the game consistently reward you for the most banal things? It's almost as if Pitchford believes that something only needs to be offensive in order to be satirical.
Ars Technica's review of the game could best be summed up as eviscerating:
In the first few moments of Duke Nukem Forever, your character pees in a urinal and then earns an achievement for reaching into a toilet and extracting a piece of human excrement. Why does the game reward you for doing this? I have no idea. It's not part of a joke or important to the story; the designers of the game apparently feel that you the player would miss out by not holding some poo in your virtual hand.
There's a feeling among some fans of Duke Nukem that anyone who dares to give a bad review to a Duke title simply doesn't understand what the game is trying to do. We need to relax, goes the argument, relax enough to laugh at the rampant misogyny and hateful stereotypes on display throughout the game. If a review suggests that it's not funny simply to hear someone use dirty words, that's the reviewer's failing, not an issue with the game. Any hint that constant jokes about penis size aren't the height of comedy? The reviewer must not have a sense of humor.
The fans are wrong. One can laugh at jokes about men and women, and there's nothing wrong with being risque, but Duke is thoughtless, backwards, and belligerent. Duke Nukem Forever is the kind of game where you find a pack of cigarettes whose cover shows a mustached man wearing leather — and they're called "Faggs." At some point, matters of personal taste become simple questions of basic decency.
While a lot of his complaints are about how it looks and plays, Ben Kuchera's review echoes comments found in Kotaku and Destructoid's take on the game: this isn't funny, and I feel gross playing it. In an examination of a level that has female characters being essentially raped by giant alien penises, Jim Sterling (whose past video game commentary ranges inconsistently around the same sort of juvenile humour I'd expect him to be right at home with in Forever) even feels the need to say that Gearbox went too far:
That's the big joke of the level. The aliens are raping the women to create babies. Now, I'm a fan of offensive humor, but the "joke" in this level is so morbidly presented, so dark and downright unsettling, that I simply do not know if Gearbox intends for us to laugh or to throw up. I certainly found I was in danger of doing the latter over the former.
By the time Duke Nukem finally makes a "You're fucked," joke, which he makes in front of two girls who are about to die in the process of getting sexually assaulted, Duke does not come across as cool, witty or likable in the least. He comes across as a vile, callous, thoroughly detestable psychopath.
There are certainly those who want to defend it, with one commenter on Kotaku attempting to compare the need for alien rape jokes with what our fore-fathers fought for at the dawn of America, but overall the sentiment from the gaming press is that more than just an ugly looking video game, Duke Nukem Forever is just lame.
A lot of attention has been paid lately to the need for video games to "grow up." Roger Ebert recently drew the internet's ire by suggesting that the medium was inherently inferior to movies and literature and would never be "art," prompting a host of attempted defences demonstrating just that. Games developers have increasingly paid more attention to the fact that their sales demographics are no longer adolescent heterosexual males and fratboys, going so far as to include gay characters or females who are of more value to the game than just their bust size.
Had it been released back in 1997/1998 as originally planned, I have no doubt that the crass sexism and misogyny wouldn't have caused much of a stir — certainly the same advocacy groups would have complained, and various governments would have wagged their fingers as they typically do, but the general gaming community likely would have dismissed their complaints as they did with the release of 3D. The fact that the game's own fans are looking at it with feelings of uncleanliness actually says more for how gaming as a medium for storytelling and entertainment has evolved than anything else: when there have been so many examples of games that push the boundary for innovation, plot, humour and, yes, irreverent offensiveness, a game whose basic joke seems to be scat and "Look at me, I'm awesome," doesn't do much to impress. While Pitchford insists (and is probably correct in doing so) that the negative reviews won't impact sales, he seems to think that Forever is a fitting conclusion to the franchise's long and strange history — if the response from the gaming press and its own fans are any indication, though, perhaps it's the conclusion to a piece of history that gamers have simply gotten too old for.