Hail to the King, Baby! An Analysis of “Duke Nukem 3D”

“No one steals our chicks and lives,” Duke Nukem boldly claims.

Duke Nukem 3D” is the third game in the “Duke Nukem” series, being the first FPS (first person shooter) in the franchise. Originally released in 1996 by 3D Realms, the game was released on PC but later would be ported to many consoles.  The game has become a classic FPS known for it’s satire and humor. The game follows the titular hero collecting items and weapons, and fighting his way to save the world from alien invasion. Players traverse levels looking for weapons and ammo, keycards to unlock doors and clearing enemies.

Reviews praised the game for it’s interactive environments, gameplay and over-the-top parody humor. On the flip side, the game’s portrayal of women and it’s violent nature incited controversy. Critics attacked the game for violence, gore and sexual themes. The game stirred controversy, alleging that the game promoted pornography and murder.  For this analysis, I decided to take on “Duke Nukem 3D.” “Duke Nukem 3D’s” controversial elements like extreme violence and sexual content are used to parody stereotypes and tropes.

Methodology: I played the original version of “Duke Nukem 3D” on the computer; the original only having three “episodes.” I had only played the game a little bit and had heard about the game before this analysis, so I decided to play through more levels. Since the game consists of shooting enemies and making your way through the level to get to the next, I didn’t complete the game (primarily because of time). I played through episode one “L.A. Meltdown,” and a bit of episode two “Lunar Apocalypse,” to get a good understanding of the game then I had previously.

download.jpgThe gameplay is very similar to other FPSs from the time like “Doom.” The HUD (heads up display) is like like “Doom,” showing the user’s ammo, health, armor status, etc. The mechanics of the game are like all FPSs from that time. Players can run and look 180 degrees around, jump and crawl through air ducts. Duke has an arsenal of weapons from the “mighty foot” (a basic kick) to shotguns to a rocket launcher. The enemies of the game are usually aliens and other mutated humans; they are so distorted that they don’t appear human.

Players can use a variety of weapons, acquiring items like ammo, health and armor. Some items like protective boots or scuba gear allow the player to traverse toxic or underwater terrain. The jet pack allows the player to have a further vertical reach, accessing areas otherwise inaccessible. The game’s environments are extremely interactive. You can turn lights on, break things, blow stuff up, and controversially interact with strippers by tipping them.

Analysis:

The game takes place in the “early 21st century” in an urban dsytopian landscape, with indoor and outdoor environments.  There is little story, with Duke returning to Earth in his space cruiser hoping to vacation L.A. Upon arrival, his ship is shot down, he learns that aliens are attacking L.A. and vows to stop the alien invasion.

The game is rife with off-the-wall humor, references and parodies. The cover of the game is a direct parody of “Army of Darkness.” One common enemy are the “Pig Cops.” Playing on the slang term for police officers, the LAPD have been turned into these creatures with “LARD” on their uniforms. Some of Duke’s lines come from movies like “Alien,” “Dirty Harry,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Pulp Fiction.” Famous characters like Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones and even the protagonist of “Doom” can be found as corpses in the game. The Monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” 867-5309 on a bathroom wall and a secret tunnel behind a poster are some more references.

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One of the typical pig enemies, as well the player’s HUD

The game’s ESRB rating is “mature” for blood and gore, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language use of drugs and violence.  Scott Miller, founder of 3D Realms, would later state in this interview that 3D Realms saw very little negative feedback from gamers or their parents. He stated that the game was appropriately rated “M” for mature and had no real nudity; speculating that that was enough to make it not offensive to the public.

Like most FPS’s, the game has violence; which is a controversial subject that is often linked with aggression and violence. As an avid video game player, especially of shooters, my view on violence may be skewed slightly. Since the game is about stopping an alien invasion, and the enemies are so far from humans I believe that the use of violence is appropriate. Based on the plot, the references and elements in game, “Duke Nukem 3D” is trying to go over the top; violence to the most extreme. The things Duke can do, and the weapons he possesses are over-the-top and typical of an action movie.  In other controversial games, like the “Grand Theft Auto” series, your “enemy” is human. The pixelated graphics of the original game alongside the non-human enemies give the game a more cartoony feel.

An interesting note is that there are ways for the player to avoid violence. Obviously, players could just run around enemies but risk damage. There are air ducts, sewers and other methods to avoid conflict to reach the final boss of an episode. Most players, like myself, don’t choose to play like this. I did discover these areas to get around, but I thought they would lead me secrets in the game.

Another issue was the use of sexual content. There were levels like an adult pornography store, a red light district and a strip club in the game. Women were often wearing revealing clothing and had no real purpose other than being an object of desire for Duke. Posters and magazines of scantily clad women could be found in the game. Controversially, Duke could interact with women in two different ways in this game. One is with the strippers in one part by giving them a tip and they reveal their breasts. The other, more extreme option, was he could kill any woman. There is no reward for killing women, expect in one case. I didn’t know about this in my play through, but I’ve seen that if you kill one woman, you gain access to a powerful weapon. As punishment, it spawns more enemies; though with the weapon you could easily kill them. I think the addition of killing women, especially when there’s no reward or purpose for the story, is unnecessary.

One reviewer for GameSpot found that the sexual content was “morally questionable,” while another review found that it was done in a “tongue-in-cheek manner.”  Both sides of review have points. Since “Duke Nukem 3D’s” plot is so amped up, it’s trying to be sleazy with the porno magazines, porn movie posters and strippers. Personally, I don’t think the use of strippers was necessary. Considering everyone else is mutated/captured/being attacked by the aliens, how did these few strippers survive? Why are they dancing in the middle of an apocalypse? It’s a nice gesture that we can tip them, and they chose to reveal their breasts, but I feel like the whole thing could have just been left out. The pornography is more “tongue in cheek,” adding to this sleazy urban environment.

The game is said to overly sexist in it’s treatment of women. Among his other ridiculous lines, Duke tells strippers to, “shake it baby” as he tips them and they reveal their covered breasts.  After defeating the aliens in the end, Duke promises he’ll be back with more action after some R&R and an anonymous woman calls him back to bed. I find that these lines are so silly and cheesy, that it plays up the tacky action movie macho man stereotype.

In the game itself, it is revealed that the plot to capture women was ruse for Duke so that the aliens could destroy Earth. The purpose of the women are objects of desire, specifically used by the aliens as a distraction.  This plot device, though slightly sexist because the women are just objects for Duke, is acceptable. If the women were not all scantily clad, then I think the game would have been better.  The sleazy dark dystopian environment, combined with the direct references and parodies of tropes, helps provide context for the controversial elements.

Comparisons:

First Person Shooters have often been the target of controversy, especially in regards to violence. In the 1990s, two other games that along with “Duke Nukem 3D” popularized FPSs and received criticism were “Doom” and “Wolfenstein 3D.”

“Doom” was released in 1991. This is another game series that like “Duke Nukem 3D,” I only played a bit and has stirred a lot of controversy. “Doom” was one of the most popular FPS games, putting FPSs as a commercial success.  The game features blood and gore, with shotguns and chainsaws. There are alleged satanic references.  There was even a connection the 1999 Columbine High School Tragedy, with the shooters being avid “Doom” players.

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A screenshot of the original “Doom”

“Wolfenstein 3D” is also another similar FPS from 1992. In this game, an American spy fights off the Nazi regime and ultimately fights off a robotic Hitler. Like “Duke Nukem 3D” and “Doom,” “Wolfenstein 3D” has similar graphics, mechanics and HUD. The controversy over this game was the use of Nazi imagery and violence.

Both these games are on par with “Duke Nukem 3D.” All three use violence and their own elements to define a unique story: “Duke Nukem 3D’s” sleaziness and extremity, “Doom’s” darkness and gore, and “Wolfenstein 3D’s” Nazi imagery.

Conclusion:

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Coverart featuring the hyper-masculine action man Duke

For a mature audience, the audience intended for this game, “Duke Nukem 3D” is a fun FPS that can make you laugh with how over-the-top it is. Although the women are highly sexualized and violence is encouraged, I believe that a gamer can appreciate this game based on two things. 1) If they understand the world and environment of the story and 2) if they are aware of the problematic elements.

The sexualization and violence are just over-the-top parodies of action and sci-fi tropes. The game was intended to violent, sleazy and full of off-the-wall moments. Duke himself is lampooning the “macho man” action hero stereotype, the enemies are ridiculous aliens, there are references and satire throughout and the weapons are extreme, sometimes ridiculous. The women are highly sexualized and they have no purpose but to play on the vixen trope in action and sci-fi movies. This can be slightly problematic, the game is not perfect and without a little controversy.  To a less media literate player, or to a younger player, these would be offensive and controversial.  Looking at the game as whole, a game that purposefully pushes satire, there is purpose to some of the controversial elements.

 

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