Playing Sophisticated Trash: ‘Duke Nukem 3D’ and the History of the First Person Shooter

Trashy gameplay calls for trashy presentation, and sophisticated gameplay calls for sophisticated presentation. However, Duke Nukem 3D is a game that is constantly in tension between these two principles.

Rain is wet. Puppies are cute. Pizza is good. Duke Nukem is sexist.

That’s kind of the point of the game.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about 1996 and the arrival of Duke Nukem 3D.

Wolfenstein 3D began popping up on computer screens in 1992. It’s a pretty important game, setting, as it did, the groundwork for the centrality of the first-person shooter to the American gaming market for the whole decade and well past the turn of the millenium. Ultra fast movement speed coupled with this shooting perspective would make it and 1993’s Doom incredibly popular video gaming experiences and oft imitated ones for years to come.

As far as the aesthetics of both games go, in terms of their mood, their themes, and their presentation, both Wolfenstein and Doom owe more than a little of their approach to the influence of B-movies and exploitation cinema.

Wolfenstein is a silly — but violent — game about gunning down Nazis. It is chock full of occult imagery and even includes a final boss battle with Hitler, well, maybe “mecha-Hitler” is a better description of this over-the-top homage to over-the-top grindhouse cinema.

Like Wolfenstein, Doom would up the ante of violence and twisted and creepy monstrosities with a slap dash plot about an alien invasion from hell and a one many army tasked with defeating extraterrestrial hellspawn. Pure drive-in movie drivel served as a motivating force for a game that was simply an excuse to allow you to splatter ugly monster goo all over your screen while moving really, really fast.

These games seemed to recognize the inherent quality of the pleasure derived from the sheer velocity of John Carmack’s and John Romero’s “the faster, the better” game design philosophy. Playing these games is like riding rollercoasters, sheer visceral experiences, and they chose spectacle over substance as the narrative vehicle that would propel these games forward at this alarming velocity. Banal thrills matched banal thrills in both gameplay and tone in both games. These games share a consistent attitude about what the player is going to do in the game and what kind of world that play would occur in. Trashy gameplay called for trashy presentation, and both games revel in the guilty pleasure of thoroughly enjoying what is deemed “trash” in modern media culture and by “serious” critics.

Fast forward to the end of the decade and the beginning of the next century and the FPS had become an institution in PC gaming. Titles like Half-Life (1998), No One Lives Forever (2000), and Half-Life 2 (2004) still retained many of the basic components of the gameplay established by id Software in Wolfenstein and Doom, right alongside the sometimes grotesque, sometimes cartoonish, and the never-to-be-taken-too-seriously aesthetics of those other games. However, gameplay and narrative along with level design and the ability to spoof and satirize had all grown much more refined in this style of game.

If Wolfenstein, Doom, and Doom II were gaming at its rawest, games in the Half-Life series or the No One Lives Forever series had clearly been put in the oven to bake for awhile, resulting in a more thoroughly cooked and, thus, a more sophisticated dish for gamers to consume. These games still reveled often in spectacle and often in speed, but they also began refining and complicating the experience of shooting from a first person perspective with clever variations on gameplay, level design, and the overall organization of their game worlds.

In between these two raw and cooked visions of the FPS came, of course, Duke Nukem 3D.

Returning to 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D is a strange affair, the game oozes both sophistication and trashiness. But in the aforementioned context, this experience makes sense. It is somewhere between reveling in the visceral and “trashy” style of id Software and beginning to experiment with the kinds of gameplay variation and level design that would make later FPSes slightly less basic affairs.

Duke Nukem 3D knows what it is and knows what it wants to be. In part, it is the same B-movie and exploitation schmaltz of Carmack and Romero’s games. It is also a send up of 80s action films and all of the blustering machismo associated with them. It’s all so very Stallone and so very Schwarzenegger and the many properties that these two actors are associated with.

It sees itself, both in its plot and its gameplay, as defined by testosterone and male aggression ratcheted up to 11, all for the sake of absurdity and for the sake of the spoof. Duke cribs lines from farcical action-horror-exploitation hero, Ash of the Evil Dead series (“Hail to the king, baby!”), alongside references to the more macho moments in Pulp Fiction (“We’re gonna get medieval on his ass!”). He lives and dies for “chicks” (“No one steals our chicks and lives!”) and seems to be saving the world for the sake of preserving American culture in the form of porn shops and stripper poles.

While blowing out the crassness and exploitative materials to even more absurd proportions than Wolfenstein and Doom ever did, though, Duke Nukem 3D also creates a weird tension between this commitment to the pleasures of consuming trash media and a clearly more sophisticated approach to the game genre practically invented over at id Software.

For all of its bombast and blatantly offensive provocations, there are all of these little subtleties in the design of the game’s systems and levels that are largely absent from games of this type in the early and mid-90s. There is a moment in the very first level of the game that typifies this idea to me.

You have been clearing rooms of “alien scum” in an adult cinema for the past couple of minutes when you enter a hallway leading to a bathroom. As you are about to enter the bathroom itself, you can see what seems to be just around the corner of the wall that is facing you: a couple of aliens lurking just in front of the bathroom stalls. In order to get around the corner to take a shot at one of the aliens, you have to enter the room itself, and you, of course, do so, while facing where you think the threat is located. As you take your first shot and see the enemy fail to respond to your shotgun blast and instead begin firing at you quite unfazed, you realize that you are looking in a mirror that runs from the floor to the ceiling. The bad guys are behind you, and your back is completely exposed to them now.

It’s a clever moment. The game manipulates your perspective on a room to make you vulnerable and also takes advantage of your expectations of how monsters typically appear in the game. You may have seen some things like this is modern games. However, there is nothing like this in games like Wolfenstein or Doom.

And the game persists in experimenting with the form and with level design. Instead of clearing rooms in the endless interiors of corridors and rooms upon rooms of Wolfenstein or Doom, Duke Nukem‘s earliest levels take place on a city street. Duke has to go from building to building, clearing one location, returning to the street, before clearing another distinct location, and all in the same level. Again, this is nothing like Wolfenstein in which you might clear, say, a floor of a single building in one level. Frankly, you will be in one building that all looks largely similar for the whole of the game anyway. Instead, Duke Nukem 3D bothers to imply a world surrounding the levels that Duke clears. Indeed, Duke traverses that world and stops to explore discrete parts of it before moving on.

Additionally, the game takes the find-a-keycard-to-open-the-next-area “puzzle” gameplay of the FPS rather seriously, you know, like this excuse to unlock gated areas of a level could in fact really be a kind of puzzle to solve. There are often more complicated things that one has to do in Duke Nukem 3D beyond merely backtracking in a level in order to locate that blue keycard that opens that blue door. You might have to figure out how to set off a stockpile of demolitions to bring an inaccessible building down that holds the keycard that you need. It will be located in the rubble. You might need to set off an earthquake at the San Andreas fault in order for paths that you have trod before to sink into the ground, opening up new avenues to explore on the same level, a level that has now transformed into a new space altogether.

Indeed, that’s a major thing that sets Duke apart from his counterparts in Wolfenstein and Doom. Duke can make changes in the environment, and levels overall are not laid out in a static manner. The levels in the game can actually change as a result of Duke’s actions in them, and these changes lead to more engaging levels and more engaged thought in how to proceed with your mission.

Realizing that things like this can be done to advance game progress and plot progression would lead to more complicated concepts in level design in games like Half-Life. The initial staging of the first level of Helf-Life, in which you “tour the facilities” before events in the level go seriously wrong and you have to fight your way desperately back through what seemed like a safe environment before, is a perfect example of this realization that the developers of Duke Nukem 3D had about how a level could alter around the player and how that might change what had been a fairly static experience into a much more dynamic one and a much more dramatic one.

Duke may not be a sophisticated guy, but the game that he is in is a bit more sophisticated than his repetitive and sophomoric observations let on, which is why it shouldn’t merely be dismissed as an ugly artifact of a less progressive period of gaming. Certainly, the game is fully aware of itself as a ludicrous form of exploitation media. It is a spoof, and that should be clear to anyone that spends more than five minutes with the thing. It’s stupid, and it knows it.

However, absolving the Duke Nukem brand of its sins really isn’t a necessary condition of understanding the importance of this game to the overall history of the FPS. Even more generally, though, Duke Nukem 3D really is a rather helpful way of understanding the changes an important genre went through and that transformation’s place in the overall history of video games. If one wants to understand the evolution of video games broadly, well, this particular outing of Duke’s really does shed some light on one of its adaptations. It is a game that both the video game historian and the video game critic will find useful in understanding the medium.

Duke Nukem 3D is a bridge between the origins of the basic form of the FPS and what the modern FPS became and is becoming. It is a bridge between raw and cooked, between trashy design and a level of sophistication in design.

So what can I say? Hail to the king, baby.