RARELY WILL YOU see a manufactured hero in a first‑person shooter. The genre traditionally chooses not to breathe character and personality into its heroes precisely because it is designed to cast you firmly inside those boots. Many would argue that having a boisterous protagonist would smash the delicate scales of immersion upon which the genre rests. After all, in the worlds of Doom and Quake, two of the biggest FPS games to ever grace PC screens, there was little in the way of narrative or a focal hero tying events together, and if there was, such as Wolfenstein 3D’s American GI, William ‘BF Blazkowicz, they rarely muttered a word during their whole sorry ordeal, other than the occasional grunt to demonstrate their displeasure at being shot at. First-person shooters, at least in these early days, were nothing more than an avatar that you couldn’t see.
MUM IN 1996 THOUGH, a seismic shift occurred. One that changed the way developers looked at the genre. The world saw a new kind of FPS – one that immersed the player in worlds primed with all manner of interactivity, rather than claustrophobic corridors, and starred a steroid-chomping muscle-bound hero who sprayed quips as quick as bullets. Moreover, the game was a brilliant parody of the genre it existed in. Duke was a machismo videogame hero, the likes of which no one had ever quite seen before. He was a one-man army with more muscles than brain cells. And the irony was that the success of the series rested firmly on his shoulders. Had 3D Realms opted to go down the safer option and cast us in the driving seat, we suspect the game would’ve been swallowed up by the 3D models of Quake and Unreal quicker than you could say ‘shake it, baby’.
While most people remember Duke for his first 3D outing on the PC, Duke Nukem actually started life in a 1991 2D platform shooter by Apogee Software (the shareware company that helped push Wolfenstein 3D and Doom out to the masses in id’s fledgling days). Originally, Duke wasn’t as arrogant as he was in his 3D days. He didn’t wear his iconic shades, he looked a bit like Flash Gordon, and his actions were far less irreverent. Also, due to some early copyright befuddlement – Apogee thought the name Duke Nukem had already been trademarked – Duke was originally christened ‘Duke Nukum’ before it was changed in Duke Nukem II. When 3D Realms, an arm of Apogee Software, saw the plaudits being picked up by Doom and Quake, they sought to use their experience within the FPS genre to release a new type of dota 2 heroes guide game onto the market, and dusted off Duke to play the hero because ‘the name rhymed and nuking things sounded cool’, or so the story goes.
For Duke’s first 3D foray, the decision was made late in the game’s development to ply it with excess, and irreverent humor. Duke’s persona was influenced by two iconic stars of the big screen: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. His physical appearance, however, was more akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dolph Lundgren. It was Nukem’s repertoire of audible quips and catchphrases that best showed his wide range of cinematic influences and became the most effective way to express his characteristics in the absence of an in-game visual presence. Memorable lines like “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum and I’m all outta gum” (taken from They Live) or “Hail to the king, baby” (Army Of Darkness) drew on a rich history of cult action heroes and established Duke among the ranks of B-movie greats like Rowdy Roddy Piper and Bruce Campbell.
Over the years, Duke’s immeasurable ego and popularity has seen him appear in over 18 games and expansion packs. But despite the many console side projects and add-ons, fans are still waiting patiently for the official follow-up to Duke Nukem 3D. The aptly titled Duke Nukem Forever may never actually be released, after 12 years in development hell. Several teaser trailers have led us to expect an even more tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the muscle-bound Eighties action hero, and lord knows we need one. In 2009 it seems the FPS hero falls into either the generic ‘Doom guy’ mould or the more realistic but less fun template set out by Gordon Freeman. Such characters have their place of course, but in a genre that is first and foremost about shooting everything in sight, we sometimes yearn for a man who’s simply prepared to “make those alien bastards pay”.