If hyper-machismo and tongue-in-cheek humor have a name, it must be Duke Nukem.
A blond, muscle-bound, cigar-chomping amalgam of every '80s action hero cliché, Duke was part Schwarzenegger, part Kurt Russell, all hero. Starting as the protagonist of a modest 2D-scrolling shooter/platformer game, Duke made a brilliant transition to 3D in 1996. But the creation of the follow-up, Duke Nukem Forever, became a Byzantine nightmare of video game development hell, as mastermind designer George Broussard struggled to keep pace with the rapidly advancing first-person shooter (FPS) genre. Duke Nukem Forever's development stretched on for more than a decade, until the game's very name became a running joke among gaming fans.
How did it all start? Let's set the clock back to the mid-1990s, when a brand-new video game genre had burst upon the scene, turning unkempt, nerdy coders into overnight millionaires.
As 1996 dawned, video games had moved firmly into the third dimension. Id Software's seminal first-person shooter (FPS) Doom - which had made its lead developers, John Carmack and John Romero, wealthy men and minor celebrities - was more than 2 years old. In that time, numerous knockoffs and copycats had been spawned, most of them with a gritty, humorless style and a taciturn protagonist lacking any personality. Though some of these post-Doom titles were respectable games, none came close to topping the excitement around Doom itself. Its highly anticipated follow-up, Quake, seemed poised for uncontested dominance of the genre.
Enter Duke Nukem 3D. Launching in January 1996, the game took the Doom formula to a new level. It wasn't just the humorous protagonist; Duke's world felt more alive than anything that had come before. More objects could be interacted with, and the weapon design was more creative. With Duke, the genre had arguably taken its first real step forward since Doom. What's more, the first chink in id Software's armor became apparent.
Most FPS protagonists at the time didn't say much. This was partly because audio used up valuable memory and hardware space, but also because the genre focused on total identification between player and avatar, which voiced dialogue could undermine. (Even years later, in Half-Life 2, the stubborn muteness of protagonist Gordon Freeman became a subject of ridicule.)
Duke Nukem 3D didn't care about any of that. The game is peppered with Duke's wisecracks, many of which are unabashedly cribbed from famous movies. Duke's famous tagline, "I'm here to kick *ss and chew bubblegum - and I'm all out of gum," is a paraphrase of a "Rowdy" Roddy Piper line in They Live. "Groovy" and "Hail to the king, baby" reference Bruce Campbell's Ash from the Evil Dead series. Cribbing Tarantino, Duke says to an enemy alien, "I'm gonna get medieval on your *ss."
Other lines range from jingoistic machismo ("Let God sort 'em out") to straight-up vanity: When stopped in front of a mirror, Duke says, "Damn, I'm looking good." Tipping dancers in the gentlemen's club level, Duke would leeringly say, "Shake it, baby." All these lines were uttered with gusto by veteran voice actor Jon St. John.
In the modern age of voice-acted games, these sparse one-liners might not seem like much. But they had a real impact in 1996. All you knew about "Doom guy" was that he was tough. But Duke had a personality - granted, a personality assembled from Hollywood clichés, but a personality nonetheless.
Duke's distinctiveness didn't end with the voiceover. Level design was more grounded in the real world. The game doesn't open in a research base on Mars or a Gothic castle. It opens outside a Los Angeles gentlemen's club. Go inside, and in between blasting aliens, you can tip the dancers, who for some reason are still onstage amid the extraterrestrial invasion.
The interactivity was something new. Toilets flushed; you could fire at billiard balls to make them carom off each other; light switches could be turned on and off; security monitors showed other parts of the level; and beer bottles shattered when fired at. In one level, you could activate a projector to start an adult movie, then blow a hole in the screen. In 1996, PC gamers had simply never seen anything like this.
Added to this were fun, offbeat weapons complementing the standard SMGs and rocket launchers. A shrink ray would zap aliens down to pint-size, after which Duke could stomp them; another device froze them into ice. Casual Easter eggs referenced pop-culture matters that were current at the time - like a TV showing a clip of O.J. Simpson's famous low-speed chase.
Secret areas had been a staple of the genre since Doom, but Duke's didn't just offer some extra health or ammo. They intensified the gamer endorphin rush with meticulously crafted fan-service in-jokes. A player might stumble upon an impaled Indiana Jones dangling from the wall, or Homer Simpson's Sector 7-G, or even a re-creation of the starship Enterprise's bridge.
Duke Nukem 3D's uniquely complex and interactive 3D environments were made possible by 3D Realms's proprietary "Build Engine," which could render things the Doom engine couldn't.
Rhode Island teenager Ken Silverman began coding the Build Engine after seeing screenshots of the then-unreleased Doom. The self-taught programmer said he wanted to "make a cool thing that impressed people." He certainly succeeded at that; Apogee Software (the company that would soon become 3D Realms) recognized his talent and signed him on to finish up the engine, which became the basis for several games - including Duke Nukem 3D.
Silverman's raw coding prowess even impressed the Godfather of 3D engines himself, id Software's Carmack, who said, "If I had to pick who is just the most talented [3D programmer], it would probably be Ken Silverman... He writes all the code for everything, and he's just extremely talented." On his own website, Silverman later wrote that he was "truly honored" by this praise from the master.