I recently bought Duke Nukem 3D as part of Microsoft's "deal of the week" on Xbox Live. I thought that five bucks would buy me some warm childhood nostalgia and a few easy achievements. And I was right, for the most part, but something unexpected happened as well. I became totally smitten with its old school charms in a way that I could never have imagined.
It was more than the fun level design and cathartic first-person shooting, there was a love to it. I felt the care and craft of a game that existed purely and potently solely on its merits as an exercise in escapism. The nearest comparison I could draw was that of a B-movie, in video game form. No, Duke Nukem isn't a perfect game, but it does not have to be. Like a good B-movie, there are no pretensions, no grandiose intentions, just exuberant joy permeating from every frame (or in this case, every mutilated corpse and clever homage). Who needs social relevance when you are paying strippers to shake their pixelated pink stuff while shooting shrink rays at deformed pig cops?
For me, there was just something limitlessly appealing about a game so limited, so focused. You and Duke have one clear objective in each level; to kill bad guys until you reach the circular exit sign that needs to be pounded with Duke's fist. No sidequests, no optional objectives, no unnecessary RPG aspects, no tacked on convoluted story, just pure ass-kicking as only Duke and his macho bullshit banter can deliver. How is it that being so restrained can be so freeing? For me, a game that knows what it is and what it needs to deliver, regardless of demographic or appeal, is a breath of fresh air.
As video games have become a much larger business, it seems like some of the old school joy has gone out of the development process. Teams are too big for there to be any scrappy team spirit, they are more like a big Hollywood production, trying to deliver something for everyone without really delivering to anyone at all. I'm not going to name any games, and I know that "indy" games are made with smaller teams, but it doesn't feel the same as a big production made with small team ethics. This is just a general feeling I had while playing Duke that I could not shake.
And also, how awesome are those homages to not just influential badass action movies, but also to ID Software, the leading FPS developer of the time ("That's one DOOM-ed space marine" gets me every time). Done without a wink of self-aggrandizing, but instead with a spirit of camaraderie, of one-upmanship that recalls the fun jabs Wes Craven and Sam Raimi made to each other back in the early days of their careers. I don't know what any of this means in the grand scheme of things, but I do know that in the future I am going to be more conscious of any game made with a love that I can love too.
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