I remember one day in 1997 when my dad took me out to buy a game. Not having a PlayStation, and with N64 games being too expensive, I went straight to the PC aisle of Cardiff's Electronics Boutique. Looking at the newest releases, I picked up Grand Theft Auto – a game I had played and loved at my cousin's – and immediately handed it to my dad.
"Oh, I don't know about this," he said.
"I don't like the idea of my son picking up and raping hookers," he replied authoritatively.
I knew nothing of these hookers from my time spent with the game; I just wanted to get in a car and cause chaos on the streets of Liberty City. The first game's save system was far too cumbersome for me or my cousin to actually get very far, so we'd never actually seen any of the cities besides Liberty. But my dad's word was final, no matter how innocent my intentions with the game were, so I put it back on the shelf and took another look.
And there it was: Duke Nukem 3D Atomic Edition. I remember having the shareware version – the whole first chapter – and loving it, but never having had the chance to go out and buy the full thing. A year had passed since I first played it, and the most up-to-date edition was there for the taking. Despite my dad saying no to Grand Theft Auto, I thought I'd try my luck; he hadn't heard of Duke Nukem back then.
He inspected the large PC box. He frowned. Then he turned it around and read the back and hummed.
"Okay," he said.
I was about to blow up some alien bastards.
A month or so had passed, and I'd yet to get my fill of the Duke. Despite finishing all four episodes, there was so much more to enjoy: I had the unofficial expansions like Duke it out in D.C. and Duke in the Caribbean: Life's a Beach to play, a CD-Rom full of community content, mods and tutorials called Duke!Zone, and Ken Silverman's Build engine to learn.
It would be fair to say that I spent more time around that game and its engine than any other. Even today when I pump hundreds of hours into Civilization IV (and soon V), nothing comes close to the amount of time I sank into 3D Realms' masterpiece.
I studied the Build engine hard, triumphantly showing my parents what I'd done when I made my first teleporter, interconnected rooms, elevators and mirrors. Pretending to be impressed, they neither discouraged nor particularly encouraged my map creation, until I'd gained enough experience to build my first proper level: one loosely resembling the junior half of my primary school, playground and all, complete with stripper teachers and alien students.
My father, clearly horrified at what I'd done, deleted the map and told me that I should probably try and make something a bit more "fictitious".
Note: Not my map.
And thus PLANET CHRIS was born. I've never been good at naming things, but that never stopped me from being imaginative in other ways, namely I lacked location or spatial awareness. Starting off in my childhood bedroom, next to my bed, Duke wanders past the square telly and cubic toy tub (I wasn't so good at making shapes with more than four sides in the top-down editor back then), and through my twelve foot door. But instead of getting to our landing, we were instead transported hundreds of years in the past to the captain's cabin of a pirate ship (loosely based off of LeChuck's one in The Secret of Monkey Island). Walking from my bedroom and out of a cupboard, you could explore the room in all its awfulness: everything was cubed, and because I couldn't find the wood texture, everything took on a grey stone look, which was the default one used in the Build editor at the time.
Leaving the cabin and going to the deck took you to a ship out on the high seas (though the exterior walls of the horizon were clearly visible in all their square-ness, as I didn't know how to do environment backgrounds), and if you walked the plank (which was, in reality, just a gap in the side of the ship that didn't require you to jump over it) you fell hundreds of feet to your death. Indeed, my pirate ship was huge, and may as well have been in the sky, for I didn't know how to do water back then.
Going below deck activated a teleporter that took you to a tiny one corridor space station, which when you boarded the little shuttle pod, took you to another space station, which had the same interior as the sports hall of my primary school, which I remade in space textures. Passing through the girl's toilets just outside the hall activated an elevator which took you to a sports field – not dissimilar from the third episode's final level – but instead of having one mega boss, was filled with as many enemies as I could fit. Needless to say it was impossible to play; if you had a machine that could run it at a solid framerate, which my 486 could not, then you would be instantly killed by the barrage of fire from jetpack aliens and pig cops.
Again, not my creation, but it looked a little bit like this.
It was anachronistic in a way that only a ten-year-old (or Lord British) could conceivably get away with.
So yes, it was unquestionably shit, but it was mine, and I had learned a lot and spent many hours of my life making it. That was part of what made Duke Nukem 3D great: your own creations, and the creations of others, and despite not contributing my map to the larger world, in some small way I was part of that community.
A few weeks ago I mounted my old 486's hard drive – a 2gb device rammed with as many games as that would store back in the day – to try and find my map for an article I was going to write, but it wasn't there. In fact, nothing to do with Duke was on the hard drive at all, and then I noticed that my brother's files were on there, and realised that I'd mistaken his old PC for mine, and that I was rifling through his gaming memories. My ancient computer must've gotten lost years ago in all the house moves we'd done since. I quickly put the hard drive back into the computer and returned it to the attic, sad that I wouldn't be able to show the world the craptastic map I made when I was ten. Even writing this now I feel sad (and somewhat guilty) that I don't have anything tangible to show for all those hundreds of hours of my childhood.
I quickly forgot about the piece, and went back to writing other stuff until this last weekend when, at PAX, Gearbox announced that they'd acquired the Duke Nukem franchise and were finishing off its sequel, Duke Nukem Forever.
It got me thinking; at first I wanted to write a piece about how I've grown out of Duke Nukem and, whilst I'll still enjoy playing Duke Nukem 3D for the nostalgic value, Duke Nukem Forever will have a lot of disappointed fans who expected the game to recapture the old magic that 3D did. They'd realise that as gamers they too have matured, and that the shooter market is so oversaturated that it would be nothing short of a miracle for Duke Nukem Forever to have anything unique to call its own, save for the voice of John St. John as the man himself (even so, he's now voicing Dudebro II; a game made by some guys at NeoGAF).
But as I was writing I started to think about my level creation. Whilst all the tits, explosions and one liners were what made Duke popular, its community of map makers, slavishly working in their free time to lengthen the experience for everyone else, kept the fire burning long after 3D Realms entered the now infamous development cycle of its sequel. They were the ones making new campaigns, weapons and enemies, or placing Duke in new locales where he could blast shit up with a coconut launcher, or whatever. Some of them had permission to sell their levels, whilst others released them for free online and in PC gaming magazines.
It got me wondering if Duke Nukem Forever would have the same level of community involvement. In an age of paid DLC, something tells me it won't. Needless to say, despite Gearbox's history of making Half-Life expansions – essentially paid modifications released officially – they've shown no interest thus far in allowing fans of their games to get under the hood and release new content, which is a shame considering the franchise's legacy.
For a lot of people, that was part of what Duke Nukem 3D was, heck, still is! And whilst I and many others will probably plonk down our cash and get Duke Nukem Forever – some people even playing the online component for as long as Gearbox and 2K support it with paid DLC – we'll have forgotten about it a year or two later when the new content dries up and the next big shooter, or Forever's sequel, has arrived.
That makes me quite sad.
Update [14th Oct'10]: I've been made aware of this news, which seems to go against some of the things I've said in this article. Whilst I feel that Gearbox still won't add community modding to DNF, especially not on the scale that DN3D had it, this is a nice story that confirms to me that Gearbox "gets it" as far as community creation goes. You can't give 'em stick for that!
Chris Winters is an unemployed (and unpublished) novelist and wannabe games writer. You can check out his stream of reviews from his backlog on Been There, Played That, or get in touch with him on Twitter: @akwinters.