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550 - Duke Nukem 3D

Best Games -  Duke Nukem 3D

I’ll start this off by addressing the realities of time. Just trust that I will get around to why Duke Nukem 3D deserves to be on the list of best games, but we have a necessary detour to travel first.
The Character and tone of Duke Nukem has not aged well. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the framing of the character hasn’t aged well. If you go back and play Duke Nukem 3D, it seems fairly obvious that the creators of the game made Duke the butt of a lot of his own jokes. Most of his one-liners are simply lifted from films and TV shows, and often in a way that seems to suggest that Duke himself is unaware of context or nuance. This isn’t an example of a character saying or doing things that were once okay and now aren’t. Duke isn’t cool, he’s a misogynistic, meathead, dumbass, and he sucked back then too. The problem is, this doesn’t always come across, and there are far too many people that assumed if Duke was the main character of the game, then he must also be the ‘Hero’ of the game. Duke is the protagonist, but he is not heroic.
This is an absolutely valid way to write a protagonist. There is no rule that says protagonists need to be likeable, or right, or decent people. They only have to be the point of view character for your story. Or, in this instance, game.
There is a possible timeline where Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t come out. Where Duke Nukem 3D is the one game that exists where Duke has been gifted any sort of personality at all. He is seen for what he is, terrible, but comedic and farcical. And the game shines because of that knowing farce, and not in spite of it.
Unfortunately, we live in this reality, this timeline. People have wilfully misinterpreted a buffoon as heroic, and we have to address that.
There, now that that’s out of the way, we can get to it.
Duke Nukem 3D is a masterpiece of design.
In a time when first person shooter game design meant navigating what are essentially mazes and occasionally shooting at monsters, Duke Nukem 3D aimed to create spaces. When you play Duke 3D, you will run around a lot and you will shoot a lot of alien monsters, but the spaces that you are playing in feel a lot more real and a lot less mazelike. They are recreations of spaces you might recognize. Streets, a theatre, stores, offices, apartments, and even when the game swerves into more alien architecture, the sense that these are usable spaces is still there. Despite the slightly janky pseudo 3D graphics of the build engine, navigation in Duke 3D feels, for lack of a more accurate term, real.
Duke 3D is also one of the first games to create a sense of place by having a lot of intractable elements. Light switches turn on and off lights. Security cameras show different parts of the level. Urinals, toilets, and mirrors work. They do the things you expect they will do. The game is a long way from a systems based simulation, but just having a few things function as you would expect means that the spaces those interactables inhabit feel more real as well. It’s a necessary step forward.
Other complex simulation games existed, System Shock, for example, but they tended to be fiddly and complicated in a way that didn’t really provide that sense of place. Place has to feel easy. It has to feel natural. It has to feel intuitive. Duke Nukem 3D does that. That ease makes the gameplay feel real. It’s truly a wonderful thing, and makes for one of the best games.

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