Even when the Internet was aflame with comments from people who’d played it at PAX, even when I was invited to come and see it for a hands-on in London, even when I was actually entering the room full of demo pods showing the title screen, I didn’t really believe that Duke Nukem Forever existed. But it does, and I’ve played it, and talked to Randy Pitchford and Gearbox’s VP Steve Gibson about the extraordinary story behind it.
Want to know what it’s like?
Well, one thing’s for sure – it’s definitely Duke. It’s got faintly ludicrous metal music, tits, swearing, aliens and faeces jokes. And yet behind the development of this meaningless, immature nonsense – enjoyable nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless – is one of the most fascinating human stories in games industry history, a story that the Duke’s new steward Randy Pitchford can barely tell without cracking up with emotion.
Pitchford’s first job in the games industry was at 3D Realms, working on Duke Nukem 3D. When 3D Realms went up in flames, stuck in bitter, mutually aggressive legal battles with publisher Take Two over their twelve-year-long failure to deliver Duke Nukem Forever, Pitchford was the only person in a position to help.
His studio Gearbox had a good enough relationship with 2K Games to persuade its boss Christoph Hartmann to stand down, and a close enough personal connection with 3D Realms’ Scott Miller and George Broussard to persuade them to let him take over the responsibility for Duke Nukem. Then it was kept secret for an entire year, withheld even from people within Take Two itself until its surprise unveiling at PAX this year.
“I felt like if I didn’t do it I would regret it for the rest of my life,” says Pitchford. “And I knew I was in a spot where I could make it work. I knew George and Scott trusted me, and I knew Christoph trusted me, but they didn’t trust each other. In order to fix it, I couldn’t just make everyone shake hands, I had to be responsible.”
Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for over half of my life. Watching its saga develop over the past twelve years has been like watching a slow-motion car crash as 3D Realms could never quite catch up to the modern standard, seemingly possessed by perfectionism, struggling on with a team of thirty people to make a game that could stand up to shooters with teams twice the size behind them.
Then there was the improbable rescue, the phoenix-from-the-ashes resurrection as Gearbox rode in on a shining white horse to rescue it from certain death when 3D Realms finally ran out of money. It’s astonishing how much personal investment there is in Duke Nukem Forever, from all sides. Then you play it and, well, it’s just a videogame.
The demo opens on a urinal, with Duke seemingly desperate for a slash. After pulling the right trigger to unleash a stream of piss onto the grimy ceramic, I’m allowed to zip up and take a wander around the bathroom, complete with double hot-tubs and toilets with pick-upable turds floating in them. Hapless-looking military men are dashing about in a panic in the adjacent room, arguing over a whiteboard with the words ‘Operation Cock Block’ drawn on it, along with a crude drawing of the alien.
“Anything to add, Duke?” asks one of them. Walking up to the board, I can draw on it with the analogue stick or wipe bits of it clean with an eraser. I give the alien a green moustache. The guy next to me has drawn tits and a wang on it, evidently infected by the Duke Nukem spirit.
Outside, things start exploding, with soldiers shooting at aliens as Duke runs down a corridor, still without a weapon. A particularly huge explosion knocks him to the floor and blocks the passageway ahead, forcing me down a smaller corridor past an interactive water fountain (it seems 3D Realms spent a lot of time coding incidental objects).
There’s a gun at the end of the corridor, which takes me out into an arena with a huge, ugly one-eyed alien boss. After I empty the gun into his face, a dropship flies in with more ammo whilst I sprint around avoiding his rockets. Another two clips of ammo and the alien collapses; Duke runs up, pulls its eye out with his bare hands, then dropkicks it over a nearby football post.
The camera zooms out to reveal a TV screen with Duke Nukem Forever emblazoned across it, with Duke moaning and groaning – turns out he’s getting blown by two identical plastic-looking polygonal ‘babes’. “What about the game, sweetie, is it any good?” asks one of them. “Yeah, but after twelve fuckin’ years, it had better be,” says Duke. Yeah. It’s not grown up much.
The demo then skips ahead to the middle of the game, where Duke is driving about a dusty canyon in a buggy. The driving, to be honest, feels like it’s out of a game from about 2004, but it’s not broken. The gorge is full of weapons to play around with, including a shrink ray as well as the usual machine guns and sniper rifles. It ends with an alien dropship blowing a mounted machine gun to pieces; Duke gives it the finger, and the demo ends. “It’s going to be HUGE,” reads the end screen, next to a close-up of Duke’s crotch.
Yeah. Okay. This is hardly the most sophisticated gaming experience of my young life. But since when has Duke ever been sophisticated? What worries me is that most of the people I know who enjoyed the previous Duke Nukem games were about twelve at the time. Are tits and guns still going to be funny more than a decade later?
“I know that we’re lowering the bar a little bit. Remember the movie Armageddon? That was some dumb-ass shit. But people loved it,” says Steve Gibson, VP of Gearbox and a man clearly aware of how absurd a game Duke Nukem Forever is. “It made tonnes of people happy. If we turn out to be Armageddon I’ll take it. Even with that terrible love scene under the tree.”
Both Pitchford and Gibson agree that Duke Nukem Forever as it currently exists is 3D Realms’ game, not Gearbox’s. “The game that you’re playing today is absolutely the 3D Realms vision,” says Randy. “About three years ago they reimagined their vision for the game, accepting the reality of the situation, including how much time had elapsed. That vision is what we’re playing.”
“What we’re seeing is probably the last two to three years of the game. Everything else has been rebooted out,” adds Gibson. “It looked like it needed about a year’s work, and that’s where we’re at now. We’re just polishing. The game is content complete now.”
There’s a lot of content, too; Gearbox inherited all those years of work from 3D Realms, stitching it together with the help of a few key former members of staff. “There are things in there that represent a ridiculous amount of effort,” says Steve. “There’s a fully-functional pinball machine in the game – which is an unreasonable thing to put in a videogame – there’s basketball hoops you can shoot, you can lift weights, buy sodas from soda machines and pick the buttons and pop it and drink it. That stuff took a lot of time.” Which is presumably a large part of the reason that DNF has spent so long in incubation.
After all this time, though, isn’t anyone at Gearbox worried about looking like total idiots if it comes out and isn’t the best game that anyone has ever seen? “Our belief is that as long as we deliver, nobody’s going to care about the time it took. But if it bombs it will be a BIG bomb,” admits Gibson. “The fear of looking dumb is probably starting to subside because of the reaction we’re getting. I think PAX was the peak of ‘Oh man, we are going to look like jackasses.’ But we came out of that OK.”
“I’ve played it and it’s fun,” asserts Randy, asked the same question. “I don’t think any game could live up to 12 years of expectations, but I think at this point, if we play something and it feels like Duke and we’re having a good time, we’re good. And it does – it delivers. I’ve played it and it’s wild, and I’m not afraid. Even if it’s not perfect, or even if it gets killed [by critics], I’d rather have that result than not to have tried.”
Duke Nukem Forever releases next year for PC, 360 and PS3.