Monday, June 20, 2011

Does Duke Nukem go too far?

I wasn't going to talk about this, but I find it's on my mind. I'd been mulling over the post I wrote but didn't post last night, so this afternoon I sat down with someone who is deeply familiar with the subject of violence towards women and discussed it - and when, at the end of things, she agreed with me, I resolved to write this.

Saying that, I'm aware that I may well piss some readers right off by taking this tack. That's not my intention, of course - I just feel that the reaction to the treatment of women in Duke Nukem Forever has been rather extreme and rather knee-jerk, and it's reasonable to talk it out.

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Game consumption and game development remains largely male-dominated, to the point that when a game presents a female as a major character who's not merely eye candy, it is celebrated. It is - unfortunately - still somewhat special to play a game in which women are presented as genuine, three-dimensional characters.

It is also, we should note, just as rare to play a game in which its male characters are given a respectable degree of depth and humanity, and aren't just hard-bodied he-men - but for now, let's focus on the ladies.
Few M-rated games contain ladies which aren't, in some capacity, present for the purpose of titillating male gamers - but just as rare are the games that don't even try to suggest they're doing anything else. Look at the female cast of almost any fighting game, if you want an example.

Duke doesn't try to hide it with some sort of self-assurance that it's cool to present their female protagonists this way because "they kick ass!" or some such nonsense. In DNF, women only exist to be objectified. Every woman in the game possesses gigantic boobs, washboard stomachs and a microscopic modicum of clothing. Duke may only view women as sexual objects, but at least he's not trying to pretend their presence in his game is about anything more than appealing to newly-pubescent youth.

I'm not saying it's a wonderful thing, but at least the game isn't being dishonest about the purpose of their presence - which is more than I can say for some.

I'm sorry, Lara Croft circa 1999, I wasn't listening - I was admiring your immensely impressive education and list of remarkable accomplishments.

What I find strange is that - timing aside - I don't mind it. Most folks complaining about the treatment of women in Forever point specifically to a sequence involving earth women being used as incubators for extraterrestrial breeding (see topmost image). In Forever, there's a greater sexual connotation to it than there was twelve years ago, and if you don't put them out of their misery they'll explode with aliens who subsequently attempt to devour you.

I don't want to get too deep into this. Perhaps admitting that I don't hate DNF for its portrayal of women puts me in agreement with folks whose club I'd rather not join. Still, the described, most-vilified sequence in Forever is - to me - merely the current(ish)-gen re-imagining of the exact same thing in Duke Nukem 3D, which was itself a nod to pretty much the exact same thing happening to John Hurt in Ridley Scott's Alien, and the whispered "killlll mee..." begging of fellow victims in James Cameron's Aliens.

Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

What made it okay for Duke to do pull this fifteen years ago? Is it because graphics weren't really capable of rendering nipples back then? Is it because nowadays the similar sequence comes equipped with a lot more audio (the women moan suggestively, and are clearly unhappy about their predicament)? Is it because, nowadays, we're so worried about offending people that what's most offensive is the lack of risk-taking creativity?

It's just as tongue-in-cheek and - I'll be honest - funny now as it was then. There are even aliens running around called Pregnators who will jump at your face, forcing you to mash X to stop them from thrusting their funky mutant appendage down your throat. When fighting them at range, they attack by violently ejaculating at you.

And I'm sorry, but that shit is funny. There's always been something both sexual and humorous about the whole alien-pregnancy thing - and if it is a disgusting, harmful image, it's not like we have only Duke to blame.

Duke didn't invent the concept of alien life forms forcing their foul seed from the far reaches of space into a human incubator which, once gestated, bursts forth in a savage blood orgy - and neither is it the first attempt to draw some humor from the situation.

Spaceballs (1987)

Does the fact that Forever interlaces these scenes with (very) dark humor make it okay?

Maybe. Maybe it does - after all, why should it only be acceptable to turn the disturbing combination of sex and violence into comedy when it's happening to a dude?

If that is the line - that it can be funny when John Hurt gets his chest exploded again in Spaceballs or Chi McBride forces himself of Will Arnett, but when a game developer admits to the sexual aspect of the situation and applies intergalactic incubation to women, it becomes somehow sick and wrong - then that shit is sexist.

We can't have two standards, here, people.

The real question is, is the game truly misogynistic? That is to say, does Duke Nukem Forever promote hatred and violence towards women? I believe it's fair to suggest that if you feel Duke has crossed the line, you're right - but others who disagree you can be equally right. What qualifies as offensive is often subjective:

One could suggest that the airhead bimbos of Duke Nukem Forever are merely a (variety of) idealized pubescent male fantasy, and that the point and purpose of the entire game is to mete out justice on those who would threaten our awesome earth babes.

I think that's giving DNF too much credit. The writers clearly put no more thought into their treatment of women than they did the level design (zing!) - Duke Nukem is simply a bullet-point list of the things young boys love. Hot, freely sexual women, gory, cartoony violence, toilet humor, pop-culture referencing one-liners and the universal male fantasy of wielding a massive, hard tool in your hand.

I don't believe that Duke promotes hatred any more than I believe it promotes literacy - and I must admit, sometimes he can be pretty funny. I legitimately burst out laughing when, upon killing my first Octabrain, Duke barked "take your tentacles back to Japan, you freak!"

That's funny - and, in a certain frame of mind, so is the idea of a carnivorous horror from beyond the stars having its carnal way with your most delicate bits.

We can't just pick and choose what's okay to joke about and what's not. Duke Nukem Forever may not be a great (or even good) game - I haven't finished it yet, so I'll hold off on that one - but I don't feel it's ever hateful. It's incredibly juvenile, incredibly indulgent - and given that modern society is so aware of what is and isn't acceptable behavior, its complete and utter objectification of a gender is just as inconsequential as the game itself. This is Porky's in video game form. Low-budget - not very well-made - and good for a guilty laugh.


  1. As ever, reason prevails here at The Games of Chance. If you're (not you, but y'know) all out of joint over some video game, do yourself, and everyone else, a favor, and don't play it.

  2. I myself never found DNF to be hurtful. In bad taste? Hell yes. But sometimes the best humor comes at the expense of others. Over the years and now more than ever, it seems like people have gotten better at accepting foul humor when it's blatantly obvious that the source material is making fun of itself and is aware of it's own ridiculousness and crass attitude. And even with popular media who fucking love to get down on a game the instant they even hear about any sort of sexual encounter has not given DNF nearly as much flak as games like GTAIV or even Mass Effect for the sole reason that DNF is being fucking insane and over the top on purpose. DNF isn't selling you a realistic experience. But when games like Mass Effect try to emulate real, human relationships, then people take offense because it comes from a real place that people can connect to.

    So yeah, sorry if I'm just repeating what you said. I just really agree with you.

  3. Okay, first of all, you say: "why should it only be acceptable to turn the disturbing combination of sex and violence into comedy when it's happening to a dude?" If you would actually get around to some feminism literature I think you will find that no, the people complaining about the normalization of sexual violence towards women in media also have a problem with the way male rape often is portrait as a joke. And those things do real damage, rape is the least reported crime in most countries, and the number of unreported cases all go up drastically when it comes to men who have been raped. They are often stigmatized, made fun of and not taken seriously by people, not even the police.

    Also, you say why we cannot pick and choose what is okay to joke about. Why, I ask you? I personally think that jokes of this kind should be allowed, because I do not believe in censorship unless a specific person is threaten etc, but the focus of this whole debate really needs to ships. Instead of taking about what is allowed to say, we should be taking about what ought to be said, and that you have to take responsibility for what you say and create. A quick google will give you both brilliant academical essays and studies, and heartbreaking true stories that speaks of the damage jokes like these makes. Are you still allowed to tell them? Hell yeah! Will it hurt thousands of people? Absolutely!

  4. Oh right, who is the retard who wrote this piece of crap of blog here,in what case male rape victims are funny??? be honest hope someone rapes you and see how funny it is, seriously I don't care if you're a feminist or an idiot,otherwise the women show on that are unreal people, they don't exists