Aftershock: The Duke Nukem Forever Backlash
Well, this sure is awkward.
The critical backlash for DNF has been insane and wrongheaded, and I don’t say that lightly. I know, having been an entertainment critic for a few years now, how easy it is to be hyperbolic in one way or another about something, and hyperbole usually makes for the best reading. And negative hyperbole is the best of the best.
I’m not going to make any friends by saying that, especially after Jim Redner’s almost-scandal last week. Redner, whose PR company represented DNF, tweeted this last Tuesday: “too many went too far with their reviews…we r reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom.” Redner apologized for saying that later, but there are some things you just can’t unsay.
I would never, ever condone blacklisting an outlet because of a harsh review — hell, I’ve handed out my fair share of harsh reviews, and I will continue to do so until every game is amazing — but I will say this: Redner was right about the vitriol directed at DNF being excessive.
Take Ben Kuchera’s review of the game, for one. I have nothing against Kuchera, and Ars Technica is a fine website that I read regularly. But Kuchera levels toward the game some invalid criticisms intended to back up his negative perspective of the game. He may not intend to mislead his readers, but it’s all part of the hyperbole train he was on. Here are two samples:
Duke arrives at a point where two nude ladies promise to lose their pregnancy weight from bearing their alien children, and they plead with you to let them live. (These are the same characters who performed fellatio on you during the beginning sequences of the game.)
The only way past this section of the game is to kill both women.
This isn’t true, as the women both explode on their own as they give birth. It honestly never occurred to me to shoot them, but OK. To his credit, Kuchera has since updated the review to acknowledge that fact.
In another scene, a woman sobs and asks for her father. You see, the women in the alien craft are being forcibly impregnated by the aliens, and during your journey, you hear a mixture of screams and sexual noises. After I accidentally blew up a few of these female victims in a firefight, Duke made a joke about abortion.
The abortion joke is not directed toward Kuchera’s destruction of innocent women, which is, again, not something I did either on purpose or on accident. During the course of the game, you’ll encounter many alien babies, and the “alien abortion” quip is something he’ll say multiple times when you kill them. I heard the quip at least a half dozen times.
I’m not claiming that Kuchera made these errors on purpose, but I am saying it’s easy to make angry, wild claims about a game when you’re determined, as Kuchera is, to hate a game.
And that seems to be the problem here. I believe most of the folks who reviewed the game knew going in what they thought of it. This isn’t unusual — we in the gaming press usually know so much about a game before playing the final version that we feel we know exactly what we’re getting before we get it.
I’m not innocent of this. Going into DNF, I expected it to make me laugh and not do anything else for me. I thought the gameplay would be miserable. It turns out my evaluation was quite the opposite, as I thought it wasn’t really funny at all, but was a blast to play.
What’s important is to not allow those preconceived notions to inform your final judgment of a game. It’s not easy, and all of us fall victim to it from time to time. If you ask any critic if they’re happy with all the 90+ scores they’ve given out over the years, I bet most will tell you they are not. I know I’m not.
But because you know a game is going to be a certain way, it’s easy to let that “knowledge” dictate what you say about a game. You “know,” based on pre-release marketing, that DNF is going to be misogynistic, and so you ignore the fact that the game takes place in a heightened reality in which every character, men and women, is a negative stereotype.
I’m not writing this because I enjoy calling out my peers, and I’m not doing it because I feel superior to those who have embraced this extreme DNF backlash. As I’ve said, this kind of thing is something we all, including myself, fall prey to from time to time.
I feel like the key to avoiding this kind of situation is a greater sense of self-awareness. We write to inform, but everything we write says as much about ourselves as it does about the things we’re writing about.
That isn’t something that can be changed, and it isn’t something that should be changed. But we’ve got to be more aware of the baggage we bring into our game reviews, or else we aren’t going to be providing the service we claim to provide.