Is the iconic gaming character set to fade into obscurity?
Duke Nukem Forever being canned after a decade in development elicited three general responses:
1. Surprise that Duke Nukem Forever had been canned.
2. Surprise that Duke Nukem Forever was still in development.
3. A ‘Duke Nukem Whoever’ from anyone under 20.
As someone the wrong side of 30, the announcement did surprise me – a bit like hearing a Blue Peter presenter had died young. But in a wider sense, I’m not shocked. Duke Nukem hailed from what’s looking like the last hurrah for iconic video game characters. We may not see his like again.
Call the lawyers off – I know we will seehis like again, not least because 3D Realms is to continue to create games based on the Duke franchise. I’m talking in the broad brush terms beloved of pundits: with digital technology, the recent big advances have been about self-expression and personalisation, not playing at being someone else. Rock Band, Wii Fit and Guitar Hero are physical manifestations of this – extending the game out to wrap around the player, rather than asking him to assume an identity in the game world.
Even as I’ve been typing, Microsoft has gone one better with Project Natal. Interacting with Lionhead’s Milo demo looks like the future. Playing as Milo the Wonder Boy and enduring his mannerisms and quips passed off as my own? That sounds like the past.
Yes, the Project Natal demos and their predecessors mostly still feature an avatar on screen. But you’re certainly not living through the immersive story predicted by game futurists a decade ago. You’re living your story, in your living room, not Parappa the Rapper’s.
More traditional hit games like Fable 2, Fallout 3 and World of Warcraft also let the player define their character right down to the bootstraps, rather than forcing them to dress up in a designer’s vision. RPGs are nothing new, but their move to the mainstream is – and with kids growing up expecting customisable avatars thanks to the likes of Club Penguin, there’s no going back.
Even where games do still showcase playable characters, they’re rarely distinctive like the icons of ten to 20 years ago. There are exceptions: Nico Bellic and Sackboy, for example. But compared to the start of the ‘modern’ game era in the mid- to-late-1990s – when you couldn’t walk through E3 without tripping over an actor dressed as a hero or seeing some giant game star looming down – characters as frontmen just aren’t setting the agenda.
It may be that as we head deeper into the Uncanny Valley, the hammy scripted acting of near-photorealistic lead characters is becoming unbearable. Cartoon-ish heroes don’t jar in the same way – Sackboy is as effective as Mario 25 years ago. But there are fewer of these stylised or even ‘childish’ games about, so less focus on iconic characters.
Instead, in the quest for a palatable realism, player characters are becoming less distinct – even as they become more graphically detailed.
The caricature that is Duke Nukem will therefore live longer in the memory than Faith from Mirror’s Edge or Call of Duty’s Soap MacTavish. Or think of Naughty Dog’s output – from Sonic-rivalling Crash Bandicoot, through Jak and Daxter to Nathan Drake of Uncharted. The latter is richer in narrative than the previous titles or most other games for that matter, but could you honestly describe the hero?
GTA IV’s Nico Bellic is the exception that proves the rule, personality wise, and the odd player character still manages to combine pseudo-realism with some physical uniqueness – Gears of War’s Marcus Fenix is nothing if not a bland cliché, yet physically he can be recognised from a silhouette.
But in general, today’s heroes hardly linger. The Max Paynes of yesteryear – another 3D Realms creation, incidentally – are melting away into the NPC crowd as we players demand the starring role.