This article can also be found at The Yorker.
Duke Nukem Forever is a problematic game. Not just in how after 12 years of haphazard development it feels unfinished, or how the game has been critically slammed by both critics and consumers; but in how it's humour relies on parody - but reads as impossibly misogynistic.
It's been reasoned that Duke's persona of 'impossibly well-liked asshole' is a knowing prod at musclehead protagonists of the 90s. But as far as I can recall, none of them were defined by just how excessively they could objectify women. This comes to a disturbing zenith on the alien mothership stage (Warning: Video is rather explicit). The area is littered with naked women being ensnared by phalic-looking tentacles and writhing in pain. Duke can't free them, but the player is free to shoot them to put them out of their misery, backed up with one of Duke's one-liners. And that's the joke. The joke is rape. Are you laughing yet?
So where do we go from here? The presence of this in Duke Nukem Forever is surprisingly downplayed in much of the game's coverage, but I sincerely hope that the general public and other games developers who witness such a poor sentiment have the common sense to acknowledge that this kind of thing is not okay. Duke Nukem Forever's stunning failure at starring an identifiable or likeable character can hopefully be a lesson to other games that might go down the same route. It's entirely possible to have a protagonist that's a musclehead or a ladykiller and still entertaining. Bulletstorm manages it. Hell, even Johnny Bravo managed it.
Furthermore, with new games featuring legitimately well-rounded female protagonists, managing to get by on marginally less titilation is a pleasant thought. Lara Croft in Tomb Raider had her franchise form around her figure, but the new Tomb Raider title announced at this year's E3 focuses more on her adventuring competence. Hopefully that will stay a consistent theme throughout.
Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is an even better example; her work as a journalist and a freedom fighter against the opressive regime of the Alpha Section means the other characters respect and fight alongside her - her gender not mattering. Aside from that, the game is wonderfully crafted, despite its age. A HD release of the game is available for Xbox Live Arcade, and is a great exercise in how character development and interaction can be handled.
Games like Bayonetta straddle the line between empowering and and worrying. As a character, Bayonetta felt like she had freedom through her fighting ability and some surprisingly human interaction when things got rough; but the game's creator said some rather worrying things that soured the image I had for her. It's a shame, since the quality of the game is incredibly on-point otherwise, and delivering positive messages through quality games is by far the ideal situation.
Games as an artistic medium feel way too immature to handle concepts like sex, let alone character design equality based around gender. But the industry is still growing and changing - maybe in the future the Duke Nukem Forevers of the world will be a marginalised historical footnote.