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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Meet the 'Duke Nukem' Fan Re-Creating Britain in All Its Glory

Discarded face masks, a Greggs wrapper, and spent nitrous oxide canisters litter the pavement beneath your heavy-booted feet. Outside Sainsbury’s, a seagull eats a dead pigeon. A branch of Maplins—long since shuttered, the unit still unrented—cuts a gloomy figure on the corner. You could be on any of London’s homogeneous high streets. Except you’re not. You’re inside a 25-year-old video game engine, and you’re on a mission. Welcome to the mildly unsettling world of Duke Smoochem.

The project began in June 2021 as a throwaway gag. Dan Douglas, a 38-year-old from London who works in broadcasting, found himself amused by the tabloid newspaper coverage of former British health secretary Matt Hancock’s lockdown-breaking, marriage-straining snog with his taxpayer-funded adviser. In particular, he was fascinated by the meticulously detailed re-creations of the office in which the illicit embrace took place.

For whatever reason, the annotated floor maps published in the papers reminded Douglas of Duke Nukem 3D—and, in particular, the game’s security camera feature which lets players access alternative lines of sight through a video monitor. He decided to dig out a copy of the cult 1996 shoot-em-up, load it up on his aging PC, and re-create Hancock’s love lair using the game’s rudimentary level editor, called Build. That was supposed to be it. That was the joke. Four months on, the joke has snowballed into a multilayered museum of political and pop culture—with added guns and grunts.

In Duke Smoochem, which is still very much in development, the titular Duke is working as a reporter for The Sun. His first mission is to obtain the CCTV footage of Hancock and his aide mid-embrace, before making his escape (on a sightseeing bus) and heading for the countryside where he will, among other things, watch a UKIP plane crash and destroy Stonehenge to make way for a new A-road. So far, so very British. “Everything is still pretty loose, but I’m slowly tying set pieces together,” says Douglas. “Right now I’m hoping I can get it released before 2023—I need to find a cut-off point as Britain is so infinitely absurd I could keep building this forever.”

No politico-pop culture moment is spared—with new additions added almost daily as the absurdities of Whitehall and the wider world continue to throw up new material. There’s former member of parliament Owen Paterson taking a call in Sainsbury’s, informing him that his party isn’t going to back him in the lobbying scandal after all; Cabinet minister Michael Gove getting his rocks off in a nightclub; a discarded cocktail can on the train suggests MP Diane Abbott has been in the area. The £350 million Brexit bus causes a roadblock; former Tory Rory Stewart’s awkward selfies are ready to print in Snappy Snaps; and Labour party leader Keir Starmer steels himself to nuke Geronimo the alpaca. Make your way through a maze-like abattoir and you’ll discover, though you might not wish to, former prime minister David Cameron getting intimate with a pig. Venture out to the countryside, you’ll find another former prime minister, Theresa May, frolicking in the wheat. There’s even a magic money tree.

Douglas doesn’t go so far as to describe any of this as satire, as he says it doesn’t have a clear intent. Instead, he likes to think of it “more as an interactive shitpost.” In that same vein, the map is littered with references to some of the stranger corners of the internet.

There’s a sack of wet eggs in the supermarket. A man walks his emu down the street. The pub has a piss dungeon. The sewer has a fatberg. In the fried chicken shop, a man calmly eats his chips while a fight breaks out. Gerald Stratford, of Big Veg Twitter fame, tends to his allotment. There are Hellraiser VHS tapes on top of the bus stop. Elsewhere, Douglas pokes fun at collective British obsessions: grab a jetpack and fly through the open window with a St. George’s cross hanging from it and you’ll discover a candlelit shrine to Captain Tom, the 100-year-old man who walked laps of his garden in lockdown to fund the NHS. In the supermarket, a patriotic pizza display (again lifted from real life) declares that "It's Coming Home." The more you explore, the more the game resembles a carefully curated depository for the daily churn of meme generation.

All of this has been re-created in painstaking detail by Douglas, who’s taken to photographing objects on the streets surrounding his southeast London home and then Photoshopping them into the game in pursuit of the most compelling experience. Pret A Manger, Greggs, and Sainsbury’s have all had impressive facelifts since first being boxed together in July. And as the joke has snowballed, the project has taken on a greater significance for Douglas.

“I had a psychotic episode and was sectioned in March 2020,” he says. “Finding some comfort in something creative I enjoyed doing as a teenager is helping my recovery a lot.” Between bouts of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy, Douglas has been pouring his mind and energies into Duke Smoochem. He says his main takeaway from the CBT sessions was “the power of distraction over intrusive thoughts.” Video games—and, even more so, he’s discovered, building them—have served as a balm in low moments, allowing Douglas to put his problems aside for a little while when he’s deep in the editor. His psychiatrist approves too. “[They] said that getting so involved with something like this, completely disconnected from my illness, was a really good step toward recovery,” says Douglas. “It’s good to get that endorsement.”

Douglas’ recovery features in Duke Smoochem, too: head underground, into the basement, and you’ll find a serene gallery space displaying photos that Douglas took while sectioned last year. (Serene, that is, until the ceiling falls in and an alien ambush ensues.) Currently on long-term sick leave, Douglas is preparing himself to return to work. The Duke is providing surprising assistance. “The problem-solving and engagement this project demands are really helping me unscramble my brain ready to return to the office,” he says.

You might think there are less stressful things to do than bending 25-year-old tech to your will. But Douglas says that the technical limitations can be “really good for creativity.” In many ways, Build is the ideal engine for the world Douglas is creating: equal parts bleak and gaudy in nature, with a legacy of games, such as Redneck Rampage and Blood, that count humor as a key element of the player’s experience.

The Build engine’s programmer, Ken Silverman, was just a teenager when he first put it together. It was considered, for a brief window, somewhat revolutionary in its ability to conjure a 3D experience on a 2D plane. The engine’s constraints forced tricks and fixes, like using parallax effects to mimic perspectives that are otherwise impossible in a 2D world, or generating entirely new spaces just to fake a mirror effect. Silverman has said that, when first constructing the engine back in 1993, he was learning as he went. Douglas, who has no programming or development experience, feels much the same.

When looking for technical fixes, Douglas sometimes calls on the help of a small but dedicated community of Build enthusiasts. “The more I dig into the Build engine modding community the more I realize expansive work is still being done,” he says. He’s also found inspiration in the community, sourcing feature ideas from people on Twitter and admiring the handiwork of other creators. One player has re-created Leatherhead’s soulless shopping district, complete with Argos, Santander, and Carphone Warehouse (albeit using Unreal’s more advanced 3D engine). Another has Nukem charging around the hotel from The Shining. Others have blogged about the rudimentary engine’s ability to tame their adolescent ADHD.

Like Duke Nukem 3D and the handful of other cult-favorite games that run on Build, Douglas’ creation is unswervingly situated in a recognizable real world—as opposed to the extra-terrestrial spaces of contemporaries like Unreal, Quake, and Doom. Few things, after all, are as strange as real life. Smoochem nods, too, at the original game’s glinting (if mostly crude) sense of humor and its penchant for pointless-but-fun in-game experiences. Secret areas were a key fixture of the Build titles, and Douglas continues that tradition: head down the alleyway adjoining the abandoned Maplins, use some explosives to blow a hole in the wall, and you’ll be able to raid the abandoned stockroom—including an unsold shipment of Euro 2020 remote control cars.

In September, what Douglas describes as “significant technical issues” almost killed the project entirely—an occupational hazard of working with such old kit. Douglas says he felt pretty heartbroken at the prospect of Smoochem’s demise. But finding workarounds is all part of the satisfaction.

Documenting his progress on Twitter has provided another source of reward. “I've had loads of positive feedback,” says Douglas. “Offers of crowdfunding— though if I finish it, it'll definitely be free—offers of unused graphics cards to replace my decade-old one, great suggestions and requests, and I've picked up hundreds of followers, including some professional level designers. Someone even reached out to say that me posting shots of the game brought back happy childhood memories of watching their dad play it, which was really nice.”

What started as a cheap joke became a “daft curio,” then something bordering on an obsession. Now, Smoochem represents a long-term goal. Currently the episode is a jumble of disconnected set pieces—something like a playable sketch show. Douglas still isn’t exactly sure how he’ll distribute the finished product. In the ‘90s, distributing his maps amounted to “sticking one on a floppy disc and watching it run like shit on a mate’s 486 SX.”

But so much of the joy is in the process. “Every little feature I add feels hard-won and satisfying,” he says. More than that, each little victory is helping Douglas realize “my brain isn't irreparably broken by my last episode.” And so he keeps on building. Pixel by pixel. Piece by piece.

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