When dick jokes are art

By Mitch Krpata
Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 11:00 am
Shadows of the Damned's Fleming: he's just a big dick.
This year I've played two games that display an unhealthy fascination with sex, violence, and private parts. Both games feature profane lead characters. Both take design cues from parts of the anatomy that, legally, must be covered in most civilized societies. Both make ironic use of the "Mature" rating. And both contain their share of janky action gameplay and questionable quality assurance.

One of these games is trash. The other is a work of genius.

The first, Duke Nukem Forever, is one of the worst-reviewed major releases in years, but a sales success. The second, Shadows of the Damned, was well-reviewed, and sank like a stone at retail. Why? Why is Duke Nukem Forever an embarrassment for the discerning player, and Shadows of the Damned a triumph? Why did the public embrace one lowbrow romp, and dismissanother?

Most important of all: what makes a dick joke art?

The easiest question to answer may be why Duke moved a couple million copies, while Shadows sold only tens of thousands. Not only did Duke benefit from a still potent brand, it also had the support of a massive advertising campaign. Shadows, by contrast, arrived with little fanfare. The first I heard about it was at a Gamestop the day before it came out, when I looked at the monitor behind the counter to see a clip of a game that looked to me like Resident Evil 4, only ridiculous. (How right I was.)

It's sad but true that marketing muscle can make a difference in sales, but shouldn't review scores be able to do the same thing? Apparently not. Consumers weren't scared off by Duke's abysmal Metacritic score of 49, nor were they persuaded by Shadows' favorable score of 77. Which makes sense, in a way - why would you look at a game's Metacritic page unless you'd heard of it already?

Still, news that Shadows of the Damned was about to vanish from the US marketplace should have been a chance for more players to get their hands on it at a reduced price. Players who didn't know what to expect would likely be surprised by the game's phallocentric approach to action gameplay, what with weapons like the "Hot Boner" and a randy sidekick named Johnson.

Yes, it's juvenile, every bit as much as Duke's sexually aggressive taunts and alien doorways that look like anuses. And while Duke finishes off an enemy by ripping off his head and pooping in his throat, the hero of Shadows, Garcia Hotspur, reloads his weapons with a vigorous wanking motion. You can't take one step in either of these games without encountering something that would send a 14-year-old boy into a giggling fit.

So why is Duke critically reviled while Shadows is held up as an example of the public's undiscriminating taste? On a superficial level, they couldn't be more similar. Ultimately, it comes down to intent. In the fiction of Duke Nukem Forever, Duke himself is held up to be a paragon of virtue. His grandiose self-image is reflected in the world around him. You can't dig into what Duke might mean, because it doesn't mean anything. It is a game that thinks poop is funny, and so it lets you pick up a turd from the toilet and fling it. There's no significance beyond that.

Shadows of the Damned invites a more subtle reading. It, too, is a damsel-in-distress tale, whose female lead suffers her share of abuse at the hands of a sadistic demon lord. But unlike Duke, who mercy-kills Earth's kidnapped babes, Garcia Hotspur is forever vainly chasing after his paramour, trying one thing after another with his Johnson in a futile attempt to reclaim her from the phallic demon lord Fleming. Shadows isn't the story of a macho he-man whose sexual prowess can't be tamed; it is, instead, the sad tale of a lover who is worried he can't measure up.

That's my reading of Shadows of the Damned, although there are assuredly others. But try to say Duke Nukem Forever is about anything more than an Aryan superman fighting off an alien invasion and you won't even be able to convince yourself. That's when a dick joke becomes art - when it invites interpretation.

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