In my pursuit to describe my time with video games, I often indulge in the creation of some explanations that are… well, strange. It is not at all uncommon for me to come upon a way of viewing my experiences that seem to make little sense to those who have played the same games. My own imagination conjurers connections and patterns that, while some may glance out of the corner of their eye, would not invest in them as I do. In short, I view things from a point of view that is too often a lonely tower looking out into a bizarre landscape, seeing only the flashes of imagery. So, you may understand then that after playing the demos for Catherine and Duke Nukem Forever, I came upon a way of viewing both that links the two and provides a framework for approaching something I have wanted to write about: dreamscapes.
Catherine is about dreams. That much from the demo I am sure of. I understand, from promotion materials and the game’s own menu that somehow a man named Vincent is caught and is being tugged between two women. The details of the relationships between them, the women, and the man I know little of. From the scenes that the game showed me, I assume that Vincent has been in a relationship with Katherine — note the ‘K’ — for some time but I am unsure how long that is. I know they message each other using phones and Vincent talks of marriage to his friends, about what that may mean to his relationship and his future. But, like I said, the only thing I know is that dreams — hallucinations? — are very important.
In these dreams, a prominent part of the demo, Vincent is being chased up a tower by a harsh female voice. The first time the player sees Vincent in the demo, he has rams horns, lacks clothing except for boxers and holds a pillow. For some reason he is in a place where he must climb, by pushing and pulling blocks, up or risk death. As time goes on and Vincent climbs, the lower blocks fall away pushing Vincent to climb higher and higher until he reaches a door at the top and escapes, only to come back to reality and a conversation with Katherine where he has apparently blacked out. Before I go too far though in description of that, I want to give some analysis of the imagery of the game.
While in this dream world, Vincent sees other creatures: sheep. This, to me, is quite interesting as the game takes place in modern day Japan. The reason that is of note is that many philosophers have wondered if the general populace of the country are, in fact, being lead along in life. This goes doubly for the twenty-somethings that have no real ambition, that just react to life. (That last detail is not unique to Japan, it’s everywhere.) So, as a very Freudian manifestation of his inability to decide on his own, Vincent is transformed into one of the many sheep he sees. Transformed only in part though. He still retains the shape of human yet gains horns, a common symbol of virility.
Vincent then is a stand in for many people who would play the game, the demographic if you will, that will feel the same world indifference that Vincent does, the inability to decide upon an action. The tower he climbs too is an image for the trials he faces, trying to solve a problem one block at a time. The game, at least as seen through the demo, has many images that link to feelings and ideas that are part of Vincent’s Inner Ideas, the very phrase that the game uses to explain how Vincent is siding between the two women and the world around him. Just the demo alone for Catherine provided me with a some interesting interpretations for the game world, although all were veiled through complex imagery based in Freudian images from the subconsciousness.
Duke Nuken Forever however is about sex and violence. Probably at the same time. The demo starts, as had been stated in many places, with Duke pissing into a urinal. As the action continues, driven by the player’s holding down a button, the character speaks to… himself? That single action of narration was the first of several that prompted me to develop a very different narrative structure for the game than the world that it presents to the player upon first look. The game wants you to take the life of Duke seriously. He is supposed to be the best at everything. He single-handily took down an alien force and saved his planet. He can wield any gun with ease. He and he alone can save everyone, sleep with any woman and be the best… man ever.
I wasn’t able to take the game seriously though. It wanted me to. With Duke pissing and having him take down an alien within the first few minutes, the game wants you to invest in the character whose health is represented with the word “Ego”, who is mostly likely receiving fellatio with two women as he plays a video game version of himself and whom the in-game narrator — an additional voice — tells you is the only one who can save Earth… again. After playing through a quick area of fighting one large creature, I was set into a desert canyon environment and let loose to fight my way to a mine system, through it and then back to the monster truck I used to get to the canyon in the first with more gas for the truck. If it wasn’t for the demo looking and feeling like a game pulled out of time from the Nineties, I would have sworn something else was going on in the game that was not revealed. This, of course, led me to an interpretation of the events I experienced as the character: he is dreaming this.
The level to which the game world, the narrative structure, of the game revolves around Duke is absurd. My only conclusion then is that it must not be real. All weapons seem to be placed in an unrealistic way. The NPCs seem desperate for Duke to act. One of the early and very few speaking role tells Duke that he is “The man with the plan” and to “Go get ’em, Duke!” Other than as a fantasy, the world cannot be so centered on one character. Sure, yes, most media is about one character and events happen in a conspired way for that character — plot — but the level at which this shows these interconnections is beyond the level of parody for the form of first-person shooters. It is not funny, it is tragic. There is a man trapped in a world where everything goes right for him, the greatest fantasy. The way in which he occasionally takes actions he knows is wrong, to his standards, and yet still does them is terrifying. How can an immoral man trapped in a world where he is the hero ever escape from it? No action is too much, no decision wrong. Can he ever leave?
In my mind, both the demo for Catherine and Duke Nukem Forever became glued together. Both, in their own way, became about men trying to escape from nightmares they have landed in by way of a mysterious method. For Vincent, he is aware of his nightmare and is being hunted from within by a reflection of his subconscious thoughts. These towers he climbs are a very real inner threat to himself as his fears manifest themselves. For Duke, it is much worse. His world is a nightmare of happiness. His ever whim, his pursuit of a perversion of the American Dream via machismo and sexuality, trap him in a world that he may not even feel he needs to leave. One of these two might escape. Maybe.