Duke Nukem 3D starts with our hero stepping onto the streets of LA, near a cinema and… That’s actually as much of the game as I need to describe today. Something as simple as a street was, in 1995, rather novel.

First Person shooters – or Doom Clones as we called them back then – usually went for some sort of scifi or fantasy setting. Their environments were also a bit abstract in nature. Collections of rooms and corridors with a general theme but not an immediately identifiable purpose. They could still be impressive or atmospheric. You just couldn’t tell why they existed or what was meant to happen there. So maps were, ultimately, just geometry and textures.

In Doom we ran around a Mars base comprised of sludge pits, and rooms of computer monitors, and big empty courtyards. Dark Forces gave us star destroyers, which was cool, but aside from a few key locations like the bridge or a hanger there would be a string of rather pointless rooms. In Heretic we invaded, I dunno, a wizard’s lair or something? You can pretty much draw anything you want in a 1994 game engine, put stone and wood textures on it and some angry skeletons in the entrance, then say a wizard lives here.

To its credit, Doom 2 did have a “downtown” level of city streets, but it wasn’t particularly successful. It didn’t have the sort of detail required. It was also hampered by the inability to do one floor directly above another, which pretty much stops it from creating an entire realistic building, exterior and interior. We could make allowances for the city being in a ruined, post-apocalyptic state. Still the buildings were basically just weird hollowed-out cubes sat on a stone floor.

Perhaps that illustrates the problem with trying for the real world, in an early shooter. The developers knew they weren’t yet capable of recreating it convincingly. So it was a safer bet to go for spaceships or wizard towers, the sort of place we’re not going to immediately compare to experiences from our everyday lives.

[edit: I suppose I should mention that Wolfenstein 3D was based on the second world war, but with its early, primitive engine it was basically just a bunch of mazes]

So this is something that made Duke so revolutionary from the start. Sure it still had a goofy scifi theme, but it was clearly taking place here, on earth. It featured locations like city streets, hotels and stadiums. The sort of place that many urban dwellers would find a short distance from their home. It’s one of the first shooters I know of that showed us the genre could work in (relatively) realistic setting, without needing to go to space.

Part of this was achieved by textures and level geometry (it could do “floors above floors”). Another factor was detailing, all kinds of little features that bring a place to life. Many of which were interactive.

You could walk into a bar, and it obviously was a bar. There was a counter with a cash register, and glass bottles (that you could smash). Magazines littered tables. You could walk up to a pool table and scatter the balls. A door would lead to the bathroom and you could burst in on the stall (rudely interrupting an alien lizard trooper). Then break the toilet.

Of course, there is the matter of that cinema I mentioned being, ahem, a porno cinema. Meanwhile the second level had a strip club (“shake it baby”). So, yeah, several of these “real world” locations were draped in seediness. Since I was a teenager when I first played, let’s not pretend the pixellated smut wasn’t also getting my attention.

Also I would never claim that all shooters should go down this path. Indeed all the war-themed games since Medal of Honor and Call of Duty have probably overdone urban grime. Conversely Unreal was memorable for its hazy, colourful alien world. There will always be plenty of room for imaginative settings that are fanciful or magical.

Still, back in 1995 it was a fascinating new experience just to have a shootout in a bar.