Want to walk through a living, interactive museum of the United Kingdom’s disastrous life-changing news items and oddball social media storms? One where you get to throw a can of soup at Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers? Watch Boris Johnson traverse above you on a zip wire and ponder how such a fella became prime minister. And consider what exactly Labour leader Keir Starmer has against alpacas as he issues an airstrike against a field of them.
Well, now you can – all in the form of a 1990s first-person-shooter video game. Enter Duke Smoochem 3D.
Duke Smoochem 3D is the brain-child of Dan Douglas who, over the past 18 months has not only painstakingly simulated news items detailing Great Britain’s gradual political and social decline, but recreated Normal Island’s littered and graffitied high-streets, bizarre inhabitants, inclement weather, squalid living conditions and failing public transport systems. All powered by Duke Nukem 3D’s 1996 Build engine.
The engine’s retro, somewhat pixelated, off-centre look lends itself surprisingly well to rendering the state of a nation. “The classic Build engine style is very cartoonish and naturally lends itself to satire, and I think a lot of the charm of the project comes from its sprite-based technology, and the shitty animations I’ve created from manipulating photos,” says Dan, who posts updates on the game’s progress on an enormous thread on his Twitter profile.
“I feel like my skills creating both level geometry and game art are just good enough for what I’m trying to accomplish, and a more professional presentation or contemporary game engine with lavish graphics might dilute things.
“The archaism of Build forces me to focus on the fundamentals of every location or event I’m trying to depict, and I love its uniquely unhinged quality.”
The project’s growing audience has Matt Hancock’s wandering gaze to thank for its inception; the mod started life as a quickfire online joke – one that wildly escalated – in response to news reports that the former health secretary had been using his official office to conduct his extramarital affair.
“The initial inspiration for the project came from seeing a floorplan of Matt Hancock’s Department of Health office on Mail Online, following the news of his affair breaking – it was unnecessarily detailed, with labels like ‘coat rack’ and ‘Queen painting’, and pointed out the angle his clinch was caught on CCTV,” says Dan.
“I was immediately reminded of the automap view in a video game and recalled Duke Nukem 3D’s early implementation of a security camera viewscreen feature. I had a little bit of experience making basic maps for the game in the mid-90s, and thought it would be amusing to try and recreate the scandal in the Build engine. It kind of snowballed from there.
After completing the initial room, Dan made the fateful decision that it required some additional surrounding areas to finish it. Soon a functioning replica of Britain’s identikit shopping streets: complete with open-for-business chain stores including Greggs, Sainsbury’s and second-hand shop Cex; and bordered-up defunct outlets such as Maplin symbolising the entropic state of the economy.
There’s a Tube station but, as is all too often in real life on the weekend, it’s closed with the dreaded rail replacement bus advertised instead. The titular playable character then has to find alternative means to open the station up. Then there is the ever-present lurking danger of a seagull attack. Roaming the game’s streets, the player can come across the Four Lads in Jeans standing next to the statue unveiled in their honour, Cat Bin Lady and the infamous “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead” Brexit Bus, symbolically blocking the road and all possible progress.
Go further afield into the English countryside and you’ll discover the Great British Bake Off tent, charity walker Captain Tom Moore pulling a literal gravy train from beyond the grave, and the ill-fated Ed Stone from the 2015 general election hidden among the ruins of Stonehenge.
With such an almighty remit, the creation of Duke Smoochem 3D has the potential to become a task akin to Sisyphus eternally pushing his rock or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard’s incompletable city-sized, lifelong magnus opus in Synecdoche, New York. Dan has had offers of help but has only taken on one collaborator: Lee Jackson, who composed the score for the original Duke Nukem 3D, has written the mod’s theme tune.
But perhaps the project’s biggest dilemma is that it’s documenting an era of so much news, with the UK having faced years of turmoil following the 2008 financial crash, austerity, Brexit divisions, Covid-19 and prime ministerial merry-go-rounds. But despite – or perhaps because of – the overwhelming scope, Dan credits it with helping him overcome a severe mental health crisis.
“I had my third psychotic episode and was sectioned in March 2020, and by the time I started the project over a year later I still hadn’t made much progress in my recovery,” he says. “I was severely depressed, lethargic, and unable to concentrate or find enjoyment in any pursuit. My mind felt utterly smashed.
“Putting the mod together has both provided an absorbing distraction and proved to me that I can still problem-solve well enough to hold down a job – I credit developing Duke Smoochem with catalysing my return to work last year.”
Thankfully, Hancock’s more recent controversial bug-munching escapades on reality TV have perhaps provided the game’s creator a convenient story-arc to round off the plot and find a natural conclusion.
“Duke is washed up, working as a kind of dogsbody for The Sun newspaper,” he says. “He’s tasked with obtaining CCTV footage of Matt Hancock’s affair, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and a simultaneous alien invasion. There’s going to be a countryside and seaside levels so I need to find a reason to get Duke out of the city; I think the finale will see him jetting off to the Australian jungle to confront Hancock on the I’m A Celebrity set.”
The project has gradually become more than just a game or insider joke, looking instead like an interactive historical art exhibit capturing a hive-mind’s viewpoint of the nation’s past decade. Dan has also opened up the possibility of a ‘walkabout’ feature, in which enemies wouldn’t spawn and players could stroll about Britain’s tattered-and-torn landscapes, uncovering voiceover explainers detailing all the niche references contained, like individual pieces in a museum.
“This is something I want to incorporate eventually,” he says, “but it’ll likely be an update to the mod long after release. The amount of work required to script, record and implement a feature like this will be colossal, and I don’t want to burn myself out.
“In terms of when this will actually see the light of day, realistically it’s going to be years. I’m in no hurry to get it out, and I want the mod to be finalised and polished and thoroughly play-tested before I upload it.”
Regardless, Duke Smoochem 3D looks like it’ll be worth the wait – with a bit of luck, the United Kingdom will at least last long enough to see itself depicted in glorious 32-bit form.