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Modding Duke Nukem 3D into a joke about English culture can be good for your mental health

Duke Smoochem creator Dan Douglas on how his mod became a mental refuge

It’s well documented that creativity can help quell the waves of stormy mental health seas. Hours of documentaries chronicle how artists expressed their struggles through brushstrokes, or how an actor agonised over creating an accurate character to counterbalance their imposter syndrome or anxiety. It’s unlikely many creatives have found “refuge” in a 27 year old retro game engine - but that’s exactly how Dan Douglas talks about his sprawling mod for Duke Nukem 3D.

You might have seen Douglas’s work on Twitter: Boris Johnson dangling from a zip-line or, more recently, throwing a can of Heinz tomato soup at a Van Gogh, all created within Duke Nukem 3D’s Build Engine. What started as a tongue-in-cheek, though elaborate, joke for Twitter has become the sprawling Duke Nukem 3D mod project, still going sixteen months later. We can attribute the continued creation of this mod, now officially titled Duke Smoochem 3D, to several different things: much of the UK is now a hellscape of memeable moments; everyone finds the Gilliam-esque punchlines a great visual summation of said memeable moments; and, most importantly, it has been a space for its creator to heal.

Duke Smoochem 3D began life as a joke. “The initial inspiration was seeing a floor plan of Matt Hancock’s office printed in the Daily Mail following the expose of his affair via leaked CCTV footage,” explains Douglas. “It was ludicrously, hilariously over-detailed, with labels like 'coat rack' and 'kiss door'.” It reminded him of a video game automap, and Duke Nukem 3D’s security camera feature. The initial joke landed with Douglas’s relatively large Twitter following, who immediately latched onto and began retweeting this new gag.

Without knowing it at the time, Douglas’s joke would become a one-liner in a full stand-up set of funny jabs at the state of Britain. That retro inspired map of Matt Hancock’s office of course needed extra rooms - for “world building, and I still haven’t stopped,” laughs Douglas. The thread of jokes continued, but the coding became therapeutic. Douglas was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 some time ago. His condition tends to be episodic. He explains he can be “relatively balanced and functional” for long periods, but find it all upended by rapidly-escalating hypomania or catastrophically psychotic episodes, often followed by extended bouts of deep depression.

When I ask how creating has helped him, Douglas is brutally honest. “Since my last psychotic episode, in March 2020, I’ve been severely depressed and plagued by intrusive thoughts. I find that getting deep in the level editor of Build Engine helps quiet them,” he explains. “I’ve trained myself to direct my thoughts to what I’m going to add next to the project and how to make effects work, so just having it as a constant go-to is almost like a little mental refuge or something.”

For a long time, Douglas was struggling to shift back into some form of normalcy. That 2020 episode saw him sectioned and prescribed antipsychotic medication which came with brutal side-effects. “I couldn’t read more than a few tweets, or follow the plot on TV programmes, or often even communicate properly as I was so wiped out and in despair,” he says. Douglas fell into a deep spiral of depression. He spent a long time in bed, hiding from the world, wishing he didn’t exist. He had been put on long-term medical leave from his job and he worried about how he would transition back to his career.

“Developing Duke Smoochem 3D showed me that I was still capable of learning, of problem solving, of thinking creatively. I’m pleased to say that I managed to get back to work earlier this year after two years, and following a phased return I’m now back up to full shifts.” Alongside courses of therapy, and continued support from family, friends and medical professionals, Douglas credits working on the mod as a big catalyst in his recovery so far.

A Sainsbury's Local supermarket in a screenshot from the Duke Nukem 3D map Duke Smoochem.

Creativity can put our brains into a flow state. We can become so focused on a project we get into ‘the zone’, feeling euphoric, more relaxed, more mindful. Where players may get this feeling of accomplishment from playing a game - finishing tasks or seeing an ending cutscene - others might feel it through building a game or mod. And Douglas also believes that humour is a great tool for those recovering or suffering from mental health distress.

“The way we consume news now is so relentless, hyperactive and distorted. I see Smoochem as another skew on that. I’m trying to keep the tone light and slapstick,” he says. “Though I am attempting some subtle social commentary, I tend to be more interested in uniquely British minutiae.” This outlook is demonstrated clearly by some of the levels we’ll eventually play. Douglas has programmed high-street retailer W. H. Smiths, government offices, a typical British beach made from shale and stones, and so much more.

"With Matt Hancock entering the jungle for I’m a Celebrity, I think perhaps I’ve finally found a nice conclusion for the mod’s narrative."

It’s hard to think a game will come out the end of this, rather than an endless social comedy experiment. After all, Duke Smoochem 3D is a game - or at least many hope it will be, including Douglas. In his development Twitter thread Douglas jokes that he needs a “cutoff point with this project before it consumes literal years of my life,” and there’s a sense that the mod could go on forever, a farcical platform for lampooning British news. But Douglas has set his sights on some form of ending.

“With Matt Hancock entering the jungle for I’m a Celebrity, I think perhaps I’ve finally found a nice conclusion for the mod’s narrative. I’m fairly confident I’ve set a limit on how many locations I’m going to include, as the sprawl was becoming ridiculous,” he says. Given how much it has helped him over the past sixteen months, does Douglas really want it to end? “On the one hand, yes. My decade-old PC is gradually becoming more and more unstable," he explains. "Plus. It’s getting very technical. I think the hardest single set piece I’ve put together so far was the BBC News interview interrupted by children – despite being viewable only via a camera feed, which removes any random player interaction factors, getting the timing just right for all of the elements was extremely tricky.”

Boris Johnson dangles from a zipline waving union flags in a screenshot from the Duke Nukem 3D custom level, Duke Smoochem.

It’s often hard to move on from something that filled a void, or helped us through a difficult time. I’m sure many of us could pluck a game, film or book from our shelves and affirm that ‘this thing saved my life’ - or at least, words to that effect. Douglas's statement about finishing Duke Smoochem isn't without a qualifier: “On the other hand, there’s a fear that it won’t live up to expectations, and I have concerns that I’ll be left without a creative outlet once the mod releases.”

And while some would be sad to see Duke Smoochem 3D sit unreleased, Douglas isn’t one of them. “Even if I run out of steam, or the project remains in perpetual development, I’m getting such a kick out of continually trying to outdo myself," he tells me. "Although I’m confident I’ll release something eventually, the fun and satisfaction I’m getting out of putting this together is enough in itself even if a game never materialises.” The whole project has been a journey many people have taken with Douglas, as he spitballed ideas on Twitter, or flashed the concepts. Even if this ends up being a vehicle where one man fought his way to recovery, that’s something special to be a part of, and perhaps a journey only a 27-year-old game could facilitate.

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Dan Lipscombe

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