Imagine, if you will, a first-person shooter game. Imagine it set in a science fiction world where humanity is on the verge of extinction from mysterious alien forces; imagine that it is beautifully rendered in the level design and complemented by a compelling storyline, and imagine that it is loaded with exotic alien weaponry that you can unleash on your friends and enemies in adversarial and cooperative multiplayer games alike. Not too hard to picture, right? Now – and here’s the tricky part – imagine this game as having been released eleven years ago.
Is that a bit more difficult to envision? It shouldn’t be, because you, as the kind of classy, educated gamer – you know, the kind who reads magazines that are distributed exclusively in PDF format – that you are, should have already played Bungie’s Marathon trilogy back during the formative years of the FPS. Right now, Bungie’s Halo 2 is a phenomenon that has won critical acclaim, sold over $125 million in its first day of sales, and perhaps most significantly, drawn in the Average Joe to the wonderful world of online multiplayer gaming via XBox Live. Anyone who wishes to understand this success would do well to investigate its roots in Marathon on the Macintosh.
Marathon‘s game design has left its mark, not only in Halo but also in the genre as a whole. While the rest of the industry was collectively soiling themselves over Doom‘s gritty texture maps and the totally awesome BFG 9000, the Bungie folks were quietly pioneering FPS development with things like secondary fire modes, objective-based missions instead of red keys and blue doors, plots that aren’t mind-numbingly boring, and so on. The fact that Marathon‘s gameplay remains fresh and modern even now stands as a testament to its pioneering game design (or a depressing indicator of the video game industry’s stagnation, if your cup is half empty). But beyond all this lies a very strong sense of character; the levels range from the dark, claustrophobic corridors of the colony ship Marathon to wide open, colorful alien landscapes, and the weapons have their own quirky personalities with names like the TOZT-7 Napalm Unit, the WSTE-M5 Combat Shotgun, and the trusty old SPNKR rocket launcher (which lives on in Halo). The multiplayer action, with game modes like King of the Hill and Kill the Guy with the Ball instead of just boring old deathmatch, was the LAN party staple for Mac gamers well into the Quake III Arena era. And the plot, which put you in the shoes of a cybernetically enhanced Security Officer, left you at the mercy of a somewhat psychotic AI in a war between human and alien, and narrated everything to you by way of strategically placed computer terminals; Marathon‘s storyline has a sublime perfection in its progress from straightforward alien-killing in Marathon and Marathon 2 to a disturbing, disorienting tale of alternate realities, dreams, time travel, and godhood in Marathon Infinity, and establishes a narrative style that is faintly echoed in the plot twists of Halo. Yes, perhaps some bizarre sector of the gaming elite frown upon the populist Halo 2 during their secret Katamari-and-caviar parties, but neither they nor anyone else can deny that the series’ simple elegance is a product of years and years of toiling in relative obscurity.
But where Halo 2 brought the modern first-person shooter into the hands of the Everyman, Marathon inspired the exact opposite reaction. Marathon was Mac-only, and rather than opening doors for a new class of average gamers, Marathon instead drew in the few and the proud: namely, those who not only owned a Macintosh back in 1994, but played games on it. And so computer-illiterate creative types and the aging-hippie system administrators and the children of yuppie parents and all the other predecessors of today’s mocha-frappuccino-and-PowerBook kids banded together out of love for perhaps the only Mac game that was their own – and in doing so, created one of the most tightly knit and zealously productive gaming communities ever.
The Marathon community has its roots in Usenet forums, befitting its age, and it began as any gaming community would. There was something about Marathon – about making flawless one-shot kills with the rocket launcher across the Thunderdome, maybe about those last few seconds of a game of King of the Hill – that forged a common bond across the computer networks of the world. People would swap war stories and game replays, puzzle over the plotline, run their lunchtime tournaments on unsuspecting office networks, make a few new maps – such is the life of any gaming clique. But where, say, the serious Doom II players would remain happily with a few shared pursuits, the Marathon players pursued all of this with a ferocious dedication that would warm the hearts of any game developer.
One particularly poignant example: the current obsession with speed runs and technical proficiency, popularized by the classic “Quake Done Quick” films, could very well include Marathon‘s “Vidmaster” films in its hereditary tree. Not content to merely play games better, the Marathon elite, inspired by Bungie’s official Vidmaster Challenge, gave rise to a long-standing tradition of masochism by worshipping at the altar of the Vidmaster; that is, the players who would record their feats of mastery by not only beating levels as quickly and skillfully as they can, but also by adding a certain amount of cocky flair to them by killing all moving things (friends and enemies alike), using grenades for locomotive purposes, not using any weapons but the fists, and above all, never retreating – all, of course, on the hardest difficulty setting possible.
The community was composed of more than just dedicated players; while people will forever sing the praises of the Half-Life modification community for achievements like Day of Defeat and Counter-Strike, the Marathon modders are no less significant. Marathon has its share of well-done total conversions, as any decent modding group would; and indeed, many of the fan-made adventures are no less compelling and haunting than the actual series canon itself, thanks in part to the inclusion of Bungie’s own mapmaking tools with Infinity. But once again, the fans’ devotion carried them far above and beyond the call of duty; few modding groups will find themselves so inspired as to port the signature Marathon multiplayer gameplay to another game engine, a la the Marathon: Rampancy mod for Unreal Tournament. Even fewer modding groups will ever be able to coordinate the resources and manpower necessary to port all of the Marathon trilogy in its entirety to run on any modern computer – Macintosh or PC – in high-resolution graphics and support for true Internet play, neither of which were supported by Bungie’s original product. Yes, that’s right; currently, the entire Marathon trilogy is available for free download, and it’s playable on your home computer with Aleph One, a labor of love produced by Marathon‘s faithful.
Perhaps the most impressive display of Marathon dedication resides in the group of people surrounding the Marathon’s Story web site. Maintained by webmaster Hamish Sinclair, the site catalogs each terminal screen of plot exposition present in the Marathon trilogy, plus years of communal discussion and investigation. This plot discussion is no teenage “ZOMG AERIS IS ALIVE” fluff; Marathon’s story uses computer terminal gibberish, numerology, Shakespeare, the Bible, ancient mythology, and complex mathematics all within the context of its own rich backstory, and so it takes people literate in each subject to decipher each message. Many games might have a secret message, a developer’s room, maybe a hidden level or two; not so many games will present the raw hexadecimal code of a secret level file in the game’s own narrative text, and not so many communities have the raw ingenuity and talent necessary to spot it. For years, people tore apart and analyzed everything they could – the hex code of the data files, hidden messages in the manuals, even the bar codes on the game boxes – and found clues and easter eggs that helped them piece the story together bit-by-bit. To the fans, Bungie had made a literary masterpiece, and they were determined to appreciate it, Quake and Unreal be damned.
And Bungie paid attention. One particularly notable anecdote from the Marathon’s Story website details the mystery of the Lost Network Packets; at the site’s inception, a few inconsistencies in the given dates and times of certain events arose that made the Marathon plot a little bit confusing. Rather than retroactively writing over the troublesome dates in the sequel, Bungie sent out a little tidbit side-story email to Sinclair entitled the “Lost Network Packets” that managed to rectify the dates – the date switching was intentional on the part of one of the story’s AIs, said the protagonist of the Packets, as part of a defensive attempt to confuse alien hackers. Another tidbit came at the very beginning of Halo’s development, where mysterious emails originating from Bungie office computers with cryptic writing styles made their way to the site by way of someone named Cortana (who would later be known as the Halo AI character). It wasn’t enough for Bungie to create Marathon; they did their damnedest to create the illusion that it was a living, breathing world.
Which brings us back to Bungie itself. For the notable part of the Marathon story is not that Bungie made a pretty good game, nor that the game inspired some people to do some fairly impressive things. Rather, it’s that Bungie was willing to take the game just as seriously as the fans were. Yes, Marathon players made the Vidmaster replays, but it was Bungie who issued the Vidmaster Challenge. When Marathon players were willing to invest their energies into making modifications for the game, Bungie accommodated them by releasing their own map editors with Marathon Infinity, and eventually releasing Marathon 2‘s source code and the whole trilogy’s data files to the public. And when Marathon players began to analyze every line of text for plot significance, Bungie encouraged them with additional storyline supplements. Perhaps Bungie had this in mind while working on Halo: Marathon‘s success wasn’t solely based on people loving it, but on people loving Bungie, too.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.