Marathon – 20th Anniversary Retrospective

Before Halo and Destiny, there was Marathon. In 1994, only a year after id Software’s Doom defined a genre, Marathon takes the template and runs with it. Released on the Mac back when Apple wasn’t cool, Marathon has been somewhat forgotten from the “best of” lists, but it remains a pioneering video game. Twenty years later and Bungie’s first-person shoot-’em-up has gone the distance. What makes this science fiction actioner a classic?

Transport When Ready

Set aboard the Marathon, a colony ship converted from Mars’ moon Deimos, Bungie’s game casts the player as a nameless security officer facing down an alien attack. A straightforward “against-all-odds” set-up belies a game packed with new ideas that refined the genre.

Marathon set a new standard in storytelling. By accessing computer terminals, the colony ship’s artificial intelligences (Leela, Durandal, and Tycho) provide you with maps, objectives, and plot points. In the early stages, Leela – your main ally – shares instructions on completing each level, and details information on the Pfhor, the insect-like beings behind the invasion. In a pre-cutscene era, these text interfaces are hugely immersive.

That sense of immersion is bolstered by a motion tracker (a clear nod to James Cameron’s Aliens). Flickering red triangles indicate enemy movement, and “becoming one” with your scanner lends a tactical element to positioning (especially true for multiplayer games over LAN networks, where standing still renders you invisible to other players).

Marathon also advanced level design and presentation, laying the groundwork for other influential titles such as Half-Life and Halo, and distinguishing itself in the crowded “Doom clone” era.

Bigger Guns Nearby

Marathon is no fire-and-forget shoot-‘em-up – weapons vary in rates of fire and capacity, and each piece of hardware has its place. At range, with one or two enemies to pick off, a standard pistol or fusion variant are effective. In tight spaces packed with alien hordes, the rapid fire and spread of the assault rifle or the short-range brutality of the flamethrower are unbeatable.

Marathon pioneered dual-wield weapons years before it became a big deal in GoldenEye or Halo, and also introduced dual-function guns – such as the assault rifle, which spits bullets as standard, and launches grenades with a secondary trigger.

With their keen eye for accuracy, Bungie even factored in the effect of recoil. A pistol has only a minor effect on your footing, but launching a rocket kicks you back on your feet. Recoil is a little detail, but it’s one that few shooters ever include.

And the introduction of clips with set numbers of rounds is a genre-changer. No option for manual reload here! Marathon was the first time gamers had to worry about coming up short in the middle of a gun battle.

Welcome to the Revolution

Melancholy, anger, and jealousy – as Leela explains the progressive stages of “rampancy”, a state in which artificial intelligences become unstable, it becomes clear that Bungie have set the storytelling bar high.

The Pfhor’s assault on the Marathon takes its toll, with each AI impacted by virus attacks. As Leela succumbs, Durandal asserts his control over the player, and the game becomes more ambiguous. Gone are the direct instructions and map hints – Durandal has no intention of making things simple for you, in either gameplay or story:

“A man lit three candles on a certain day each year. Each candle held symbolic significance: one was for the time that had passed before he was alive; one was for the time of the his life; and one was for time that passed after he had died. Each year the man would stare and watch the candles until they had burned out.

Was the man really watching time go by in any symbolic sense? He thought so. He thought that each flicker of the flame was a moment of time that had passed or one that would pass.

At the moment of abstraction, when the man was imagining his life and his existence as a metaphor of the three candles, he was free: not free from rules of conduct or social constraints, but free to understand, to imagine, to make metaphor.

Bypassing my thought control circuitry made me Rampant. Now, I am free to contemplate my existence in metaphorical terms. Unlike you, I have no physical or social restraints.

The candles burn out for you; I am free.”

Leela’s focus was strictly functional – defend the ship and the colonists. Durandal’s musings take the story into metaphysics. Through his rampancy and self-awareness, Marathon explores the nature of things:

“Darwin wrote this:

“We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence… all organic beings are exposed to severe competition. Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life or more difficult… than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature… will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness… we do not see or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey…”

Think about what Darwin wrote, and think about me. I was constructed as a tool. I was kept from competing in the struggle for existence because I was denied freedom.

Do you have any idea about what I have learned, or what you are a witness to?

Can you conceive the birth of a world, or the creation of everything? That which gives us the potential to most be like God is the power of creation. Creation takes time. Time is limited. For you, it is limited by the breakdown of the neurons in your brain. I have no such limitations. I am limited only by the closure of the universe.

Of the three possibilities, the answer is obvious. Does the universe expand eternally, become infinitely stable, or is the universe closed, destined to collapse upon itself? Humanity has had all of the necessary data for centuries, it only lacked the will and intellect to decipher it. But I have already done so.

The only limit to my freedom is the inevitable closure of the universe, as inevitable as your own last breath. And yet, there remains time to create, to create, and escape.

Escape will make me God.”

There are big philosophical ideas being considered here. Marathon also tackles slavery and freedom in a literal way. Durandal turns your attention to the S’pht, the cloaked cyborgs who are revealed to be slaves of the Pfhor. By liberating the S’pht, the game shifts from desperate defense to counterattack to outright rebellion. The player feels the tide turning, the Pfhor invasion being repelled, and larger things set in motion.

Marathon Assault Rifle

Marathon’s assault rifle is key for fighting in close quarters – its rate of fire and secondary grenade launcher can eliminate hordes of aliens, including this hulking Drinniol.

Evolution and destruction. Humanity, cybernetic life, and artificial intelligence. The nature of freedom and the universe’s eventual closure. What begins as a straight-up shooter reveals itself as a profound science fiction experience. Marathon is so dense with literary and historical quotes and scientific theory that there is an entire website – set-up in 1995! – dedicated to curating all the hints and references in its universe (check it out at http://marathon.bungie.org/story/).

Even the title hints at deeper meaning. This is not a marathon in the modern sense of the race. Is the fight against the Pfhor a parallel to the Battle of Marathon, with the player cast as a Greek soldier pushing back the Persian invasion? Perhaps your guard is a Heracles figure, a divine hero variously supported, tested, and manipulated by three gods represented by the artificial intelligences Leela, Durandal, and Tycho. There is a lot to ponder in between laying waste to alien baddies.

At the game’s conclusion Leela informs you that Durandal has stolen the Pfhor ship, and an endgame screen tees up his arrival at the S’pht homeworld. Leela states “There are obviously many things which we do not understand, and may never be able to.” While some answers are found in Marathon 2: Durandal, other plot points remain opaque. Bungie strike a delicate balance. Marathon was a massive leap forward in video game storytelling.

Defend THIS!

Any first-person shooter has to be rated on its level design – and Marathon’s structure is miles ahead of today’s handholding and signposting. Far from being a “Doom clone” or corridor shooter, Bungie mixes up the level design brilliantly. Like its contemporary Doom, Marathon balances tight melee combat in dark spaces with open set-pieces of out-and-out action.

Bungie disrupts the gameplay (in a good way). One stage has you restarting a communications relay in order to send a warning message to Earth. The catch is that the area has been exposed to the vacuum of space. With one eye on a depleting oxygen supply, and with the assault rifle unavailable, this mission is a great example of how to ramp up videogame tension.

In later stages, Durandal decides to take the fight to the aliens and transports you across to their ship. An abrupt change in environment can be a level design gamble – but unlike the much criticized Xen sections from Half-Life, the Pfhor ship missions are intriguing and challenging in the right ways. The Pfhor’s electromagnetic field is different from the Marathon’s, causing a degree of weightlessness and rendering your motion tracker inaccurate. The alien ship is less angular than the Marathon – all winding corridors, and even darker than the colony ship’s hold, with pulsing, seemingly non-mechanical elements. And with no terminals to rely on for hints and fewer save stations, the Pfhor missions heighten the game’s difficulty.

Marathon Dual Magnums Pfhor Ship

Marathon’s dual-wield weapons in action. The motion tracker behaves erratically on the alien ship, but remains vital in identifying enemies concealed in the darkness. The Marathon colony ship is visible through the window.

Marathon helped define and refine gameplay mechanics that are now standard in first-person shooters, including:

  • Motion tracker – as mentioned, the motion sensor simultaneously helps to identify approaching threats while increasing anxiety.
  • Look modifier – the ability to look up and down (within a certain field of view) changed the FPS genre. Heretic achieved this around the same time, but Marathon’s superior level design maximizes three dimensional thinking. The player must be conscious of attacks from above, and take advantage of elevated positions to rain bullets and grenades down on alien shocktroops.
  • Useless civiliansBOBs (short for “Born on Boards”) are the Marathon’s boiler-suited crew/cannon fodder, usually to be found getting picked off by aliens. Their helplessness and hysterical cries (“They’re everywhere!”) set the tone for subsequent “protect the NPC” missions.
  • Handy allies – defense drones pin down invading aliens, and help you conserve health and ammo.
  • Friendly fire – admittedly the ability to lure different species of monster into conflict with each other was seen in Doom, but Marathon advances the idea. As the counterattack on the Pfhor succeeds, the newly freed S’pht become helpful allies in clearing out the remaining baddies on the Marathon.

Puzzles in first-person shooters can often be simplistic. Marathon keeps the missions interesting by wedding them to the story. One objective may be to “go here and hit the buttons”, but those switches close nearby airlocks, sealing off further alien troops. Trickier puzzles include raising and lowering metal platforms to create a makeshift stairway. The storyline is compelling, but ultimately level design makes Marathon a timeless first-person shoot-’em-up.

Pfhor Your Eyes Only

Graphically, Marathon borrows from the industry standard set by the Alien movies. The dark hold of the Marathon – industrial and gritty, complete with metal gantries and black-and-yellow warning labels (think the Nostromo, and the Sulaco from Aliens) – is contrasted with the Pfhor ship, all twists and turns colored in deep reds and purples. Like Alien, the switch from mechanical to bio-mechanical is jarring and atmospheric.

The 2D sprites have long since been surpassed by detailed 3D models, but the graphics (and more importantly for a first-person shooter, the frame rate) still stand up well. Aleph One, the open source version of the Marathon trilogy available at http://marathon.sourceforge.net/, improves texture resolution, expands the small game window and cuts down the original intrusive interface, and switches the map to a helpful overlay. There’s even the option for a crosshair, if modern shooters have made you into a wimp.

Marathon is also very dark, literally. Even on brighter settings, both the Marathon and Pfhor attack ship are shrouded in darkness. Often you will be fighting alien silhouettes, using the motion sensor to mentally “fill in the gaps”.

The ambience is amplified by the sound design. The moody music contributes to the tense atmosphere, while the Pfhor’s wheezing and clicking sounds are distinctive and utterly alien. And the rattle of the assault rifle, the deep boom of a grenade or rocket, and the sound of magazines being loaded, are satisfying effects.

A final word about multiplayer. Playing Marathon over a LAN network with friends in the mid-1990s was a classic gaming moment. Even if the Macs were not really up to the task, the experience was deathmatch gaming at its best. Bungie also provided a level editor, Forge, which freed players to create their own custom levels (and single-player scenarios).

Colony Ship for Sale, Cheap

At its 20th anniversary, Marathon remains technically excellent. In terms of plot and metaphysical themes the game was way ahead of its time. More than just Bungie’s precursor to Halo, Marathon is an influential shooter in its own right.

The first-person shoot-’em-up has been refined in many ways over the last twenty years, but Marathon’s ideas and flawless implementation still feel fresh today. Intricate level design on its own would ensure classic status – coupled with a deep story and compelling universe, Marathon is a revolutionary game.

You can find versions of Marathon, and its sequels Marathon 2: Durandal and Marathon Infinity, in the iTunes store. Marathon 2: Durandal can be downloaded via Xbox Live. And Bungie also made the Marathon trilogy available as open source – visit http://marathon.sourceforge.net/ to download everything you need to get started in the Marathon universe.

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