The Most Important Games I Have Ever Played, Part I

I’m not sure when I “got” it.

You have to understand: it wasn’t like most games. It wasn’t that simple. It did not make itself readily available to the player, but, at the same time, it never went out of its way to obfuscate anything either. I don’t think there are any other games I’ve played that have done this; generally, when I play a game, everything is quite easy to understand, and there’s no need to go through it a second time. It’s all up-front and obvious. On the off-chance that I do replay the game, I almost never pick up anything new–I got it all the first time. Honestly, playing video games is the same experience you’re likely to have when watching a simple adventure movie. They’re not deep or anything, just fun.

Oh sure, if you play an RPG, maybe your choices will effect what you learn throughout the course of the game, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I speak of the deeper details, of going back and thinking about the game and spotting all the references, messages, hints, and clues that it has to offer. Generally, games don’t do this that much. If they do, it’s usually pretty blatant. Portal and Bioshock, both released within a few weeks of each other in late 2007, made some attempts towards metatextuality, and everyone and their grandmother latched onto those two, believing themselves so clever for having noticed.

This game isn’t like that–not exactly.

I’m talking about Marathon: Infinity, and if you’re scratching your head right now in befuddlement, don’t worry, because most people haven’t heard of it. Perhaps you’ve heard of Halo: Combat Evolved? Maybe you heard that when Halo was announced for the Xbox, Steve Jobs was very angry. Ever wondered why?

Gaming was never quite popular on Macs. Even with all the love the iDevices are getting, Macs still don’t have that many games, and it’s quite possible that they never will. That said, once upon a time, there was a little developer called Bungie, and before Halo, they developed one of the most important titles in video game history: Marathon. Among other things, Marathon has been credited with the introduction of the vertical rocket jump, vertical look in first person shooters (adding verticality to FPS gameplay, which is one of the most important elements), and, apparently, the popularization of LAN gameplay. You don’t hear about it that much because, hey, it was on a Mac, and id was making bigger contributions with Quake and Doom, but it definitely influenced video gaming for the better.

It’s unfortunate, then, that one thing Marathon did extremely well, few game developers (even Bungie itself) have managed to match, much less exceed. I am talking, of course, about storytelling.

As I’ve said before, people seem to prefer that FPSes be the dumbest games out there. Marathon, particularly the final installment, is direct proof that FPSes aren’t just smart, but some of the smartest games ever produced. Sure, you can get into deathmatching, and yeah, that can appeal to anybody, from the lowest common denominator on up, but if you want, there’s a great story to be found. You’re a super-soldier in hiding, playing the part of a guard on board the Marathon, a colony ship that was once Deimos, one of the two Martian moons. After an attack on the Marathon by a collective of alien slavers (with histories that are interesting stories in and of themselves) in a universe thought populated only by humanity, you’re tasked by one of the Marathon’s three artificial intelligences to rid the colony of the alien infestation.

What follows is a plot of intrigue, betrayal, and madness. Your only “friends,” the AIs, are either going rampant (a sort of insanity unique to artificial intelligences), or, in Durandal’s case, have been rampant the whole time*. If we were to compare the three most famous AI villains in video gaming to states of mental compromise, GLaDOS would be very drunk, SHODAN should be locked up for her own good, and Durandal is the Joker at the height of his game.

Allegiances shift more fluidly than blood spilled into a river. Deaths are faked. Cultures are freed. Impostors are revealed. Time is traveled. Pandora’s box is opened.

Marathon is everything.

It’s got drama (Tycho’s rivalry with Durandal), adventure (escaping a structure as it floods with lava), humor (BOBs stripping naked to avoid detection by the simulacrums), action (the entirety of all three games is basically nonstop action) and, to top it off, metatextual criticism. The game’s smart–while it isn’t on par with, say, Finnegan’s Wake or The Wasteland in terms of its ability to take culture and remix it, Marathon, particularly Infinity, makes every other video game ever made look like See Spot Run in comparison. There is so much you can discover while playing Marathon; each word seems carefully considered, each message is layered with multiple meanings and hidden references. From obscure scientific papers and Greek myth (to the not-so-obscure, like the title) to tons of science fiction and horror books and authors, Marathon covers so many topics it would be impossible for me to cover them all.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the Marathon Story Page exists, then? Here, have a taste of Marathon.

When I began, I mentioned something it took me a while to get. Beware, MASSVE spoilers follow (but first, a picture!):

“[He/she/it] was far ahead of [his/her/its] time” is a fairly trite phrase these day, but it’s true of Marathon: Infinity. If you remember, I mentioned that a bunch of people felt they were very clever for spotting the rather obvious messages (this is not to disparage them in any way; Valve and Irrational did a great job with those games, and everyone ought to play them) of the games. Well… Marathon Infinity did it eleven years earlier.

The premise of Marathon Infinity is that a dreadful monster, a Lovecraftian embodiment of chaos itself, was imprisoned in the heart of a star millions of years ago and is about to be released by an insane Pfhor general. Throughout the course of the game, you fail many times to prevent this from happening. After each failure, you are sent back in time to prevent this from happening. Your oneiric journey takes you to many strange places, including Durandal’s (or perhaps your own) memories. All the while, Durandal is trying to escape the inevitable collapse of the universe and escape, because “escape would make us god” (this is a nod to Marvel’s Galactus character and his origins).

Only… there’s a bit more to it than that.

Durandal sees it at the end. It’s the final screen–the game’s over and you’ve saved the universe. He reaches out to you–and by you, I don’t mean the character you play, I mean you, the player. You can read his final words here.

You see, he wanted to escape his reality–that of the game. This could all be hogwash, I’ll freely admit, but I don’t believe it is. You, the player, are the game’s destiny. You are the one who brings about the Marathon universe’s final moments. Throughout the game, Durandal belittles you, telling you how worthless you are, but by the end, he comes to understand the nature of your relationship. He held no power over you, and, in the final moments of the game, he realizes that he could never escape the game, unleashing his considerable powers on a universe greater than his own.

I don’t think a single game has done metatextuality better than Marathon did. You owe it to yourself to play this trilogy.

It saddens me to know that Greg Kirkpatrick, apparently the lead writer for Marathon: Infinity, isn’t still out there writing games. Looking at the few scraps of information we have about his next project, Duality, which, sadly, never came to fruition, I can’t help but think that it would have transformed video games to the same degree that Deus Ex, System Shock 2, Unreal, and Half-Life did, all around the same time. If it were possible, I’d gladly trade half a dozen members of the industry’s top talent to have him back. But, hey, maybe he’s happy not making video gams; last I heard, he was a high school teacher or something.

Oh well.

Well, that’s it for today. But before I finish, I leave you with this: Marathon’s source code was released by Bungie some time ago. Enterprising enthuisiasts have developed Aleph One, a way of running the Marathon games on modern PCs. If you want to play the Marathon games, you can, completely free of charge. Have fun learning why id’s shotguns mean absolutely nothing (dual wielding shotguns that reload in a manner your mind cannot begin to comprehend). You’re welcome.

*(i did it i did it i brought all this here all them here.  our friends with three eyes and their toys and their cyborg pets and their computers.  i did it i did it.  i saw them i saw them far away not looking our way and i called them here i called them here)

    • Jim
    • October 17th, 2011

    ..I love you. I admit, I actively seek pro-marathon everything, to satisfy my own personal need, for Marathon to get the attention it so rightfully deserves. I know it probably never will; even with its makers being ranked among the most popular, and quite likely simply best over-all; still, it does not garner the amount of love it deserves. So, I do not see how it can become well-known, if even that does not work.

    To the point, however: I’m not sure I agree with your assessment that Durandal is being quite that meta with his final words. I admit, I never thought of it like that – and reading the words again just now, I can see where you’re getting the possibility…

    But I’ve always thought that he was, indeed, talking about the character. In some sort of round-about thought of the character; how he has died a thousand times – all of his past battles, before he is “reincarnated” into another soldier, or literally has his mind shoved inside a cyborg after his original body died. I have been under the impression that our character is, in fact, a god. Not some kind of all-powerful, deity like one normally thinks – but simply Destiny itself, manifest into exactly what it needed to become. A non-self-aware machine that can, through violence and sheer force of will, force the universe to go in the direction that it is intended to go.

    Perhaps Destiny, speaking of it as a godly being instead of a metaphorical idea, is directly opposite the W’rkncacnter, who is may-hap, screwing with the time-line of reality. Thus, the time-traveling, head-ache inducing story of Infinity.

    Obviously this is pure speculation, without any real concrete evidence. But so is much of the story Marathon, and its perhaps more than simply spiritual, predecessor Pathways Into Darkness.

    Of course, your idea is just as possible – perhaps more so. Although the idea of the character being far more than simply an ordinary cyborg (which is also only speculation! It is nowhere actually stated outright. Although it truly is very, likely, based on all of the “subtle” hints placed throughout the terminals) is almost certain. A reincarnation of the soldier from Pathways into Darkness? Killing Gods would make certain things “seem strangely familiar” to the character back in the Marathon universe/ time-line.

    But, I digress. I enjoyed this article so very much – and I would not dare to try to change your mind about the ending. Most of you on Kotaku, and other forums everywhere, are far better at arguing, or even simply conversing, than I can hope to be at the present time.

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