Best of The Escapist

Best of The Escapist
From '94 to Infinity: Before Halo

Pat Miller | 16 May 2006 08:05
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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.

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