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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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.

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