After Pressing Start: Marathon Infinity
Marathon was a trilogy of FPS games made in the ’90s by Bungie, the developer who went on to make Halo. The Marathon games are classics, known for their fast paced gameplay, brutal difficulty level, intricate level design, and complex story. One reason you might not have heard about Marathon is that it was released exclusively for the Apple Macintosh back when it was still hilariously called “the Macintosh” and when computer brand politics were taken even more seriously than today. Back then PC users shunned the infernal womb of the Macintosh and there were stories hordes of flesh-eating telepathic alien mind rapists spawning from Macintosh hard drives, so it was best not to take your chances by playing games on one. To this day no one knows if those stories are true.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Should I name my first born child Abandonware?” but more likely you are thinking, “Why should I download and play a 2.5D FPS made in the days before mouselook?” The answers are, “Yes, definitely,” and “Because if you don’t you’ll be missing out on some amazing game design and a well told story that isn’t spoon fed to you.”
In Marathon: Infinity, the third game in the series, the story is so well done that any writer of any genre would be proud to have been involved. The story starts right at the first level, the prologue. It also ends there. Also, it’s not really the story, but it is. To understand this as well as the prologue’s significance you should know some important things about the previous Marathon games: You are a security officer, but it’s hinted that quite obviously you’re a cyborg super soldier named Master Chief….ha ha, just kidding; you have no name, cyborg, and you like flapjacks. There’s a crazy AI named Durandal who kidnaps you and makes you fight for him; if Durandal was the playable character then the game would be called Grand Theft Spaceship: Infinity. There’s another crazy AI named Tycho who hates Durandal and everyone. The main enemies are the Pfhor, who are insectoid aliens with a variety of warrior castes and a penchant for enslaving other civilized species. Some of them have seven eyes, but don’t let that get you down since most of them only have three eyes.
I have a feeling I know what you’re thinking: “My firstborn child, little Abandonware, is five years old and wears corrective lenses. Other children call him ‘four-eyes’. Is my child a Pfhor?”
My answer: No, since there are no Pfhor with four eyes. However! That doesn’t negate the possibility that your child is some other type of alien such as a Batarian or a Pokemon. I’d suggest you keep a close eye on Abandonware and see what it eats while you finish reading this article.
Throughout the Marathon series much of the story is told in text accessed through computer terminals. The first terminal in the prologue “Ne Cede Malis” begins like this:
“Things have gone terribly awry… There are things that can destroy me with the ease that I slaughtered the Pfhor naval garrison and the Western Arm of their Battle Group Seven.”
That’s Durandal talking, which is a strangely defeatist tone for him considering he usually only expresses the most grandiose forms of arrogance and condescension. Further in this computer terminal he explains that you are on an ancient alien space station in orbit around a nearby planet. The Pfhor have used a weapon that will make the local sun go nova. This weapon has awakened some chaotic monstrosity imprisoned in the sun which will now eat everything. Later, you learn that this last point, introduced in the prologue, is the focal point of the narrative, although at first it’s not clear.
Weirdly, there isn’t a narrative link between the ending of Marathon 2 and the prologue to Infinity; it’s not clear how you and Durandal got here. What’s even weirder is that Durandal talks as though some of the events in the previous game never even happened. It’s confusing, but if you stop and think about it you can see the prologue takes place in a separate reality from Marathon: 2. Some things are the same, like Durandal defeating the Pfhor navy, but some things are different, like Durandal actually showing some humility.
The second level, essentially Chapter One, engulfs you in another wave of confusion when some of the three eyed Pfhor are now your allies. They fight alongside you against their seven eyed brethren. Once again you are in a new reality. It is implied that in this timeline the first Marathon ended differently and you aren’t obeying orders from Durandal. You’re obeying orders from Tycho who is working for the Pfhor, and you’re making a beeline towards ensuring Durandal’s destruction.
This shift in timelines keeps happening. That’s part of the reason the game wasn’t called Marathon 3. It isn’t the third game in the series. It’s alternate versions of the second game and alternate versions of itself. On a side note: this makes me wonder whether Bioshock: Infinite, the upcoming Bioshock game that has a character who can access alternate timelines, will deal with similar narrative devices as Marathon: Infinity. Back on track: the shifting realities can be confusing even if you’re paying attention, or especially if you’re paying attention, to the story. At one point you’re even a pink haired German girl trying to find money for her mob entangled boyfriend. Wait! Nevermind, that’s actually the plot of Run Lola Run which makes no appearance in the Marathon series. But it could have in another timeline… wooooOOAAAAaaooooohhhh.
You never play through an entire timeline in Infinity, only parts of it, and what happens in the rest of each timeline is implied and hinted at. You might play a few levels in the middle of one timeline and then play a few levels at the start of another. I know what you’re thinking, “Why is little Abandonware chewing on the dry wall again?” The answer is: because it’s better than your cooking. Also you might be thinking, “Traveling through fragments of alternate timelines is a narrative progression that’s not nearly confusing enough . How could it be more convoluted?” The answer is “dream levels”. Periodically you travel to levels aptly titled “Electric Sheep” that exist outside of any timeline and which act as transitions between realities, I’m pretty sure.
“That’s still not confusing enough!” I can hear you shouting with fury. Never fear, there’s plenty of more confusion because of how you change factions frequently, even in the same timeline. So, you’ll go from obeying Tycho, to Durandal, to Tycho again, then to a small bowl of egg drop soup named Jonathan Woo, to Durandal, and then to 1985 Chicago Bears’ coach Mike Ditka (a recurring character in all of Bungie’s games). So, throughout the game your allies and enemies are shifting and you have to relearn who you’re fighting against whether it’s aliens, humans, or an Asian with a taste for egg drop soup and a large spoon.
I know what you want to say: “Now it’s too confusing. Mike Ditka’s mustache is making little Abandonware cry.” Well, despite the depth and complexity it is possible to think about it, puzzle things out and accurately unravel what is taking place. It just takes some effort.
Hidden in the “dream levels” I mentioned earlier, you can travel to alternate versions of the final level that take place in timelines where you lose. While narratively the story ends in failure and death, the game continues, and you jump to the next timeline anyway. However, the reason for going to the failure levels is to see the results of the previous timeline and how it led to defeat, such as the timeline where Mike Ditka accidently clogs the ancient space station’s machinery with a chili cheese dog and then yells at you for it.
This isn’t just a cool way of telling a story or an inventive way of revealing facets to characters we wouldn’t see in just one reality. These alternate plots are also doing something unique on a meta-level. Many of us, while reading a book or watching a film, might wonder why things couldn’t have happened differently. We might question characters’ motives or decisions. “Why are they going through the Mines of Moria? Why don’t they just go through the mountains? And why is this decision being delegated to the hobbit with no experience doing anything except being confused?” Marathon: Infinity responds to those kinds of questions with the answer, “Because otherwise everything ends in disaster, that’s why.”
The game, including the prologue, is separated into pfhive or six timelines, with Marathon 2 being yet another alternate reality. The final timeline you play leads to the final victory level where you activate an ancient alien space station and open it to the public as Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. No, sorry, I mean you save the day by using the space station to keep the sun from exploding. It becomes clear that your entire goal has been to prevent the destruction seen in the prologue level, where the sun dwelling alien chaos god monster wakes up and starts eating the universe.
What seems to be taking place is that your character is exploring different realities to discover the correct one. The prologue starts this theme right away and not just with its microcosmic story. The title of the prologue level, “Ne Cede Malis”, translates from Latin as “Do not yield to misfortunes.” Aside from being the only advice my dad gave me when I asked him to teach me to drive, this statement is the motivational force behind your character’s actions. He’s repeatedly encountering absolute misfortune in the form of the universe being ripped apart or worse, losing the Superbowl to the 1985 New England Patriots, but he cannot yield to any of it. He doesn’t slow down and he just keeps going.
To top it all off not only did the prologue level begin the game’s narrative arc, it was also part of one of the most clever easter eggs in gaming. Hidden in the prologue is a computer terminal filled with what’s apparently garbage text. It’s actually hexadecimal code and a similar terminal can be found in the last level of the game. When the hexadecimal of both terminals is combined and compressed it forms a SIT file which when unarchived creates a new multiplayer map for Marathon: Infinity. And in this map there is another terminal that contains a science fiction short story written by one of the developers.The story was meant to be a preview for a game some of the developers were going to make once they started their own company. Those plans, however, yielded to misfortune when the developers’ Macintoshes gave birth to a cabal of diabolic sex witches, and they were never heard from again.
After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Phil Rejmer. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. Check out some of the other articles: After Pressing Start