Escape Will Make Me God

Gabriel Silvas, Columnist

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It is a classic setup. A humble security officer of the UESC Marathon is off on shore leave while visiting the colony of Tau Ceti IV. Since he is a sci-fi video game protagonist, his Worst Day Ever™ begins when, on his way back to the ship, an alien vessel of unknown origin warps in and begins to attack everything in sight. Alone on a ship crawling with hostile aliens, his only form of help comes in the form of the sole remaining A.I. of the Marathon, Leela, who does everything she can to both guide the security officer to safety and to find a way to repel the invading alien force known as the Pfhor. However, it eventually becomes apparent that one of the other A.I., Durandal, was not destroyed. Instead, he has gone completely insane, entering an unstable state known as “Rampancy”, and is now unpredictable and perhaps even more dangerous than the Pfhor. Things are about to get a very complicated. Seriously, the third game gets REALLY confusing and people are still theorizing about stuff 20 years later.

While it might not be as well known as its successors in Halo and Destiny, there is no denying the influence of Bungie’s earliest landmark game Marathon. First released in 1994, the games set the bar for story-driven FPS games through its unique approach to its exposition and intuitive gameplay, something that Half-Life would help popularize a few years later. The games also helped shape Bungie’s later franchises and some concepts the trilogy introduced can still be seen in Halo (Rampancy, the logo of the Marathon showing up everywhere, the Security Armor, an A.I. named after a sword of one of Charlemagne’s paladins, etc.). Prior to Bungie being bought by Microsoft, they released the source code and other assets in 2000, so the entire trilogy is free to play and download via the Aleph One website.

Players assume control of the aforementioned Security Officer, one of the last surviving crew members of the Marathon. He does not utter a single word, it is unknown if he has any motives, and he is constantly commanded and pushed around by the other A.I. of the ship. A number of the terminals later in the series seem to hint at the SO’s past and origins, but they are still vague enough that it still is not entirely clear what the truth is. Despite that, he is perhaps the single most skilled person capable of fighting back against the Pfhor and their S’pht slaves, the latter of which eventually rebel and wages war against their enslavers in order to take back their home planet. Out of the three Marathon A.I., Leela is the only benevolent and polite of them, with her sole objective being to help the Security Officer find a way to repel the Pfhor. However, Leela is eventually captured and someone else takes the reins, but with infinitely more selfish motives and is not afraid to manipulate anyone and everyone to get what he wants. Say hello to your “best friend”.

Durandal is the other surviving A.I. on the Marathon, but has gone Rampant and, by the time the first game starts, has entered the second stage of the process, Anger. Completely insane at first, he eventually is able to somewhat stabilize and becomes the Security Officer’s ally(?) after Leela is gone. Unlike her, he has zero regard for the SO’s safety and takes glee in messing with them at every point. Still, Durandal does seek to defeat the Pfhor and will do everything it takes to stop them, even if it means the deaths of thousands. His ultimate goal is to ascend beyond his limitations and become a god, believing that only then will he finally be free. Considering just how much Durandal knows about the universe and that the theoretical final stage of Rampancy, Meta-Stability, is when an A.I. is considered a full-fledged sentient being, it is not unfounded to believe that the crazy machine with a god-complex could actually pull it off. Meanwhile, the Pfhor are the primary antagonists of the series and are the driving force behind the plot, having made a vast empire by enslaving countless worlds. They also “resurrect” Tycho, the last of the three Marathon A.I., but it is clear that this is more of a psychotic and bloodthirsty copy as opposed to the original, but his intense hatred towards Durandal still remains, which drives the conflict between the two in the second game. In the final game of the trilogy, the events of the second game have awoken something ancient and incomprehensible, resulting in time and space being broken into multiple timelines. It really says something about this threat when DURANDAL is absolutely terrified of it…

The gameplay can be compared to DOOM in that players guide the Security Officer through numerous levels in a pixelated 3D environment, acquiring a variety of weapons, and solving several puzzles in order to progress, all while fighting off the Pfhor and their slaves. What does help set Marathon from DOOM and other FPS games of the same era is, aside from the larger focus on an in-depth story, is using the mouse to aim, allied NPCs, multiplayer modes other than just deathmatch, and the ability to swim among other mechanics. The objective and story is given only through the dozens of terminals littered throughout the games, where Leela or Durandal will tell you where to go and what to do, as well as updating the player on what is also going on at the moment. There are also terminals that have miscellaneous info, corrupted data, or cryptic riddles that help expand the backstory and give insight into the cast.

As stated before, there are a total of three games in the series. The first one took place in the dark corridors of the UESC Marathon and the occasional trip to the invading Pfhor ship in order to protect Tau Ceti IV and stop the Pfhor from invading Earth. The second game, Marathon 2: Durandal, fast forwards 17 years to the S’pht homeworld of Lh’owon, where Durandal has awoken the kidnapped Security Officer to fight for him in the war between the Pfhor and Durandal’s S’pht allies. This is the shortest and relatively simplest game in the trilogy and is much more open compared to the first title. The final game, Marathon Infinity: Blood Tides of Lh’owon, is not only the hardest game in an already difficult series, but is also the single most confusing one. In some sort of alternate timeline caused by the W’rkncacnter, an eldritch being that was sleeping in Lh’owon’s sun and was awoken by the events of the second game, a dying Durandal BEGS the Security Officer to run and find some way to fix reality before it is too late. The levels are a mix of the previous two titles, featuring the cramped ship levels of the first and the wide open areas of the second. To this day, people are still debating and theorizing just what goes on in the final game. It is quite a lot to take in.

It is always fascinating to visit a company’s older games and see how they influenced the later titles they made. Marathon did indeed shape what would become Halo and Destiny, but it also set the bar for story-driven FPS games, which Half-Life would help popularize later. Even today, the story is one of the most complex and intricate put into a video game and still generates theories about the possible meanings and hidden info present. This is a highly recommended series if you want a classic FPS experience, a deep and complex story, and a bit of an old school challenge. It certainly helps that all of them are free to download via Aleph One. Just do not forget to take the Oath of the Vidmaster.

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