With a Story and a Side Arm: Bungie’s Marathon

Every few years, I reacquaint myself with an old friend, one I’ve known since 1994. It originally came on four 3.5″ floppies in a triangular box, produced by a Mac-only software shop with a funny name: Bungie. They had previously released Pathways into Darkness, an adventure shooter centering on an alien god awakening in a jungle pyramid. Their new Mac-only game? Marathon.


The Marathon demo came out in late November, 1994, changing Mac gaming—and arguably computer gaming as well. It certainly wasn’t the first first person shooter; it wasn’t the first shooter to feature a detailed story told through interaction with in-game objects; it wasn’t the first shooter to use the mouse to change the player’s viewpoint independent of movement direction (mouse look); and it wasn’t the first shooter to attract an active modding community. But it did it all so very well, and on a platform not renowned for gaming to boot.

I upgraded my trusty Mac LC III to a whopping 8 MB of RAM (at no mean cost, either) in preparation for the full game after playing the demo, which I downloaded slowly on a 28.8k modem. USENET group comp.sys.mac.games lit up with conversations about the demo. Indeed, the volume of Marathon-related posts was so high that it spurred the split of c.s.m.g into various sub-groups, like .action and .flight-sim. I still have a record of a post I made to c.s.m.g that apologizes for posting about Marathon there:

From: chbaer@kestrel.cqi.com (chbaer)
Newsgroups: comp.sys.mac.games
Subject: Marathon and Micronauts?
Date: 15 Dec 1994 08:00:55 -0500
Message-ID: <3cpem7$d8e@kestrel.cqi.com>
X-Newsreader: TIN [version 1.2 PL0]

(Sorry, my server doesn’t carry alt.games.marathon or alt.mac.games.marathon)

Has anyone noticed the similarity between the soldiers and Bug from the
late-70’s/early-80’s comic book and action figure series Micronauts?
Bug, too, carries a fighting stick with a spade-like top. Hmm…
perhaps a plot connection (or at least something to think about until
Marathon ships).

Why the rabid fan base? Setting aside the fact that this amazing game was Mac-only, fostering quite proprietary feelings in the breasts of many Mac gamers, the game’s immersive story kept people coming back for more even after the last level.

Once Michael Hanson’s Marathon Physics Editor came out, allowing changes to the game’s parameters, from weapon power and alien health to gravity and the radius of the player character, fans became modders, sharing their physics models on USENET and the pay systems like AOL and Compuserve. Game films also made the rounds, thanks to the game’s built-in recording feature. Gamers showed off carnage with style in their traded films, like grenade-hopping tricks to reach otherwise inaccessible (though very much planned) secret areas filled with ammo and stunts like shrinking the player (using the physics editor) to enable trips outside of the Marathon. Bungie later released map and level editors, further encouraging gamers to take ownership of the game.

But while many posts on USENET were, of course, about secret areas and physics models and tips for solving particularly difficult levels, somewhere along the line, people began talking about the story. More than thirteen years later, people are still talking about the story.

At the very start of the game, you step tentatively towards a flickering terminal. No time to access it, though, as a strange guttural clicking comes from the left, stereo sound drawing the player into an illusion of presence. The movement sensor lights up—red triangle closing fast! And there’s the foe, a green alien with a staff who seems in no mood to converse.

Meet the Pfhor

Increasing the gamma feels like cheating. The corridors of the abandoned colony ship UESC Marathon twist and turn in the half-light, while those in the alien Pfhor ship pulse in purple and green strobes, as though alive. While there are waves of aliens to contend with at times, the game more commonly throws enemies at you in smaller groups, from ambush points you walk right by. Floating S’pht in particular have an annoying habit of dropping down from unseen ledges behind you, giving no warning of their presence until you hear the haunting “shzzack!” of their energy bolts striking your shields just when you thought it was safe to read a terminal.

These terminals tell the tale of Marathon—the history of the game universe, the fate of the Marathon, your mission—through error messages, garbled transmissions from the Marathon’s resident Artifical Intelligences, and odd entries from the ship’s database. All text and graphics, telling you more than what button to push and what lever to flip.

A Fool's Errand?

On its face, Marathon’s plot is simple fare: aliens attacked your colony ship and the colony on the planet below, and your mission, as a security officer, is to take it back. But how did the aliens find your recently planted colony? How are you able to survive where other security officers are running around yelling “They’re everywhere!” and dying by the bushel? Just who (or what) are you, anyway? Why is this one Artifical Intelligence acting so strangely?

A Rumination on Rampancy

Marathon’s in-game story attempts to tell you “why” you’re running through twisting passages, chides you for killing too many civilians, and teases you with more and more bits of the story. After a point, the aliens become true foes, preventing the Marathon‘s AI from telling you what you need to know. You fight through them to get to the truth.

There are hints of Marathon’s story in Bungie’s prior game, Pathways into Darkness, and Marathon’s story continues through the second two games of the Trilogy, Marathon 2: Durandal and Marathon Infinity. Whether Bungie had some master document detailing the entire arc or made it up as they went along, there’s artistry involved regardless.

Contemporary gamers can play through the story of three games thanks to Bungie’s decision to release them as freeware, and an open source project, Aleph One, provides Mac, Windows, and Linux gamers with the ability to play all three. So get lost in the Marathon‘s alien infested corridors—and in its labyrinthine story—yourself.

1 thought on “With a Story and a Side Arm: Bungie’s Marathon”

  1. Excellent article…brought me straight back to those by-gone days…
    Only to be honest, my very first experience was with the Marathon II demo via a shareware CD that came in the mail. Turns out it was one of the best things I’ve ever received from a mailbox. And I still have it btw…as well as the Mac Action Sack I picked up a bit later on.
    Anyway…again, very well said..Already passed on to a comparatively unfamiliar friend of mine.
    Now if only there were some way to effectively revive the essence of Marathon on modern engines and consoles…Alas, it seems probable that such is just not to be…


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