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.

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.

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The Ritual of Goodbye: How Traded Athletes Speak

Trade and transfer deadlines in professional sports always see a flurry of activity, as teams look to bolster their ranks for playoff pushes, make a last effort to stave off relegation, or, sensing the inevitable, sell off assets and look to the fabled “next year” when things will certainly be better. Fans eagerly devour news of transactions, following rumors and refreshing the trade pages on the major sports sites all day long on the day of the deadline.

Go Huet! by Big Swede Guy, via a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/No Derivatives licence

Tucked into many quickly posted news items about breaking trades is a comment from a just-traded athlete, and most such comments adhere to the same basic pattern: Reaction to the trade, regards for the team and fans being left, excitement at the prospect of playing for the new team, expectation for what the player will accomplish in the future.

The National Hockey League trade deadline this year was on Tuesday, February 26th, and the athletes moved around like game pieces pretty much followed the call-and-response pattern. To wit, goaltender Cristobal Huet, on his trade to from the Montreal Canadiens to the Washington Capitals, per a Canadian Press wire report (Feb. 27, 2008):

“I expected the unexpected, but I was shocked,” said Huet, who met with the media at the Bell Centre before heading to Washington. “I had three great years here. It was a lot of fun. I can’t say anything bad. I would love to have finished the job here but it was a little difficult. I didn’t play well enough the last three weeks so I guess I didn’t help my cause. Now I have a chance to join another team and try to help them jump into the playoffs.”

Now, in Huet’s case, he was essentially kicked out of Montreal in favor of a young goalie (20 year-old Carey Price) and traded away to Washington for a second round draft pick at next year’s draft. Washington ostensibly brought him in to take away the number one goaltending spot from a revered but slowing goalie (Olie Kolzig) who spent his entire career there and stuck with the Capitals during their several seasons’ long rebuilding effort. Not an ideal situation to wake up to on a Tuesday morning, but Huet remained sufficiently composed to provide the ritualized response. Montreal fans most likely appreciated the gesture, and Washington fans can look forward to a team player joining up.

It’s when athletes diverge from the pattern that you sense something is awry.

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Doctor Who Project: The Mutants/The Daleks

Oh, Grandfather! Couldn’t we stay a bit longer? The Thals are such nice people!
And the Daleks are not, which is more important, my child!

From the loinskin clad cave dwellers of “100,000 BC”, the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara move on to, well, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, padded vest- and leather pants-wearing Thals of “The Mutants” (Story Production Code B). A slight improvement, at least on a hygienic level.

But no one ever spares a thought for the peaceful Thals and their worship of history and penchant for wearing foam rubber, because the Daleks make their debut:

Obey! Obey!

This story, also known as “The Daleks” for somewhat obvious reasons, transformed Dr. Who from that show that came on before Juke Box Jury to phenomenon. As Howe and Walker put it in Doctor Who: The Television Companion:

Virtually overnight, this gentle, partly educational family series for Saturday teatimes was transformed into the show that, for many people, just had to be watched at all costs.

Stretching over seven episodes, “The Mutants” featured the Daleks quite prominently from episode two onwards, and the mystery of just what hid within the machine monsters is stoked by the appearance of a claw peeking from under a cloak where the Doctor and Ian unceremoniously dumped the contents of a disabled Dalek at the end of episode three. Such hints at greater mystery undoubtedly kept viewers riveted.

But the Daleks aren’t the only stars of this show, and “The Mutants” sets up several lasting Whovian themes.

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Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novel Primer

Skipping through science fiction blog io9 the other day, I ran across a guide to the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks:

Not only do we have a rundown of every single Culture novel, but we’ve also got some important excerpts from an obscure essay Banks wrote in 1994 about the ideas behind the Culture universe. Get ready to enter a world where ships are sentient, humans live for half a millennium, and living on a planet is probably the most backward thing you can do.

I must confess that I had never heard of the Culture series of novels, nor of Iain M. Banks. But I’m easily smitten by world-building writers who create detailed civilizations and set interconnected novel in said universes, David Brin’s Uplift universe being possibly my favorite such creation.

I’ve begun reading the first novel in the Culture series, Consider Phlebas, whose title is drawn from the “Death by Water” section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Banks quotes this portion of the poem in the epigraph to the novel, setting us up for a tale of self-sacrifice in the cause of something greater. Just referencing Eliot doesn’t guarantee a literate novel, but what I’ve read so far suggests I’m in for a well-written journey.

License to Roll: James Bond Games for Children

Let's Be James Bond!
I found this four page gem of an advertisement tucked in a recently acquired copy of James Bond 007: Assault! (Victory Games, 1985). The game itself is a modestly complex game reenacting the assault on the volcano fortress from You Only Live Twice, with rules for adapting the game (and the underlying tactical combat system) for use with VG’s James Bond 007 RPG.

These roll-to-move “Action Episode Games” are hardly challenging for anyone who received the flyer in the Assault! game—as the flyer notes, they’re “For Children 8 and Up.” While possibly the games could be used in conjunction with the RPG, the intended demographic seems to be the children of wargamers/RPGers.

The gamer parents I’ve spoken with seem united in the hope that their children to also take up gaming. Hang around gamers of any stripe long enough and you hear the lament about the “greying” of the hobby. This old VG advertisement taps into the desire to grow a new generation of gamers, with games that provide a stepping stone into more complex simulations, taking kids who were skipping around Candyland into the Funhouse Maze from The Man with the Golden Gun, dodging Scaramanga while pursuing the Solex Agitator.

The games do appear to have some heft to them—fifty cards in one, an ammunition record pad in another, and at least a modicum of strategy required. These games had to be fun right out of the box and be simple enough for the stated audience to play, a very different design requirement than the usual VG fare.

Of note, the very happy children in the very 1980’s living room are actually using a playtest version of the You Only Live Twice action episode game map with pieces from the James Bond 007 RPG Gamemaster Pack.

Interior pages and back cover of the flyer after the jump.

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The Name Game: Real Names versus Character Names in MMOs

I’ve spent eighteen months interacting almost daily with the same group of forty to fifty people, for up to four hours a day on occasion. None of them call me by name.

Oh, they know my character’s name in World of Warcraft (WoW), the massively multi-player online role playing game (MMORPG) where we interact as a guild, confronting the game’s tougher challenges as a team. My guildmates know my catch phrases and my habits, my playing style and my singing ability (or lack thereof), but few of them know the name I was born to. I’m not Chris to them in WoW—I’m Fellstone. And if someone were to use my real name in the game, I probably wouldn’t even respond to it, out of non-recognition rather than petulance. Am I Fellstone to myself in WoW, too?

Gaming in general involves some degree of identification beyond the self. We invest the checker we move with the desire to reach the other side of the board, the video game sprite we maneuver via joystick with the will to thread a maze. Avalon Hill game boxes were festooned with blurbs drawing the would-be gamer into the game world contained within. For instance, Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980) invites you to identify with the setting on a personal level:

From your vantage point behind the matched grays of the House of Gaiius, you watch as the sultry image is broken by the clatter of late-arriving chariots approaching the starting line…. The Roman is using razor sharp scythe blades—a cruel threat to any wheel or horseflesh which ventures too near. You are all that stands between him and the favorable inside position at the far corner.

The outcomes of games matter because we are involved with them personally to some extent. Role playing games—traditional pen-and paper, computer, and online—rely on the one-to-one identification between the player and the character played for their power and effect. We identify with the character; much of the impetus for playing RPGs stems from the desire to develop the character. RPGs, particularly online and pen-and-paper, tend not to have “winning” conditions, the character’s evolution being the paramount reason for playing at all. At some point, we transition from “Helvetica the Mage died!” to “I died!”

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