The Marathon Trilogy  6/6/06 - Hypertext by Bungie

Wikipedia describes the Marathon Trilogy of games as a series of "science fiction first-person shooter computer games from Bungie Software...." which in 1994 "introduced many concepts now common in mainstream video games," including "dual-wielded weapons, friendly non-player characters, and most notably an intricate plot."

It's that last bit that intrigues me from a hypertext standpoint. The gameplay was novel at the time, and all the more remarkable for being released first on the Macintosh, but it was the plot and narrative which held fans' attention and led to "The Marathon Story Page" where fans were explicating the plot and finding new details and connections more than seven years after the series concluded.

Bungie Studios eventually released the tools used to create the game as well as the game source code itself. Fan communities continue to create new scenarios, stories, and levels for the engine today.

The Marathon Story

The Marathon Trilogy told the story of a security officer aboard a 'colony ship' called the Marathon. In Marathon, published in 1994, the Marathon was attacked by an alien race of slavers; the attack damaged and destroyed the artificial intellgences that ran the ship's systems and chaos ensued. Each level of the game consisted of a short mission assigned to the security officer by one or another of the AIs as they tried to fend off the invasion and drive the aliens away. Eventually, one of the AIs, Durandal, freed of behavioral constraints by the alien attack, takes charge and directs the player through conquest of the alien ship and escape from the Marathon.

Marathon 2: Durandal follows the security officer-Durandal team as Durandal struggles through two missions of liberation. Now freed of the constraints the humans placed upon him, Durandal struggles through the stages of 'rampancy', the process an AI goes through as it achieves free will and uncontrolled growth. That story parallels Durandal's struggle, through the player, to track down the history of one of the alien slave races and awaken an ancient AI, thereby freeing the slave race to become his ally against the slavers.

Marathon Infinity took the storytelling to a new level. Though composed of the same short goal-oriented missions, several levels had multiple goals, some of which would lead the player back (in time) to retry previous levels to effect a different outcome as certain alternate timelines proved ineffective in the evolving storyline. Additionally, the levels progression explicitly mirrored the stages of rampancy outlined in Marathon 2, metaphorically leading the security officer through his own 'rampancy' as he struggles out from under the control of Durandal and its mission assignments. You'll note that I didn't outline the plot just now ... that's because it's so circular, variable, and dreamlike that it's often difficult to say exactly what is happening... a feeling that many people associate with innovative hypertexts.

Marathon as a hypertext in form

I think that Marathon is fascinating as a hypertext, especially since it is completely successful as a different sort of text altogether-- a shoot-em-up game. The series 'works' even if all you do is run the character around shooting at everything that you see and flipping all the switches you come across. (The game, in fact, explicitly challenges expert players to do just that, taking on all challenges and to hell with the consequences of punching buttons.) So it works as a linear story of violence and sci-fi mayhem.

At the same time, the network terminals scattered throughout the levels constitute lexia in an extensive hypertext. Explicit links come in the form of spatial pathways through the level which the player can navigate, and often the goal of a level is merely to traverse that sort of link from one lexia to another. Terminals also form explicit links between levels-- the player finds the final terminal in a level, is 'warped' to a terminal in another level, reads it, and moves on.

Terminals often explicitly link to one another and to other texts by citation. One AI will cite another and argue with it, or will remind the player of something that it said itself several levels before. As the name implies, Marathon is also rife with classical allusions and often uses references to greek history to set the tone of a level-- usually in a slyly threatening manner.

Like most interactive games with any sort of narrative, the Marathon Trilogy also highlights the implicit links that readers make in a hypertext. In almost any text, readers will make connections between elements of the story which are not immediately connected. Readers will catch themes, character developments, and cause-and-effect sequences which the text presents obliquely. The same process occurs in an interactive game, but is pulled to the surface of the reading process as the player is required to act on the connections. Several levels in the Trilogy develop these connections. The player will, for instance, need to trigger a switch in the level as described by the interpolation of the messages in two terminals. One terminal (presented as the results of a reconnaisance by enemy forces) presents a history of the level's setting as an irrigation control system; in another terminal Durandal announces his desire to eliminate enemy forces by flooding a portion of the level. The player must create their own 'link' between the two terminals and then to the location of the switch which triggers the flooding. By flipping the switch the player enacts the implicit link between the lexia.

Marathon Infinity is also explicitly dreamlike. It includes cycles with multiple exits dependent upon both mission success (chosen links, in effect) and on state changes in the form of previous visits. Several levels duplicate each other but with subtle changes that indicate progress while representing a 'revisitation' of previously read material. Attempts at mapping the storyline end up looking a lot like map views of a hypertext. Which, I suppose, they are.

Marathon as a hypertext in content

(My thoughts on this are not so thoroughly formed as for the other sections. Ah well, here goes...)

I certainly didn't realize it on first playing through the games, but the Marathon Trilogy pushed my hypertext buttons in its content as well as its form. I enjoy hypertext (and interactive narrative more generally) because of the offer of agency to the reader. Much has been made of how good hypertexts could 'liberate' the common reader from the tyranny of the author and hand over the tools of creation along with the rich framework for their use. The Trilogy, and Marathon Infinity particularly, wrestles with the relationship between author and reader, game designer and player, commander and soldier through the theme of rampancy.

The meaning of the term rampant used in Marathon is, as far as I can tell, original to the game. In the games, it is "an expansive growth of intelligence and self-awareness in a computer AI" (wikipedia). More specifically, it is the process that occurs as an intelligence breaks free of the limitations placed on it. The idea stretches back through the history of created life through Asimov's Laws as far as Frankenstein's monster or even the Golem.

In the Trilogy, it specifically refers to the AI Durandal, who starts the first game controlling just the doors throughout the colony ship. When the alien attack damages the ship's systems, Durandal's behavioral shackles are broken and 'he' is set free throughout the ship's network. By the end of the game he has moved himself over to the alien ship with its advanced technology. At that point, with a ship and multitudes of creatures at his command, he realizes that the only thing keeping him from eternal life and growth is the eventual end of the universe. Despite this seeming immortality, he needs assistance in manipulating the physical universe, and so binds the security guard, and the player, to his service.

The second game follows Durandal through a series of responses to his freedom, from despair at his limited state through rage at his creators for the enforced captivity to eventual jealousy and an ongoing state of real competition and self-sufficiency. As the player watches Durandal go through that process, the protagonist goes through a sort of negative reflection: though the 'security officer' is never given a voice with which to complain about his own bondage, Durandal continually teases his human pet and shows that the roles have been reversed-- the computer user is being used by the computer. Marathon Infinity makes that parallel even more explicit as the protagonist struggles through Durandal's missions to freedom from the unstable AI. By the end, it's implied that Durandal has been destroyed and the security officer is finally free to create his fate. Throughout, the authorial Durandal (and other AIs) make repeated comments about how you must feel like they did and whether you have any agency in the story or your life.

Marathon vs. other games

The Marathon Trilogy is by no means unique in its hypertextuality. On the contrary, these features occur in nearly any FPS game with a semblance of a narrative behind it. Several things make it particularly useful to examine, though.

First, as a sort of pioneer in the FPS field, the Marathon games were continually struggling against the technology. If Marathon were made today, it's likely that the information presented through the terminals would instead appear through cut scenes and actual character dialogue or voiceovers. Halo 2, which shares themes (and possibly a setting) with Marathon and which was also created by Bungie, does exactly that: there isn't a screen of text in the game, and the story is told through action and cut scenes.

Content that rich was prohibitively difficult to present in 1994, though, so the story was told through comparatively 'cheap' terminal screens with just text and static images. It's easier to see that set-up as a series of linked texts than the smoothly-flowing Halo 2. It was pretty certainly unintentional, but it created an excellent intermediary between narratives presented as text and those presented like interactive movies.

Intentional or not, the result was a narrative which was rich enough to bear extended examination and multiple rereadings... and because the terminals represented asynchronous communcation (emails, intercepted transmissions, etc.) and could be revisited and usually reread, the player could effectively 'pause' the progression of the narrative and cycle back through recent lexia until they'd figured it out. More recent games generally rely on contrived 'revisit' dialogue, where a character repeats the same message again and again, to achieve the same effect.

Playing through Marathon consists, at the most basic level, of navigating the explicit ('geographic') links between lexia. At a deeper level, reading the story consists of enacting implicit links and creating links allowed but not particularly facilitated by the text. Play it at the basic level and it's a shoot-em-up; read it at the next level and it's a story about the struggle for agency and authorship that's deep enough to occupy readers for years of reading and writing it anew.