Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Marathon Infinity and Siren

Been playing through the Marathon trilogy, a series of first-generation first person shooters originally Mac-exclusive. (Each game is freely downloadable for various operating systems at the above link.)

Much of the level design and ideas for the games are typical for the genre at the time. Long, dark corridors filled with aliens, invincibility and cloaking powerups locked behind hidden doors that look like the surrounding walls, lots and lots of switch-pressing. The main difference is that Marathon has an actual story. The first two games are a semi-interesting scifi venture, but Marathon Infinity is a shining example of how videogame narrative can be used to bolster a story, while so many games treat the narrative as incosequential.

Why? (Spoilers ahead.) Well, the story is entirely told through monitors--computer terminals you find in the game that display commands, usually from one of the rampant AIs who are pushing you around. You can find the text of every monitor in the game on Bungie's own site and read the story that way, but you simply won't get the context of the levels. The game's puzzles are not "which AI is telling me to do what," but "who is shooting at me and why?" Sometimes the aliens you've been killing for the last two games are assisting you to mass-slaughter human enemies. Sometimes the other way around. And there's another alien race that appears to switch allegiances willy-nilly, no matter which AI is giving you orders; puzzling, considering that their liberation and eventual siding with one of the AIs is the main plot of the previous two games. The monitors are simply insufficient evidence to figure out what's going on; both humans and aliens recognize your character and attack or defend accordingly, so they must be basing their aggression on your past actions.

And then there are stages like "Electric Sheep," which are devoid of any action--or any contact from the AIs who treat you like a pawn. Monitors in these levels tend to display odd poetry or dream-like sentences. But the rest of the level is significantly surreal: Enemies glow and are suspended in mid-air, everything seems to be in stasis. The game leaves entirely open the possibility that you're just crazy or dreaming.

I'll stop talking about Marathon there; I don't want to step on the toes of my buddy who's writing a Marathon article for the next issue of TGQ. But I wanted to note that the only other game I've played with narrative-story conjunction on par with Marathon Infinity is Siren. I could dedicate a long, long essay to the brilliance of Siren (though it might be reduntant), but for now I'll just say that Siren is similar in the way the game is essential to determine context. There is no way you can understand what's going on just by watching all the cutscenes. The town has a sensible layout that's key to understanding what characters are where, and the Shibito zombies are characters with personalities themselves. In the writing world, we would call Marathon Infinity and Siren examples of "showing not telling," even though both games have quite a bit of telling to do. It's also interesting that both games take the approach that much narrative should be left open to player interpretation, which is unusual for most stories.

1 comment:

Dracko said...

It's also interesting that both games take the approach that much narrative should be left open to player interpretation, which is unusual for most stories.

But to me, is obvious is the sort of thing games would excel at if more people bothered. Even a lot of IF pieces do this.

I've made this comparison before, but games are more like architecture, music or paintings to me, and it's not like those mediums are concerned with clearly labelled answers - and in the former's case, is more of an instance of functionality and elegance as well as expression.