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Old 04-08-2020, 11:22 PM
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Default The Marathon Expanded Universe

…for lack of a better term – the games created by fans of Bungie’s Marathon series, and the reason I haven’t been around much lately, as I’ve had a central role in creating much of the content for it.

I’ll back up a bit first: What is Marathon? Right. I know lpetrich, who posts here occasionally, was at one time one of the developers of this game’s Aleph One engine, but it may be unfamiliar to most of you. You can grab the core three games for free here (though I’d advise getting a beta version of the engine; surprisingly, the beta releases are actually more stable, since the “stable” release is actually five years old).

Marathon is one of the big game series that put Bungie on the map. Before Destiny, before Halo, before Myth, there was Marathon. Marathon was Doom, but more cerebral, with a more advanced engine, more focus on exploration, and a much more story-based approach. There’s a lot of reading, and a sci-fi story worthy of Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, to name two authors whose storytelling goes into as much detail or textual ambiguity as Marathon’s. The creators of the game had detailed knowledge of a lot of different fields – biology, programming, engineering, history – and it all went into the games. (There are a couple of facts they get wrong – the time it would take to get a message from Tau Ceti to Earth is way off – but the vast majority is correct and fascinating.) People think Half-Life was the first story-based FPS, but they are way off. Marathon mostly gets written out of gaming history because, well, they were mostly Mac games to start out.

(I’m mostly omitting Pathways into Darkness from this telling, which was Marathon’s immediate predecessor in Bungie’s canon, and their first major commercial breakthrough. What Marathon is to Doom, Pathways is to Wolfenstein 3D: the first texture-mapped FPS for the Mac, the first story-driven FPS of any sort… and also loosely tied in with the Marathon universe. But I don’t want this to get too out of hand.)

The story of the first game centres around the attempts of a number of human colonists at Tau Ceti to fend off an invading alien force of slavers, and the three artificial intelligences of the colony ship Marathon. The player is a nameless superpowered cyborg (this is never explicitly stated in the text, but… the player is a superpowered cyborg) who, we learn, has implants from an alien (?) race called the Jjaro that, we discover in the third game, give him the power to warp through time.

But I’m ahead of myself again. The Marathon’s three AIs, Leela, Tycho, and especially Durandal, are the primary drivers of the plot. Durandal is an immensely entertaining character who would probably have the pop-cultural relevance Cortana has now if Bungie had been as well known in 1994 as they are now. The game takes place entirely on the Marathon and alien ships. To be honest, I would not recommend starting with Marathon 1 if you are new to the series – it’s a great game, but the beginning is slow-paced (Bungie themselves admitted the second half is better), and its gameplay is a bit dated by modern standards. You should by all means play it, but you can get by fine playing it after at least Marathon 2 and possibly Infinity. (You should probably, however, play it before you play Eternal, since part of Eternal takes place concurrently with Marathon 1.)

The second game, Marathon 2: Durandal, centres around the fight of Durandal and the human survivors of Tau Ceti to free a cybernetic alien race known as the S’pht. As implied by the title, Durandal is once again the central character of the game. However, much of the game’s plot centres around S’pht mythology about the Jjaro (who created the S’pht), and a search for their mythical eleventh clan; it takes place mostly on the long-abandoned S’pht homeworld of Lh’owon.

Marathon 2 has been re-released by far the most often; it’s the only game to get an official Windows release before the Aleph One source port, and it’s also the only game to get Xbox releases. (Note that the gameplay of the Xbox is substantially different from the original releases, and the Windows 95 release contained substantial changes to several levels.) Bungie seems to feel it’s the best of the series, and fans widely agree: a recent poll of /r/marathon had something like 60% of respondents choosing it as the best of the trilogy (the other two games got almost exactly the same number of votes as each other, incidentally). It’s got the most wide-open spaces and it’s the most heavily exploration-based. I probably find it the most fun to play, and it’s definitely the easiest of the three games (though if you’re playing on the hardest difficulty setting, you still will have trouble in many places, particularly on the Pfhor ship levels in the middle of the game).

Marathon Infinity is… a mindfuck. It’s the game that introduced time travel and alternate reality into the series, for better or worse. The game’s plot centres around an eldritch entity known as the W’rkncacnter, which is a near-omnipotent creature of chaos that seems to warp reality, and the player’s attempt to stop it from being released from Lh’owon’s sun. The player travels through several timelines in an attempt to find one in which the W’rkncacnter is not freed, and is forced to do some highly unethical things. (Spec Ops: The Line wasn’t the first shooter to explore this aspect of war, though admittedly, Spec Ops did so much more explicitly.)

This game has by far the most complex levels among the three games, and the plot can get difficult to follow (though once you understand what’s going on, it becomes quite gripping). There’s also a narrative thread running through some levels that represents aspects of the player’s dreams, which becomes important in several of the fan games. There are a few questionable gameplay choices (the two vacuum levels in a row are a major point of contention among fans, and “Naw Man He’s Close” can get really frustrating), but we can chalk that up to ’90 game design. Overall, it’s a very well designed game.

This brings us to the fan games. Marathon Infinity was released with Bungie’s official in-house editors, and fans went wild with them. Ambitious mods such as Evil and Tempus Irae appeared within a year of Infinity’s release. Shortly before their temporary merger with Microsoft, Bungie also released Marathon 2’s source code and made all of the games’ assets freeware. A large number of fan projects labour on today. I am a central part of three of them.

I referred to the “Expanded Universe” because it is, in many sense, a collaborative endeavour among fans; there are nods among fan games (referred to among the community as “scenarios”) to each other, and some get quite extensive. In particular, six specific full-length games (and one short sequel to one of them) have explicit connections to one another, to the point where a timeline can be put together: in order of expected original release date, some of Red, Rubicon, Eternal, Phoenix, Where Monsters Are in Dreams, and Chronicles now have explicit connections to one another. However, one of these scenarios is not yet complete, another is not yet available at all, and a new revisions of a third are still undergoing active development. I shall describe each briefly, along with YouTube links to gameplay of many of them.

Red is one of the rare Marathon games to be created almost entirely by one person, Ian McConville, who later went on to some degree of fame as the creator or co-creator of the webcomics Three Panel Soul and Mac Hall. It shifts the genre of the series into supernatural horror, and it has superb atmosphere; the entire game has a sense of something just being slightly wrong. In the Expanded Universe chronology, this is one of two “final” games in the timeline (think The Legend of Zelda’s timeline, except a bit better established); this game actually takes place in a “failed” timeline of Rubicon, even though the latter was released later. Blayne Scott of Where Monsters Are in Dreams wrote a story connecting them, which I would advise not reading late at night. The one flaw Red has is that it is hard, and not in a good way. You’d have to be insane to attempt it on Total Carnage (the highest difficulty setting), so I don’t have gameplay footage of it (my channel focuses on TC). You can find Red at the Lhowon.org scenarios page.

Rubicon is the game you’re likeliest to hear fans describe as Marathon 4 – it’s got the atmosphere of the original games down to a T, and the story threaded throughout its dream levels is a direct continuation of the story of the Marathon Infinity dream levels. It manages to make an environment that feels genuinely alien, and its level design manages to make getting the player lost into an art form. The story centres around humanity’s attempt to topple the Pfhor Empire at Pfhor Prime – but what’s going on with the Dangi Corporation over at their research outpost, the Salinger? Why has Tycho turned up again? And can we actually trust anyone to tell us the truth? This scenario’s message is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, but it’s likely to be relevant forever, and there’s some fantastic writing (the dream story includes several passages I wish I’d written myself). There are a few flaws to the gameplay (I don’t know what they were thinking with the Enforcers), but overall, it’s one of the best fan games to be released.

There have been several releases of Rubicon through the years; the original release for Marathon Infinity featured two endings (the timelines in this game are known as ‘planks’) and the now much more commonly available Rubicon X re-release for the Aleph One source port features three. Navigating the multiple planks may prove confusing to new players, and you may need at some point to consult a guide to see how the levels are structured. You can see gameplay footage on the highest difficulty at Marathon Rubicon Vidmaster’s Challenge - YouTube – most levels are included, except a couple that desynced, and a few others that are apparently too difficult for anyone to film successfully. Many of these films are using the original Rubicon map (from the Infinity version) running in Rubicon X, so what you see in these films may be substantially different from what you play. (A few textures have also been changed since the Infinity release, so a few seemingly odd texture choices seen in these films are not intentional.)

Eternal is one of the three games I’ve contributed to, and although complete releases of it are available, refinement of the game continues on to this very day. We’re currently polishing off a 1.2.1 release (primarily bug fixes, with a few new features such as completely new sounds, overhauls of annoying gameplay features of a few levels, and a rain script), and at least a 1.3 release is planned before we call a freeze on new features.

The plot, directly inspired by an easily missed secret in Marathon 2’s level “Kill Your Television”, centres around the player’s love/hate relationship with an antagonist known as Hathor, and after a lot of time travel, it ultimately develops some vague connections to Halo’s plot (these would have been more concrete, but Bungie overhauled Halo’s plot late during the development cycle to remove all explicit connections to the Marathon universe so that it would not become Microsoft’s IP. And yes, the links to Halo were planned while Halo was still in development – Eternal’s developers were made privy to some of the original plans for Halo). The Jjaro and the W’rkncacnter also become central to the plot (in a manner that would also have been relevant to Halo had its story not been changed).

The writing in this game (I’ve had little to do with the story up to this point, but 1.3 may incorporate some of my ideas) is also stellar, though I should note a contrast with Rubicon’s style. The messages of the two scenarios are very compatible with one another, but I missed a lot of the political symbolism the first time I played Eternal because it is expressed so subtly. Although the symbolism was originally rooted in the Bush 43-era War on Terror, the game also contains a warning about the dangers of authoritarianism that is probably more relevant now than it was when the game was written; the need for a middle ground between an excess of order (i.e., lawful evil) and an excess of chaos (e.g., chaotic evil) is also a central element of the plot. (Also, Eternal’s style is very verbose. Bearing in mind its verbosity and its political viewpoint, it’s probably no surprise that I wound up contributing so much to it.)

Although I very much advise playing Eternal (not least because I’ve been helping to develop it for two years!), I would also advise holding off for a couple weeks until we cobble together a new beta of 1.2.1 – the most recent ‘stable’ release of the game is actually colossally unstable on Windows, and the new beta will be an improvement in almost every way. I will make an announcement of its release here. The development page can be found at eternal.bungie.org, but if you really wish to preview our changes right away, I did cobble together a “semi-official beta” which I have posted on OneDrive – however, I have made a number of changes since then. You can see gameplay footage at Marathon Eternal 1.2.1 development abridged - YouTube, which usually contains my most recent playthrough of each level (unless I just haven’t updated it).

The mapmaking in Phoenix is primarily the creation of RyokoTK, who literally has a degree in architecture. It shows. These are some of the most gorgeous creations anyone’s ever made in the engine, with intricate level design that frequently makes its places feel like real structures. The combat is fast-paced and intense; it’s difficult, but unlike Red, it’s not unfairly so. You will need to learn the layouts of levels, and you will die a lot, but the deaths will be learning experiences. The story centres around a renegade clan of the S’pht known as the A’Khr, as well as their artificial intelligence Karma, who is more than he seems at first glance. I will not spoil its tie to another Marathon fan game, but there’s a reason I recommend playing it when I do. It’s worth playing this one just to gawk at the level design, honestly. The other aspects are just icing.

I don’t have footage of Phoenix on my channel, but Ryoko has footage of all the main story levels, along with his candid commentary on each level, at his channel. The short sequel Kindred Spirits is also worth your time when you’re finished with Phoenix, as are the bonus levels at the end of Phoenix. Ryoko also made an earlier game called The Grey Incident which I have not yet played.

Where Monsters Are in Dreams is… not yet complete, and not publicly available, and infamously so. We’re working on a demo right now, optimistically anticipating a May or June release. There are already enough finished (or mostly finished) levels to complete the game, but many of them were developed for other projects that will never be finished, and they need to be retextured, have their gameplay adapted to a new environment, and have their objectives tied into WMAiD’s labyrinthine, nonlinear storytelling approach. We are deliberately not revealing much about the plot until the game is revealed, but it is explicitly tied to Rubicon and Eternal, and its storytelling is heavily influenced by the approaches of both games. As implied by the title, it centres heavily around dreams. There will also be Latin. A lot of Latin. (This was a hallmark of the original games, too, and Eternal 1.3 will probably also feature a lot of Latin. As will Chronicles when I get around to implementing it.) The four levels that we have released public gameplay footage of, all of which will be included in the demo (which we anticipate to contain some seven or eight levels of actual gameplay plus around three exposition levels), can be found at Marathon: Where Monsters Are in Dreams (public playlist) - YouTube. (The footage of “The Haunted Beacon” is significantly out of date, at the level creator’s request – he has asked not to have footage of the current version made public until the release of the demo.) I will announce the release of the demo here if there is interest in it, along with the complete game (the latter is at least a year off, though, so don’t get too excited).

Lastly is Marathon Chronicles, my own game. I feel what amounts to a compulsion to finish this game at some point; the name and much of the first real level are the product of an old school friend who tragically ended his life two years ago. It will take place last in the chronology of the games I have outlined here; I intend it to tie up some loose ends of Rubicon and Eternal. It is, unfortunately, half-finished for now, however. We have not merely enough levels to finish WMAiD, but probably enough to finish Chronicles as well. I will not, however, be likely to feel able to focus my entire attention on Chronicles until WMAiD is complete. The two games will probably end up inextricably intertwined due to their parallel development processes, and they may end up sharing some architectural features. Development was mostly on hold as I focused on Eternal and WMAiD, but then two people kindly sent me new artwork, so I’m working on integrating those into the game. My development process is quite open source, though; anyone who wants to can play a relatively recent version, and I welcome competent submission of game assets from anyone with a compatible vision. The last build I publicly released can be found at Marathon Chronicles.7z - Google Drive, but I’m working out some issues with the new weapon sprites I’ve been sent; I will compile a new one once I have solved them. A complete playthrough of the game can be found at Marathon Chronicles – latest videos - YouTube (the new weapon sprites are currently in the videos of “Entangled” and “Notes on a Criminal Conspiracy”; I need to work out a size issue with the staff and a physics issue with the rifle).

Another game I’d recommend in the Marathon fan universe is Tempus Irae (Time of Wrath; website here: Tempus Irae: Solvet saeclum in favilla; videos found here: Marathon Tempus Irae Vidmaster's Challenge - YouTube). However, I would advise holding off on this, too: the creators are overhauling it as we speak, although I don’t believe this is announced on the website. My remastered sounds will be featured in the new release, as will some spectacular upgrades to the artwork by the original creators. (…OK, I guess that makes four games I’ve actively contributed to. I’ve also provided some assistance with scripting and will probably help with a couple of map revisions. My role in Tempus is quite ancillary compared to my role in the other three games, though.) This game’s plot features time travel to Renaissance Italy and centres around Leonardo Da Vinci. The architecture remains excellent even by the standards of today’s Marathon games, despite the engine limitations they had to work with in 1997 that no longer apply. The atmosphere and sounds are also excellent.

There are other great Marathon fan games as well, but this message is already well into tl;dr territory, and I need to get to other tasks now. I’ll provide recommendations of other games if anyone wants them, though; there are some overlooked gems out there.

But anyhow, that’s what I’ve been working on these last two years to combat the anomie I have been experiencing within the Trump administration* (not to mention grief over my friend’s death). Hopefully some of you will find it interesting. Comments and constructive suggestions are welcome!

(ETA: For the record, I forgot to include my recommended chronology of playing the fan games, which is roughly in order of release for the main five: Rubicon, Eternal, Phoenix, as much of WMAiD as is available, Chronicles. Red and Tempus can go in whenever you feel like playing them.

Also corrected a couple typos.)
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Fool’s Gold · last.fm · soundcloud · Marathon Expanded Universe

Last edited by The Man; 04-09-2020 at 04:55 PM.
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Old 04-09-2020, 12:37 AM
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Default Re: The Marathon Expanded Universe

Looking forward to checking this out! Also good to see you about again!
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Old 04-09-2020, 03:37 AM
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I read some of your foolish scree, then just skimmed the rest.
 
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Default Re: The Marathon Expanded Universe

Haha that’s awesome!

I was a big bungie fan around the time those came out and was heavily into Myth: The Fallen lord. Somewhere I even have the autograph of Bungie’s PR guy who did the voice of the BoBs “They’re everywhere!”
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Old 04-09-2020, 10:05 AM
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Default Re: The Marathon Expanded Universe

Your posting rate may have been low recently, but I reckon you've regained the top spot when measured by word count. :cheerful:
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Old 05-04-2020, 05:39 PM
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Default Re: The Marathon Expanded Universe

We get feedback:

Quote:
Date: Wed, Jan 29, 2020 at 11:05 AM
Subject: Incoming Message From...
To:

Calibrating Translator...

Thank you. I've just finished Marathon: Eternal, and it's been a fantastic experience, one which I've found very inspiring, and rekindled in me a fire I had found lost in my own small works. The level design is fantastic, the sound and music flawless, and your careful thought turned toward the intricate story crafted over the quarter-century that has passed since December of 1994 has been an unspeakable joy to watch. The final terminal moved me to tears, a feat few works are able to accomplish. I wish your whole team the best in future efforts, and hope that I may have the honor of experiencing some of those efforts myself.

See ya star-side,

-Alex
(Despite the sent date, we didn’t get it the first time – it only came to us yesterday)

We’ve gotten quite a bit of praise for our work before, but getting praise this high still kind of threw me for a loop.

and also, from the Rampancy.net Discord:

Quote:
[19:54] XaleManix: So, thanks again @pfhorrest and team for the highly awesome Marathon Eternal scenario! :D
[19:55] XaleManix: It moved me to tears, which was something I hadn't had in a long time and didn't know I needed until I got there. :thumbsup:
[19:56] xahldera: On that note, @pfhorrest I've said it many times before but you and the other team members should be proud of Eternal. Really. You have managed to do what many current day games fail to do. That being create an engaging storyline and elicit emotions in the player. And to top that off, using nothing more than text at that.
[19:58] xahldera: The graphics in Eternal were fantastic even taking into account the engine it was on but you managed to craft an amazing story without the use of any fancy tricks that most modern games squander. Hell, I would argue it worked better because you had to use your imagination a bit when reading the terminals :)
(XaleManix is the same person that sent the email; xahldera is someone different.)

On that note, I’ve put together a new package of Eternal 1.2.1. There will probably be a more “official” build in the next few days (check the development page at eternal.bungie.org), but for now, you can grab it from my OneDrive.

I may also have pledged myself to helping finish another project. In my defence, this one is basically Marathon meets Super Metroid (or Metroid Prime) – there wasn’t the slightest chance of my resisting this one.
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Fool’s Gold · last.fm · soundcloud · Marathon Expanded Universe
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Old 05-12-2020, 03:26 AM
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Default Re: The Marathon Expanded Universe

Amusingly was going through some old CDs and found this.
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Old 05-13-2020, 01:20 PM
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Default Re: The Marathon Expanded Universe

What a neat coincidence!

The latest Eternal 1.2.1 beta is out; you can grab it on the development page. Unfortunately, it’s only available piecemeal for now.

Meanwhile, I come bearing previews of a couple new projects from the community. One is a re-release of an old game, Tempus Irae. I’ve already remastered all the sounds in the game (although there’s a couple I’m not satisfied with that I’ll have a second pass at), and I’ll be helping a bit with mapping as well. Here’s a preview of the second level of the game, “Gates of Delirium”, with the new textures:


The second is Echoes of the Ashen, the above-mentioned Metroid Prime-style game by designer RyokoTK, who is also responsible for Phoenix, Kindred Spirits, The Grey Incident, and probably about a hundred net maps. Here’s a video of me screwing around in the early parts of the game:


It’s nowhere near done yet, and this doesn’t even show you the whole of what’s available, for two reasons:
  1. It requires a developer cheat to see some of the content, and that won’t show up in the style of replay I’m using here;
  2. The replay also won’t continue after I die, and I need to git gud at the big scripted battle on the Aqueduct level. (I have Suspicions that you’re meant to have more items when you get to that battle anyway; the normal route to get to the assault rifle is meant to have more items than the player has access to at this stage in development.)
This is also on Normal rather than Total Carnage, so I lose some style points for that.

You can grab a map for Echoes of the Ashen here, and then MML that is necessary to get the game to run properly here. This is completely unfinished, and it runs under Phoenix. Drop the MML in the Scripts folder; if you want to go back to playing Phoenix proper, take it out of the Scripts folder. I also have remastered sounds for Phoenix here.

Bind the mic key to something accessible (I use the shift key), because you will be using it all the time to jump. The developer cheat is either map, jump, map, action, or map, action, map, jump (I never remember which).

The “Unknown Structure” is meant to open up the final area of the game, but only one of the seven (of course) MacGuffins is accessible at the moment; you can open up the area by going into the console (backslash key) while you’re in the Unknown Structure area and typing:
Quote:
Tags[1].active=true
and then increasing the value until you get to 7. (You’ll have a chip for one of the numbers, but take care to note which of those numbers you insert, unless you just decide not to implement it and instead activate all seven tags yourself.) Be prepared for a pretty intense battle once you input the seventh chip, and be prepared for battles in the other regions of the map to be more intense once you finish that one.
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Fool’s Gold · last.fm · soundcloud · Marathon Expanded Universe
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