Remembering Marathon Infinity’s Opening Level

Let me tell you about one of my favourite levels. It’s from a funny old game called Marathon Infinity, and it’s brilliant.

Marathon Infinity is the third game in the Marathon series, sometimes described as the Macintosh’s version of Doom, though this doesn’t really do it justice. Where Doom is all quivering flesh and furious gunfire, Marathon is alternately frenetic and sombre; vaguely System Shock-esque, though playing more on pulp science fiction and the dread of deep space than camp horror and The Lawnmower Man. Marathon was released in 1994 by Bungie, and it’s a clear part of their later game, Halo, right down in its marrow, in its liquid violence and its guns and its love affair with alien spaces.

Infinity, the third game in the Marathon series, was released in 1996 and was, if I’m honest, my least favourite. Its level design is sometimes a bit too clever for its own good; a series of brooding, spartan aesthetic triumphs that often leaves you wading through innards in search of an exit. Infinity is architectural play in an especially cool, brutalist mode.

The game’s first level, Ne Cede Malis, is a different matter. Not because it isn’t hostile to mere mortals – it assuredly is – but because it’s a small, finely crafted experience that never wears out its welcome. It’s also quite unlike its contemporaries, far ahead of its time and very (perhaps too) ambitious. Here are a few reasons I love this level.

Light

Most of the level wallows in gloom, but recessed lights flicker moodily and help you get your bearings. The result is both eerie and gorgeous. Right from the start, your goal is visible and clearly lit, and wall lights lead to a glowing terminal, drawing you into the level. Then the grammar of light suddenly starts to break down, degenerating into mad strobing, darkened rooms, obscured corridors. This will not be a linear experience. While Doom’s E1M1 leads you by the nose from A to B, Ne Cede Malis has no intention of holding your hand.

Instead, you get involute, rococo detail. Marathon never had any ‘real’ 3d lighting, but by shading specially shaped polygons, it was possible to give the impression of light and shadow. The developers made striking use of this technique from the beginning, and in Ne Cede Malis, it has become a fine art. Light falls and diffuses in surprising ways.

Misdirection

This place is dominated by locked and malfunctioning doors. From the beginning, if you go straight ahead into the obvious, well-lit dead end, you’ll find a whole slam of them. To your left as you face this blockage is another obstacle. Chances are, the correct path toward the terminal is the last one you’ll take.

None of this is accidental. Much of this place is a reprise of the original Marathon’s first level, Arrival, which has a similar tone, and as with that level, the purpose is to make you feel lost without actually being lost. It also makes you attentive to the space itself. Ne Cede Malis is filled with these little moments of friction.

The terminal itself is another reprise of Arrival and another clever bit of misdirection, and here the space suddenly opens up. Computer terminals are Marathon’s equivalent of audio logs and expository orders, so any veteran seeing this beacon in the dark will expect some help in getting their physical and narrative bearings. The actual message, from the space itself and from your normally cheerful megalomaniacal AI dom, Durandal, is that you are not safe, nobody is going to help you, and you’ll find nothing here but despair.

Grind

The level is alive, but decaying. It breathes, roars and groans. The ambient sound is almost musical, but it’s always abrasive. By the time you finish, this sound will be driving you mad. Doors here aren’t just locked. They get stuck or slam mindlessly. Even when they work, you almost always have to flip a switch to operate them – all of this technology requires what Star Trek would call a manual override. Some doors are smeared with unidentifiable residue. Machine textures slide endlessly between cracks in walls and doorframes – a nice technological kludge, but also suggestive of the fact this level is only a fragment of something bigger. You’re trapped inside a vast machine, and it’s in pain.

Struggle

The aliens are almost incidental. They flit across your motion scanner, but you rarely see them. When you do, it’s an ambush or some awkward close-quarters fighting. Marathon is perfectly capable of speed – on some levels, such as Marathon 2’s dizzying ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher’, it becomes a kind of first-person bullet hell, forcing you to weave between grenades and plasma bolts while shooting only what stands between you and escape – but the series has a deeper bag of tricks than Doom or even System Shock. Here, the enemies keep you on your toes, but architecture is the real monster.

The water tanks are a good example of this. You’re unceremoniously dropped into this area, trapped. The cloaked cyborgs can’t hurt you in the water, so you’re just sort of stuck in there with them, trying to find a way out of this system and running the gauntlet whenever you break the surface. The whole place is awkward and breathless. I’m not completely sold in this section, since the ideal solution is a lot of tedious face-punching, but you are at least rewarded with a nifty lift. Slamming that button and riding far, far out of the dreadful sump is always satisfying.

Verticality

Marathon’s technological edge over Doom – limited vertical look – is key to the tanks, even if it only lets you know how little you can see. It’s also important to the maze section, another reprise of Arrival. Mazes were uncool even in Doom, but this one is short, just long enough to make you uncomfortable. It knots in three dimensions, reconfigures itself, opens up into strange little pockets. Verticality almost always reinforces the sense of claustrophobia, here. When the level finally opens up into a bright chasm near the end, you realise just how oppressive all these pits and corridors have been.

Silence

Marathon Infinity is typical of an old FPS in that its levels often evoke a place, but refuse to offer naturalistic descriptions. Bound by primitive technology and a need to keep the blood flowing, Doom’s eldritch sewers and banks of computer screens were always hellish and surreal; Quake’s swampy halls never exactly made sense. Comparatively, though, Marathon was always much less fantastic. If this were a Doom level, it would be replete with jump scares: lights cutting out, monsters springing from hidden compartments. Here, the imaginary is allowed to speak for itself. Malice lives in the machine, not in some hellish supernatural.

Dead Ends

Ne Cede Malis is clearly out of time. I’d say that it’s a first-person horror game from before any such thing existed, but that’s not strictly true, since System Shock predates even the original Marathon by a couple of months. It’s certainly unique, though. A lot about the level is contrary to ‘good’ level design especially for an introductory level – its mazes and dirty tricks and, above all, its demand for patience. Like many of the best Marathon levels, it’s also an example of a designer pushing against the limits of the game’s 2.5D technology and toward a richer, more narratively-driven kind of design. It’s tense, thematic, and unlike anything I’d ever played when I first encountered it.

You can play it, for free, on pretty much anything, thanks to Bungie’s generosity and the miracle that is Aleph One.

From this site

23 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Holy shit! I’m suddenly 11 again. I felt like Infinity was the worst in the series because the plot is nearly inscrutable; it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s and some fansite was doing a replay/discussion, that somebody pointed out that the plot is exploring different timelines branching off of the Pfhor detonating Lh’owon’s sun, the player and arguably, Durandal (or was it the Jjaro?), trying to find a alternate timeline where the star doesn’t explode and where the game’s storyline can continue. The weirdest part is that so many of the levels have you fighting alongside the Pfhor and against the BOBs, or against both. It’s so disjointed. In retrospect it’s a very neat sci-fi premise, but it’s just not very tidy.

    On the other hand, the level design was just amazing. The level Ay Mak Sicur shows up what, four times? From different perspectives, with different parts of the control station available each time based on the player’s faction affiliation for that segment of the game, keeping with the exploring-different-timelines until you finally find the one where the station is able to prevent the trih xeem from detonating the star.

    Thanks for this article!

    • horsemedic says:

      link to marathon.bungie.org

      Just think of that: An FPS released in the 1990s—for Macintosh, for chrissakes!—sustained 20 years of analysis. And now its creators make Halo.

      • Premium User Badge

        Nauallis says:

        Not really. Old news, Halo. Bungie is currently making Destiny.

    • jTenebrous says:

      Wow – an entire article dedicated just to the first level of Marathon: Infinity. Now that’s nostalgic. This level, if I recall, was the only level included in the Marathon: Infinity demo, so I played it well over a hundred times while mowing lawns to save up for the full trilogy box set. There was also a mod called Marathon: EVIL that populated this level (and the rest of Infinity) with all the nasty jump scares and monster closets us Mac people thought we might be missing from Doom. Oh, and then there was the “Tempus Irae” full conversion mod for Infinity, which was mind-blowing eye candy at the time (texture-mapped classical paintings on the walls, whaaaaat!?) Durandal was my favourite entry of the series, though. 20+ years later, and I’ve now been a 3d artist on two Halo franchise games… a bit of a dream come true. Marathon fan forever! :)

      • Premium User Badge

        Nauallis says:

        EVIL was a total conversion, but I never tried putting the physics and models files into the Infinity folder.

        The story for EVIL was fantastic all-around, and made way more sense having played the Siege of Nor’Korh mod/map for Marathon 2. EVIL was a sequel. Those weapons though. Wow. Especially in the later levels, when you first get the nuke-launcher.

        Tempus Irae was fun too. Couldn’t stand Marathon Red. Did you ever play the “Devil In A Blue Dress” scenario?

  2. Premium User Badge

    prunesaver says:

    Such nostalgia when I saw that lovely green map screen. I for one am in favour of an in-depth retrospective of every level in the series. I could read about Marathon till the cows come home.

    • El Mariachi says:

      Hear, hear. I’d love to see one on G4 Sunbathing from the first one. I think that’s the level that’s stuck with me the most over all these years — and not for lack of competition.

      • suibhne says:

        Oh man, I’ve played the original probably 10x through and can still rehearse many of the levels in my head. I even have the original, weirdly angular box. But G4 Sunbathing remains one of the most memorable levels, and its punchline is genuinely brilliant and totally subverts all the soft-coddled-SF expectations a mainstream audience might bring.

  3. deadpan says:

    I’ve finally gotten around to playing Alien: Isolation and it’s giving me an itch to go back and play Marathon Infinity. Glad to see it get some recognition for it’s great atmosphere.

    After the more action-oriented Marathon 2 it was a bit of of swerve for Bungie to go back to a more horror-inspired, alienating mood for Infinity, but looking back it was a good call.

    The Marathon games were at their best when you’re running through a hopelessly complicated level, low on ammo and health, stepping into a dark room because it’s the only place on the map not explored yet. Fewer jump scares, more dread.

  4. mechavolt says:

    Marathon was so good. I should try getting that to work on my Windows 10 machine somehow.

    • Janichsan says:

      Aleph One, pal. And yes, that’s completely legit: Bungie has made the engine open source and made the game files freely available.

      • Janichsan says:

        …as also mentioned in the article, I’m just noticing. So much for my reading comprehension in the morning. :/

  5. Geebs says:

    Infinity gets bonus points for being properly well written; not as in “we hired a writer and let him go nuts and words words words”, but as in “just enough text and no more”.

  6. đăng nhập FB says:

    I really like the dear information you offer in your articles. I’m able to bookmark your site and show the kids check out up here generally. Im fairly positive theyre likely to be informed a great deal of new stuff here than anyone.
    fb login

  7. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Now I want to play the Marathon trilogy again. Thanks! Then again, just thinking about Marathon will do that.

    Also, nice article!

  8. dethtoll says:

    I discovered Marathon — well, I knew it’d existed but never really sat down for a play — a couple years ago, and I must admit I’ve developed something of an obsession. In a great many ways it’s exactly the kind of sci-fi I like.

    The trilogy has its fair share of stinker levels, and most of them are in Infinity. But that first level right there? Easily one of the greatest of all time, hearkening back to the gloominess of the titular Marathon’s interiors to the first game in the best way. The only level in MI I would even consider to surpass it is the final one — massive and intricate, pushing the limits on what the engine can do.

    • Premium User Badge

      Nauallis says:

      My contender would be that level in M2 where you’re supposed to be disabling control circuits for the Pfhor defense drones! The story terminal on the previous level shows you the route to get to the objective and the exit terminal, but then you get into the level and it’s this massive confusing complex, and if you take a wrong turn suddenly you’re left to explore the whole place, because there are only two routes back to where you need to be.

  9. drezworthy says:

    Whaaaat, proper nostalgia this. Marathon 1 was my favorite. Infinity was the only one I didn’t beat. I think I only ever had the demo with this one level though. Very interesting article cheers!

  10. Premium User Badge

    harvb says:

    Good grief I’d forgotten about Marathon, I absolutely loved that game. Movement was so fluid, it was a pleasure to explore, and the sheer depth and eeriness of the levels felt like horror way before System Shock. It got me thinking how at that time Mac games were far superior to PC games, like Syndicate which had smoother graphics and clear audio. Those were the days.

  11. Alien says:

    I have only one problem with Marathon (AlephOne) it`s 30fps and I get motion sickness when playing 30fps games.

    Is there a way to toggle the framerate to 60fps. I think my 980ti could take it :)

  12. neotribe says:

    Marathon has always been one of the great series. And Halo has always been more Marathon by a different name (which is no vice).

  13. sincarne says:

    It’s not just Halo that has clear links to Marathon. Several Fallen and Hive creatures in Destiny look a lot like Compilers and Pfhor. Not to mention this gun:
    link to twitter.com

    Also: the scripting language in their game is called Pfhortran. I’ve never stopped thinking that was awesome.

  14. jack092 says:

    It is the most entertaining game that i have ever played and really enjoyed playing this game from the bottom of my heart.Beside it there is another one of the best game which is roblox where people are fully entertained and after getting the a href=”http://robloxfreerobuxgenerator.com/”>roblox hacks they find playing this game much simpler one.