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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.