Syndrome De La Page Blanche

In French, the phrase "syndrome de la page blanche", or white page syndrome, is intended as an expression of writer's block; the inability to begin a project faced with an empty page.

Myself, I always viewed it as an expression of the usefulness of limitations, boundaries, and direction: one of the reasons why so many works are derivatives and combinations is because it is easier to start with what you know and then change it than trying to tilt at the windmill of creating something truly unique. When faced with a boundary or limitation, you are teased into approaching it and testing its strength. If one was truly free to do or say truly anything without limit, it seems likely one would find nothing to say.

It is this thought that runs through my head while playing Freeverse's Xbox Live Arcade conversion of Marathon: Durandal. One is given to wonder if there is any value in such an object beyond nostalgia; a chance for those who played the game a decade ago to relive that experience. For some, a chance to recapture youth, or a chance to remember good times.

However, it is a good deal more than that; and comparing it to other games in the genre that make better use of the modern hardware in today's console provides an object lesson on the usefulness of limitations and boundaries.

Please Insert Disk Two

The original Marathon series, primarily on the Macintosh platform in the mid-1990s, labored under many technical limitations that by today's standards would seem crippling rather than merely restricting: constraints of storage, memory, and computing power.

The earliest distributions of Marathon came on multiple 3.5" floppy disks which today are a collector's item. Designed before hardware 3D acceleration became de rigeur, its levels are pseudo 3D and simply textured. Its enemies are all animated sprites rather than 3D models.

The boxes were labeled "Accelerated for Power Macintosh" because Apple was, at that time, just starting its first processor family switch, from the 680x0 series of Motorola CPUs to the RISC-based PowerPC units designed and built by the AIM alliance, Apple, IBM, and Motorola. However, not everyone had, or could afford, a new Mac with a fancy RISC processor, so while the game could be marketed as taking advantage of that architecture it also had to run on older machines; not just the last-generation 68040 processors, but also the 68030 processors that powered older machines.

Given such limitations, is there any reason to bring such an old school game to the Xbox 360 except to recapture the glory days, now retextured in glorious High Definition and buttressed by robust online play? Is Marathon: Durandal a mere museum piece for those who already appreciate its special qualities?

I've enjoyed playing this game so much that I'm tempted to think the effort to bring Marathon to Xbox Live would have been worth it even if the sole value in it was the preservation of Bungie's legacy, a not-so-distant cousin of the Halo series. Yet it is more than that.

Bungie's innovative responses to the severe technical limitations placed on it by the hardware of the day speaks volumes not only about their own ingenuity, but perhaps how the ever-expanding horizons of gaming hardware are removing some of these interesting challenges that inspire innovative solutios and replacing them with an endless hunger for copious amounts of content, perhaps to the ultimate detriment of the medium.

5D Space

The engine for Marathon is essentially two dimensional. As in Doom, there is no true third dimension; all height is an illusion. This is perhaps best illustrated by a limitation that Marathon and Myth both share: their inability to render a true bridge, a structure under which one may pass both over and under while viewing the entire structure.

The appearance of bridges can be created by texturing a space underneath a passage so that it looks as if it is open to the other side, but in fact is not. The function of bridges-- one path passing over another-- is accomplished through the trickery best exemplified by the 5D Space multiplayer map, a map in which three lefts do not make a right, because there are passages that, on the two-dimensional map, appear to occupy the same space, but in fact are separate.

This same trick makes the automaps of Marathon easily distinguished from those of Doom; no two paths in Doom ever cross over or under any other, the playing field is strictly two dimensional and all changes in elevation are purely cosmetic. Marathon combines that illusion of height with multiple overlapping two dimensional sets of paths, as well as a rudimentary trick that allows for looking up and down.

As a result, Marathon maps, both multiplayer and campaign, are labyrinthine structures that are often as much vertical as they are horizontal. Marathon 2 added to this by filling these deep and high space with fluids the player could swim through, and navigation puzzles that involved Archimedicean experiments in displacement, moving fluids from one volume to another in order to access hidden spaces.

Faced with the limitations of an engine that could not create truly 3D environments, Bungie created several features that were both new to the fledgling FPS genre and helped distinguish Marathon from other examples.

These limitations no longer exist. Shooters like Halo do not feature maps, or swimming. While a true 3D engine does afford may spaces in which elevation is an integral part of the design, such as multiplayer levels like Lockout or single player levels like Silent Cartographer, just as often these changes are just as cosmetic as they were in Marathon: Assault on the Control Room is easily envisioned as a flat and continuous surface; while it backtracks over itself in several places at multiple elevations, play is usually intended to be isolated to one elevation at a time (although overcoming this limitation is a lot of fun, too).

This is not to say that true 3D environments are a step backward; that is surely not the case. Nor to suggest that modern engines should make use of 5D space (although that, in and of itself, might be interesting). Rather, that the response to the inability to make true 3D spaces inspired some clever features that modern engines have no use for. In place of that challenge, there is the challenge of creating enough high definition content so that players have enough high resolution, normal mapped wall textures to look at to occupy them for ten hours or more.

I Think We Should Only Try This Once

Of course, it also works the other way. There are elements of Marathon: Durandal that expose just how far the shooter genre has come in the past ten years.

Doom had its "monster closets", doors the player could not open, but would open behind him or her after they'd passed, letting loose demonspawn to attack from the rear. One might honestly wonder what those demons were doing in that little area, all by themselves, waiting for some unsuspecting marine to happen by. It must have gotten quite boring. Sufficed to say that Hell can seeminly spawn demons wherever it likes, and it likes spawning them in closets so they can jump out and frighten you. The game's fiction isn't going to give you any better explanation than that.

While Marathon gives you a much better explanation when it plays the same unfair trick-- placing enemies either directly in your path when its least expected or behind you, cutting off your escape-- it hardly feels any better when you fall for it. Marathon's essential design crutch is teleportation.

Of course, Doom had teleportation, too-- usually recognizable areas (marked by pentagrams to fit in with the generally Satanic ambiance) that would instantly teleport you to another part of the map. Some of them were two-way portals. Some could be used by enemies, and some were used to spawn enemies.

Its use in the Doom games, however, pales to that in Marathon. Teleportation is the swiss army knife of Marathon. Every entry and exit to each level is a teleport. Many rooms in certain levels are completely disconnected from the rest of the map, and are only accessible via teleportation. Weapons, ammunition, and allies are sent to you often by teleport. Enemy reinforcements arrive by teleport, often blocking your progress, cutting off your retreat, or both.

That Halo, by and large, has abandoned this practice is refreshing. Whether it was a conscious design choice, or simply that the geographical and technical limitations of Marathon maps and the Marathon engine made it unnecessary I don't know, but most of the time, Halo tries to spawn enemies far enough in front of you that you appear to have come upon them already in place, instead of materializing out of the ether. Of course, most of the time you're given to wonder exactly what they were doing before you came along, as they seem to be about as purposeless as an Imp hiding in a monster closet. However, that, too, may change in time.

Object de Jeu

Marathon's gameplay objectives are largely an evolution over Doom's routine of kill stuff, find a key, open a door, repeat. That simple formula, with endless tweaks and variations, still forms the core of much FPS gameplay, and there are many examples of the genre that are far simpler, requiring a player to simply traverse in a linear manner from point A to point B, killing as much as possible in between the two points.

The mechanics of Marathon's objectives are fundamentally the same; passing from area to area means flipping switches that open doors. Halo and Doom have the same. However, all of Halo's door panels (with the exception of Silent Cartographer's security override station) are immediately adjacent to the door they control and do not comprise any part of a puzzle. Doom forwent switches of any kind; you just toggle the action key to open a door. If it doesn't need a key, it just opens. If it does, you need to have the key in your possession.

Some of Marathon's doors open that way. Some require switches. Some switches are adjacent to the doors they control, some are not. Some aren't even reachable, and have to be shot with projectiles to be activated. Some switches are part of a series that make up a logic puzzle that must be solved in order to produce the desired effect.

Some puzzles require other objects, such as the uplink chips, that you pick up in one location and deliver somewhere else. Some puzzles are just locating switches that produce cosmetic effects, such as turning lights on. Some change the level of fluids in areas, changing the layout of entire levels.

Nothing in Halo is that interactive; buttons open doors and some trigger cinematics, and that's about it.

The Tyranny Of Cinema

The idea of games being cinematic, or of producing real-time, near-photorealistic images of recognizable human characters and real life settings was barely imagined when Marathon was released. Any such game elements at the time would have been filmed and presented as compressed video, or painstakingly rendered, frame by frame, over hours or even days.

Nowadays engines can and do just that. The realtime cinematics of today's 3D games rival the painstakingly rendered-over-weeks frames of theatrical CG releases only a few years ago. Voice acting and visuals have replaced the other feature that set Marathon apart from its contemporaries and its successors: text.

Marathon's complex mission objectives require complex instructions. Some who have played XBLA's Marathon: Durandal are frustrated in the early levels, and freely admit they don't bother with the terminals, sometimes because of the small text size (here's a tip, there's a text size setting in the options).

Ultimately Marathon's terminal content is what sets it apart from other shooters. They not only give you the background, telling you what is going on in the larger conflict between Durandal and Tycho, between the Pfhor and the S'pht, but also tell you what you're supposed to do in the level. Some are simple exploration or seek and destroy missions. Sometimes you're activating ancient computer systems, or helping Durandal infiltrate the Pfhor computer network. The text instructions, integrating the back story of the game with the mission objectives, hides from the player the fact that all they're really doing is flipping switches, opening doors and shooting stuff, which are the core FPS gameplay mechanics.

Another thing I always appreciated about the terminals: the accurate map views. I've always thought it strange, even though Halo is not supposed to be a tactical shooter, that the Master Chief is not given more help before being sent on a mission. Halo has no map; the directions you're given are necessarily vague, and only function because there's usually only one place you can go. Even if you do get lost, it won't be for long, because Cortana will pop up a helpful Nav point to let you know where to go. However, it's hard to shake the perception that Cortana's a dim bulb compared to Durandal when she gives you direction and distance but no hints as to how to proceed to an objective, whereas Durandal has hacked into the enemy computer network, retrieved a detailed file on the area you're being transported to, and given you an accurate map with your mission objective helpfully labeled. That's what I call artificial intelligence!

Of course, the ambition to make games more like film and the conception that gamers do not want to read have doomed not only the interactive fiction genre, but also Marathon's method of infusing entertaining fiction into an action/exploration game.

Does Halo 3's "Terminal Man" achievement mean the return of such a feature? So far one can only speculate; but it seems unlikely that this general trend will not continue, and that designers will continue to have to try and balance the desire to create fun and innovative gameplay situations with the ever-growing demand for high definition visuals.

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Funkmon's picture
Funkmon
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Joined: 04/08/2004
Very interesting expository

Very interesting expository blog. It's not one that was written for the audience. If I'm right, this was Narc randomly thinking about Durandal while playing it, then writing down a paragraph or so and finding he'd written three pages in Microsoft Word about the subject. I get the feeling this essay was not written to supply an audience with anything in particular, though he may have been imagining the audience as he was writing, but more as a personal introspective tool.

When one has a discussion with friends, new revelations and oftentimes great ideas appear out of nowhere. If a person needs some new ideas, the best thing to do is call up some intelligent friends and have a discussion. However, if one lacks the ability to do that, for whatever reason, a close second is the essay.

The essay is a very cool thing: it can start with just a simple item "I was playing Moo today, and boy has gaming come a long way," and turn into a dissertation on video game structure and the start to crate ratio. Essays are like streams flowing from a broad lake of a topic, and flowing down the easiest, most interesting path, until they reach the ocean of ultimate purpose. When you start at the lake, most of the time you don't have any idea where the essay will end up, and if you do, it's quite vague, so everyplace you go in the essay is full of revelations completely new, thought up by you, by yourself. Pretty cool.

I hope that was legible, as it's 4:30 AM and I can't quite think straight.

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