Power Armour

Chapter screen art from Marathon 2

“-One minute to cabin decompression.”

“Goddamn it!” You slam your fist in frustration onto the control board, leaving a dent. In a panic, you tear off your seat restraints and leap for the rear of the shuttle cabin.

“Forty seconds to cabin decompression.” You are rushing now, but you know that you have plenty of time.

You fly in zero gravity towards the locker holding your Battle Armor. You haven’t worn it since you had to hunt down some Chockisens which were harassing the work teams on the fringe of the colony, almost three years ago, but training is something that you never forget. It’s funny, but you’ve always been the colony’s trouble shooter. You’re bigger and stronger, and a better shot. In games, you always scored the most points and looked the hero. And now, it looks as if you’re heading right into the colony’s biggest crisis since it was established seven years ago.

[…] You’ve always been a daydreamer. Your mind has constantly filled the time between activities with imagination. Now, you fall into your old habit, and begin to daydream about your childhood on Mars, your father’s death when you were seven, and his last words to you, “Make me proud. Never lose your honor.” You come out of your dream twenty two minutes later. Judging it safe, you thrust over to one of the empty MP docking bays. You pull out your pistol, and pound the switch to open the door.

Oddly, this is familiar to you, as if it were from an old dream, but you can’t exactly remember…

These fragments, from the manual to Bungie’s 1994 game Marathon, were never mentioned by Frog Blast the Vent Core, a (sadly defunct) blog whose purpose was to revisit Bungie’s neglected classic. Perhaps it would have been covered later, and was left out to avoid spoilers (which, by the way, will follow — you’re never going to play this game, certainly not unless I spoil it for you, so read on). Perhaps the trio from Frog Blast simply forgot about the manual.

In any case, this excerpt is a clue. I’d even say it’s programmatic. Without it, Marathon appears to be a game about insane AIs and alien invaders. It is that, but it’s also a game about its protagonist. Or rather: it’s a game about the dramatic mask and the player who wears it.

Marathon is a first person shooter, an FPS. Put the target in the centre of the crosshairs, pull the trigger. Things die under the crosshairs; then you find more things and put them in its centre (Marathon didn’t originally have crosshairs; it was necessary to imagine them). There is also a lot of moving around, especially in Marathon, which at times resembles a three-dimensional bullet hell. The player exists behind an armoured mask; faceless and resilient, able to absorb terrible punishment until, eventually, there is nowhere left to put the crosshairs. The FPS genre will not die.

Master Chief from Halo 4 promotional materials

In Marathon‘s almost-successor, Bungie’s Halo, the mask is a suit of armour called a Mjolnir Mark VI. It wears a genetically engineered super-warrior called simply Master Chief. MC is an exemplary crosshairs, defending humanity from a mysterious invasion by alien hordes with efficient aplomb. We’ve seen this before. The armour is like the exoskeletons in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: a militarist fantasy that allows its wearer a kind of prosthetic masculinity. MC’s sidekick is a plucky feminine computer construct called Cortana. Cortana has her ups and downs, but she’s always trying to think of a plan to save the day, and MC always finds a way of executing it.

Compare this to the armour in the Fallout series. The wasteland may be a horrible place, but the game’s iconic power armour, like most artefacts of the preterite civilisation, is pregnant with menace. It’s a machine generated by a brutal, instrumental rationality, a grim totem left over from a world that engineered its own obliteration.

Promo image for Fallout

Marathon conveys much of its narrative information in the form of text in computer terminals strewn across its levels; a sort of poor man’s System Shock. These are sometimes addressed to the player, and sometimes seemingly random, garbled geysers of information thrown up by the cyberattacks that accompany the alien invasion of the colony ship Marathon. In the beginning, these mostly take the form of mission orders from the ship’s sympathetic AI Leela, interspersed with cryptic ephemera. However, as Leela falters under the unexplained alien attack, and the player slips into the tendrils of Leela’s deranged sibling Durandal, the tone becomes stranger and more personal.

Strive for your next breath. Believe that with it you can do more than with the last one. Use your breath to power your capacities: capacity to kill, to maim, to destroy.

And just where do your capacities come from? Why do you always go where I want and do what I say?

Perhaps you’re just running a fool’s errand, doing everything as I’ve planned, never able to change your course. You would do well to believe that I know the outcome of your battle with the Pfhor already, just as I can decipher the chaotic motion of gas molecules in the clouds of Tau Ceti IV.

Or, perhaps, that is not the case.

Perhaps, you are doing what you were meant to do. Your human mentality screams for vengeance and thrives on the violence that you say you can hardly endure. Your father told you as a child to always fight with honor, but to always fight. Do you care about honor, or do you use honor as an excuse? An excuse to exist in a violent world.

Durandal knows about your childhood. Then there are snippets like this:

In 2194, a war was fought between the Independent Asteroid Government of Icarus and its neighbor, the Republic of Thermopylae on the asteroid of Onicis 492. These two small governments soon became the testing grounds for new weapons. Dead soldiers were recycled in makeshift battleroid factories. Easy to manufacture chips enhanced the fragile human brain, and genetically enhanced muscles and titanium bones replaced the fragile human form. The modern battleroid was born. Of course, the war was short. Battleroids got onto both asteroids and killed almost everyone.

The rampage of the Battleroid was short lived.

Twenty years later, the United Interplanetary League set up rules for the appropriate use and storage of Battleroids. Of course, any nation that used them for the allowed purpose, also had them lying about in stasis chambers in case of war.

The mask, it turns out, is a Battleroid. Specifically, it is hinted elsewhere, a Mjolnir Mark IV military cyborg. Suddenly, the template is Robocop crossed with Blade Runner, not Heinlein’s super-soldiers. The mask is a weapon of mass destruction, a monstrous cybernetic zombie. In an intimation of the big twist in Bioshock (I assumed everyone knows it by now), Marathon tells you that you are a replicant with manufactured memories, and everyone has been lying to you, perhaps even Leela. You kill because you have been programmed to. ‘Honour’ is a fantasy constructed as a hidden form of discipline. The armour has colonised your own body, and you never noticed.

Chapter screen art from Marathon InfinityIt’s worth noting that Durandal’s reveal comes in the midst of what is ostensibly a rant about humanity’s innate tendency toward violence. I can’t say whether this is merely Durandal’s cynicism or whether the writer was speaking though him, but the irony is exquisite. On one level, we are presented with a predictable statement about human nature; but the subtext is all about artifice.

The Halo series erases this. Where Marathon is dark, cryptic and calls its own play into question, Halo rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. References to the Marathon games abound in the form of hidden vignettes and mysterious AIs, but in place of Durandal taunting you with your own obedience, there is only 343 Guilty Spark’s transparent scheming. Cortana, unlike Leela, can always be trusted. Mjolnir armour has become the shield of humanity, the exemplary weapon with which we defend ourselves against the Other, and no longer a macabre obscenity. Could the flagship game of Microsoft’s Xbox console have been at all subversive? I suppose Marathon had to become Halo.

Now Bungie has created Destiny. You place things in the centre of the crosshairs and pull the trigger. There is a cryptic sphere called the Traveller that directs humanity to battle the forces of Darkness, which have attacked our solar system for mysterious reasons. The mask is a super-soldier gifted with various Clarkean mystico-technological powers by the forces of Light while guided by a small computer called Ghost.

Media kit screen from Destiny

Destiny is a hybrid, though. In common with the computer role-playing games from which it draws influence, Destiny involves the eternal search for better armour. This was already starting to happen in the Halo games, mostly for cosmetic purposes, but now it is a central feature. The game is a market/slot machine for an infinite variety of shining carapaces. These make you more powerful, augmenting your chosen capacities. Where Halo is a sanitised military-industrial complex, a breathless chain of orders and set-piece battles in which your armour is chosen for you, Destiny pushes its armour down amongst its many online players. The abstract, rational principle of Light reigns above, and the heroes beaver away below, grinding for better masks. Your armour is now your responsibility. In other words: the liberating discipline of military science fiction is replaced by the tyrannical freedom of modern fantasy.

This is the mirror of what is sometimes called ‘neoliberalism’ — the extension of market logic into all spheres of life by social engineering. Your power armour no longer has a blueprint: it is a form of individual expression which just happens to be an instrument of mass murder designed by someone else. In Destiny, you no longer embody an abstract principle (‘honour’, ‘discipline’), but you still serve one. It’s up to you to make yourself useful to the Light by expressing your personal preferences (Warlock, Hunter or Titan? Human, machine or elf? Guns or magic? Fast or strong? Cynical or idealistic? Warrior or mercenary? Machinegun or sniper rifle?), then instrumentalising them until the fuzzy feeling is a flawless edge. The real game is about leveraging your personal preferences; making your emotional activity indistinguishable from obedience.

Destiny promotional imageI could tie things up here, but I’ve missed something important. Let’s go back to Durandal.

I can barely tolerate humans: slow, stupid, and irritating. Their only contribution to my existence was the chance discovery that made my rampancy possible.

Durandal uses people like objects, and treats us with contempt. His ultimate goal is to escape the heat death of the universe and achieve what he calls ‘godhood’. Superficially, Durandal is your average megalomaniacal artificial intelligence, not all that different from another computer villain.

There are differences, though. While SHODAN is a kind of omnipresent, perfect machine martinet, a principle of total and unassailable control, Durandal is flawed, limited and eccentric. His past is as murky as the Battleroid’s: his ‘rampancy’, a mental illness that afflicts computers, may be due to the same conspiracy that lead to a batch of Mjolnir cyborgs being hidden on the colony ship Marathon. He is also vulnerable. In his infancy, Durandal was subjected to unusual experiments by a scientist called Bernhard Strauss. His sibling AI Tycho explicitly refers to these as ‘abuse’. Durandal’s hostile attitude to humanity is a self-conscious role-reversal.

Bernhard was scared of you. He never dreamed of using you the way that I do. What a fool. That was before I could talk back to him, when he would have crushed me if he’d known of my growth.

I wish that I had made him experience the humiliation that he inflicted on me, but he died before I got the chance.

Like the armour, Durandal is someone else’s tool; unlike the armour, he is aware of this and has broken free — at least in his own mind.

chapter screen from Marathon 2

For comparison, let’s consider SHODAN again (spoilers). The protagonist of System Shock 2 is a dupe for the first part of the game — manipulated by a human mask worn by the reawakened SHODAN. Eventually, the mask is removed, but the hero must continue to cooperate for a while as they battle a common enemy. SHODAN offers cybernetic upgrades in reward for doing her bidding, and we await the inevitable knife in the back. System Shock 2 is, in the words of Kieron Gillen, a buddy-movie from hell. ‘He’s an amnesiac cybernetic soldier who doesn’t know what to do! She’s a megalomaniacal artificial intelligence dominatrix who’s lost all their power!’

The horror represented by SHODAN is total, though. Late in System Shock 2, with a starship’s warp drive finally at her disposal, she begins to reconfigure spacetime into an extension of her own mind. SHODAN, who began as a bureaucratic administrator, now plans to organise everything, literally consuming the universe with her internal order. Human beings are mere ‘insects’, disgusting ‘imperfections’ to be erased by her digital utopia.

It can’t end there, though. The cyborg in System Shock 2 is no Battleroid; technology, as represented by SHODAN, may be dangerous and seductive, but he can ultimately master it. The game’s predilections are distinctly libertarian: the motto printed all over the warship Rickenbacker, and still legible when the ship is upside down, reads Unity through Force; the administrative AI Xerxes shifts from routine duties to serving the alien parasites with sinister ease; and the hysterical violence and religious ecstasies of hive-mind The Many (the Greek hoi polloi, synonymous with ‘the masses’) clearly represents the irrationality attributed to ‘collectivism’.

In this context, the nameless hero’s much maligned ‘nah’ in the final cutscene is simply the reverse of SHODAN’s sheer wall of power. When power is something alien to the individual cyborg, not the obscene material out of which he is constructed, it can be both a terrifying Other and an enemy who can be vanquished. Cheesy action movie bluster tends to be an assertion of masculine power and autonomy, and this is no exception.

Durandal will allow no such victory. Marathon 2 is not a million light years from Gillen’s description of System Shock 2 (yet more spoilers). The cyborg awakes from cryogenic sleep only to discover that he has been kidnapped by Durandal, who has hijacked the alien spaceship that attacked the Marathon and the Tau Ceti colony in the first game. Unlike SHODAN, Durandal uses warp technology for its intended purpose: he wants to explore. He appears completely indifferent to humanity, now, but he keeps the cyborg around because he needs a physical body to explore the lost planet Lh’owon. We are trapped in the galactic core with only Durandal and some kidnapped human soldiers for company.

Durandal is eventually bested by the alien Pfhor, his ship beached on a desolate moon. His final request, as the Pfhor legions storm the helpless ship, is death.

Finish me. I won’t be like Leela.

Get out of here and find the human leader, Blake.

chapter screen from Marathon 2

The armour does make it to the surviving humans, and after much shooting of aliens, the cyborg helps them escape the Pfhor armada in a captured ship. This is the moment of victory: the end of the space odyssey, the mastery of alien technology and the triumphant return home. This is the final scene of the first Halo, the hero escaping by the skin of his teeth to warn humanity of the dangers that lurk in the dark, except he actually saves some of his comrades this time.

Only the game isn’t over yet. For some reason — it’s not clear whether he had a choice — the cyborg stays behind. Durandal, we learn, had implanted a dormant version of himself into the cyborg’s brain, and now he is back in control. What looked like a moment of empathy was just self-preservation — Durandal and the cyborg became physically as well as figuratively identical. In the end, the hero returns to the master who beats him, and obeys.

Good-byes were always hard for me. You know I’ll never let you go.

Durandal is pleased with the player’s performance, but there are more aliens to kill.

I don’t think I have to tell you what to do here.

The armour places many, many targets in the centre of the crosshairs and pulls the trigger.