Sunday, September 3, 2017

Myth for our Time

There are certain pieces of entertainment media that maintain an important ecological message far beyond their years; the novel "Dune," the anime "NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind," and (since this is a blog about video games) Myth.

Not to be confused with Mist, this is a series of three games, the first two of which were created by none other than Bungie Studios...before they became famous for the Halo franchise.  The first entry Myth: The Fallen Lords is my personal favorite in terms of story, while the second Myth: Soulblighter improves on the gameplay of the original.  Sadly, the third game was outsourced and is just all around bad.  It should probably be forgotten.  So how do these games play?  Well the genre is a little bit difficult to classify.  It's somewhere between an RTS and MOBA, but also has a few RPG elements woven in here and there.  The setting is your typical middle-of-the-road fantasy world wherein the big bad has all but won.  The narrative framing device comes from the journal of an ordinary soldier fighting in the war.  Stylistically, I've heard comparisons to "The Black Company" novels by Glen Cook although I think most people who play the game will be reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien's writings more than anything else.  After all, Myth features things like treants, dwarfs, a dark lord, and a heroic wizard.  On the other hand there are some original aspects to the setting as well (such as The Tain, Myrkridia, Trow, Fetch and Ghols).  The plot mostly revolves around "The Legion," a melting pot of warriors from a variety of different backgrounds.  On one extreme you have shirtless claymore-wielding berserkers, while on the other end there are robe-wearing journeymen who use plant roots to heal the wounded.  Rounding things out are the Fir'Bolg (stand-ins for elven archers), dwarves armed with explosives and surprisingly ordinary swordsmen complete with mail hauberk, surcoat, nasal helm and heraldic shield.

The opposition is even more varied and includes ghostly peltasts called "soulless" that float over the terrain, as well as the aforementioned fetch that can shoot lightning from their fingertips.  However, the backbone of the armies of darkness are the thrall, axe-wielding zombies basically...Stages in which the player is charged with defending a fixed position against advancing columns of these foes are by far my favorite mission type, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of on-screen carnage.  Of course planting satchel charges and creating killzones is great fun, but equally exciting is targeting the shuffling timebombs known as "wights."  Hit them with a couple of arrows and the resulting explosion, created by these bloated walking corpses, causes the ground to ripple and can kill or paralyze anything caught in the blast radius.  Some other units also have interesting secondary abilities; thrall can pass through (or hide in) deep water, archers can release flaming arrows, ghols can pick up objects on the battlefield and throw them.  As you might have noticed, the bad guys have more interesting units.  Thankfully, players do get the chance to try them out in multiplayer.

Contrary to my usual gaming habits, I did play quite a bit of Myth and Myth II online.  In part it was because of Bungie's free, easy-to-use matchmaking service (a rarity in those days).  There was also a ranking system although I never made it past the lowest crown tier.  There were also some interesting mods for the game, including a vietnam multiplayer total conversion and a developer-endorsed fan-made single player campaign for Myth II entitled "Chimera."

Despite the vast array of features offered, when I think back on the Myth series my fondest memories are of the names of each unit and the accompanying flavor text.  The game tracks kill counts in addition to the number of mission survived for each unit.  These forms of experience affect movement speed, attack rate and even hit points.  One way to make the later levels easier in Myth (aside from turning down the difficulty setting) is to make sure more units survive earlier on - thus allowing them to become veterans.  So, in a sense, each of the player's units starts to take on their own personal history and value.  The names are also evocative and reflect the culture from which that unit came.  For example a berserker might have a name like "Eirik who Jams the Gates of the Underworld," or "Tyrgeis with a Shirt of Scars," while a journeyman might have a name along the lines of "Eight Flint Deer," or "Twelve Eagle Falling Sun."  Meanwhile, swordsmen have old English sounding names such as "Duncan," "Avis," or "Owen."  One particular race of foes called the "Bre'Unor" only appear in one level, but their bone armor, flint weapons, pet wolves, monolithic shrines and nocturnal ambushes made a lasting impression on me.

The flavor text made visible by selecting a single unit hints at a much deeper and richer setting than what actually makes it on-screen.  Steve Jackson Games actually ported over the setting to G.U.R.P.S. (Generic Universal Role-Playing System), but the sourcebook was oddly lacking in details.  Particularly with regards to the cycle of light and dark.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but the setting of Myth follows a 1000 (or possibly 500) year pattern of civilization rising and falling.  The concept is kind of interesting considering the mediterranean followed a similar course with the bronze age collapse in 1177 B.C., followed by the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., and now with war in Syria, civil unrest in Egypt and a major financial crisis in Greece one wonders if this simply isn't the third time around.  Even the "Leveler" takes on a quasi-symbolic importance in that the creator of one age is the destroyer of the next.  It's all too topical considering recent matters having to do with fossil fuels and climate change.  Did Bungie intend their IP to convey that sort of allusion to the real world?  I don't know, but there's no denying its relevance even to this day.  

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