Thursday, February 23, 2012

Remembering Myth

Bah--these gaps between posts, while diminishing, are not deliberate. Think I'm going to assault you with a flimsy excuse about "life issues", "work schedule", or "It's so hard being a new parent"? Hah! Shows what you know. I'm a nerd, and while all those things have been occupying me, I've been dinking around doing nerdy things, too, so I'm not giving any excuses. Nope.

Think that I'm going to start making it easier on myself to update the blog more regularly by cutting content, depth of posts, or posting link-filled drivel like most other blogs? Hah! Shows what you know. I don't believe in lowering the bar, and I certainly don't believe in using only ten words to make a point when one hundred words will reinforce the position and a thousand words will completely sponge out opposition.

Think that I'm limiting myself by the intense, nerd focus of the blog? Hah! Shows what you know. Today I'm going to drag you back to 1997, when Bungie was not yet a household name but no longer a garage-sized developer, either. When games were pretty much always 2D and resembled their topics of violence like Picasso paintings resembled his subjects. When the only way to get a "visceral" gaming experience was to take shots in between matches with your favorite Street Fighter character--it's Chun-Li or M. Bison, you know it--and shake your head a lot. That's right, we're going back to the release of Myth: The Fallen Lords.

Now I permit two divergent opinions of Myth: The Fallen Lords and its sequel Myth II: Soulblighter. The first opinion is that it's the best frakking game ever made. The alternative opinion is that it's one of the best frakking games ever made. See what I did there? The only other valid opinion to have regarding Myth is ignorance, and that won't hold up by the time you're done reading this.

Early in 1997, my big brother drove me to the local Computer City in the outlet mall near our house. Handing him a five-dollar bill and letting him foot the change, we bought a boxed demo of the game Myth: The Fallen Lords. Since this was still a few years before the internet became the favored medium of distributing software demos, and since it was also the first game that actually captured my interest before release, it was and has remained the only boxed game demo I've ever purchased with my own money. Plus about 70 cents of my big brother's cash, and about a quarter of a gallon of gas thrown in for audit purposes.

I've mentioned Myth a few times in the blog so far. It was one of the first games I really played to death in its heyday and even in the years after Bungie was sold to Microsoft. Featuring the proper blend of storytelling and intuitively addicting gameplay, Myth: The Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter were all kinds of inspiring and fulfilling. Upon its release, Myth: The Fallen Lords became an instant personal hit for striking three chords that no game before it--and few games since--have done.

CD Art to 1997's classic Myth: The Fallen Lords
Myth was... awesome tactics

The Myth series of games were real-time tactical computer games. Real-time sub-genres encompass any game in which time passes at a steady rate. The alternative to this is the turn-based game, in which time passes in discreet chunks at uneven intervals, much like your average board game. Another typical aspect of the tactics genre is a lack of unit or building construction. In a strategy game, like Starcraft, you construct a barracks using some largely conceptual resources and then use those same resources to build marines in that same barracks--all of which occurs in real-time while managing the rest of the game. Not so with a tactical game like Myth. You start off with a specific number of units, who may or may not be surviving veterans from previous missions, and you receive no additional units except for finding the occasional stragglers elsewhere on the map. It lacks the resource management and base-building that makes the strategy genre so popular, but it also demands more decision-making precision on behalf of the player, as mistakes and losses are more costly and irreparable.

The other thing that really made Myth shine as a tactical game was its approach to simple-but-dynamic combat. With forces that typically fell around thirty men for a given mission, you'd have to pay careful attention to how you moved your soldiers and in what formations. While strategy games at the time and many still have at their heart a simple rock-paper-scissors mechanic, Myth innovated with dynamics that emphasized timing and position instead. Getting your archers in a line formation on a ridge or having your dwarves flank a force of undead axe-wielders was the key to victory, and made it more viscerally engaging than simply knowing when to spam air units to counter enemy tanks.

Myth was... a technical innovation

Even though Bungie was a cottage game company at the time, Myth was part of the leading waves of the computer game industry. Its in-game graphics were a combination of 3D rendered terrain and 2D sprite collections for units and viscera. In one of my earlier Mass Effect posts I mentioned the nature of 3D rendering--adding skins to a mesh, which moves based on the keyframes of an animation skeleton. Well, Myth was still a little before those days. The terrain itself was a very simple mesh, not having the contours or fine details of a human figure, with a very low resolution skin. And, since it's terrain, it doesn't need to move, so no keyframes were needed. The units and most of the games' other details, though, needed to move. And, with a freely rotating 3D camera, they needed to be drawn at all sorts of angles. In steps the ancient and venerable 2D sprite.

A 2D sprite is a collection of flat image files that are called up based upon the perspective of the camera in a game. If, say, you're looking at a standing warrior unit from the three-quarters perspective, then the sprite references the appropriate image and displays it. It makes for a rough equivalent for 3D units, and requires a lot more work for the artists, but in these early days of 3D gaming it was simply the only way to have 3D game-play in real-time.

Imagine you're looking for someone in a crowd, only you don't know what they look like. 2D sprites would be like having a handful of photos of the person from different angles, whereas 3D rendering might be represented by having someone with you who knows what the objective person looks like. Having those photos handy for comparison is quite a bit less reliable, but it's something that you could mass produce even when it's too much trouble to get a first-hand witness. That's what 2D sprites are for, and they're still used in less noticeable roles in modern games, too.

So maybe it's not so pretty anymore, but the graphics were cutting edge at the time. I think.

Above you can see what the game actually looked like with the two elements coexisting on the screen. Note the rubble in the foreground and the building's corner to the left--these too are rendered in true 3D, hence the lines are more clearly defined and the objects have more consistency as the camera moves around them. Still, the ability to have tactics and gameplay that were not only three-dimensional but also embraced a freely controlled camera made Myth: The Fallen Lords a novel and thrilling experience at the time. And when Myth II: Soulblighter added the ability to save your completed missions as 'films', allowing you to roam around and survey the battle from different camera angles than you used the first time, well it went to a lot of gamers' heads. As happened again when Bungie brought that feature to Halo 3 ten years later.

Myth was... a fabulous setting

There are two general ways to creatively react to your inspirations: imitation and emulation. Imitation is easy to recognize and easy to tackle, and it involves you picking what you admire from the inspirational source and simply shoe-horning it into your own material. Emulation, on the other hand, involves more research and insight, and if it's done right or wrong your fans might not even see the relation to the source material. Because emulation involves trying to recreate and adapt the methods by which the inspirational material was created--to divine the process and re-tool it to create something of your own. I believe Myth is inspired by and emulates the works of Tolkien. That is, without being very much like Middle Earth in any superficial ways, Myth tackles the setting in a way that I think Tolkien would have if he were a game designer in the 90s. You see, Tolkien was all about creating a syncretic sort of mythology that incorporated themes from the Germanic and Old English myths that inspired a lot of his early academic career, but with a keen focus to create a thoroughly British fantastic folklore. I'm pretty sure the guys at Bungie had a similar goal--in addition to their seven step plan to world domination*.

The game's setting is inspired by the fatalism of Norse, Celtic, and Germanic myth. It's set in a world without elves, where the dwarves are surly tinkerers rather than axe-swinging braggarts, and where evil wins fifty percent of the time. Literally. See, in the Myth setting, time is on a cycle of Light and Dark, and each rules for a thousand years before falling to the opposing order (or disorder, as the case may be). And each time civilization sways, it is conquered by a Leveller--a spirit that is a champion of order and justice to end every age of Dark, or a malign destroyer to end every age of Light. It's very Norse and gloriously stoic, as the stories plod through grim humor, violent heroism, and constant sacrifice. And the voice actor, the James Schneider, who introduces the missions captures this perfectly. Listen to his Old World brogue and seasoned ramblings at the Myth journals website--simply click on the sound bar to the right to enjoy quality, intriguing story-telling and tingling tension--that is Myth, baby.

I'll go on about the setting more in later posts as I share bits of my ongoing GURPS Myth campaign, but for now, I'll share a comparison. One of these things is not like the other...

This one's MINE!

The first image is the starting map used in Myth: The Fallen Lords. The second image is my RPG campaign map, shown at one-third of its maximum size to maintain a certain geographic mystique for my players. I've added something like two hundred towns, settlements, rivers, lakes, highways and other fine details to the setting--and you know what? I'm still working on this bad boy, too.

I'm a sick, sick nerd.

*No, really. Seven steps and Bungie will rule the world, provided we aren't first destroyed as part of a demonstration of Christopher Johnson's righteous wrath. Hurry, Bungie, hurry!


  1. Your map is pretty fantastic and rich with extra detail. I've been trying to get hold of a decent Myth II map for a while myself - would you be willing to share your full sized version?

    1. Hey, thanks for the compliments, and I'm definitely going to share the map more in the future here on the blog. Right now I'm trying to decide how I'll do that--whether as a tutorial, a commentary on mapmaking, or a semi-detailed background analysis of my version of Myth.

      I'm leaning most towards this last option, but I am also fairly protective of this map, so I might spread it out over the course of several atlas-style articles detailing specific regions of Myth, too. The advantage of this method is that it forces people to read more of my precious words spread out over several posts to be able to piece together the map. We'll see if that happens or not, though. As it is, the Myth Map is currently number 5 or so on my (much too long) list of overdue blog posts.

  2. Because I'm biased, I would go for the final option - a semi-detailed analysis; it would be interesting to see exactly what you've done and why.
    I look forward to you getting through your list of things to do quickly! ;-)
    Many thanks.

  3. Hey! Don't forget you can still play Myth, even with other people online! Go see

    And if you have the energy, go vote for Myth on the GOG wishlist: