This weekend will mark the 20th anniversary of Myth: The Fallen Lords, which is one of those anniversaries that makes me stop and think about how recent that game feels to me, and how incredibly old my memories of it actually are. But I suppose my cognitive dissonance is also down to the fact that while 1997 feels like it was absolute ages ago, Myth still feels vital and fresh.
Myth was a Bungie game, but it feels unlike anything that studio did before or after. It’s a small-scale, real-time tactics game that feels intimate and understated compared to the bombast of the Halo series or the self-mythologizing of Destiny. It’s about small groups of medieval fantasy soldiers fighting desperately to stay alive while facing down hordes of undead and evil sorcerers, with damned few heroes to lead them. It’s Xenophon-meets- The Walking Dead.
But the thing that Myth did better than any other game before or since was the desperate delaying action. “Alamo” mission are a commonplace, especially in real-time games. A lot of them follow a simple template: you get to take a break from rushing your army to-and-fro and reacting to crises, and instead you have a moment to breathe, set up a series of deathtraps, and then watch your enemy walk into them. While the narrative often frames these battles as desperate, in practice they’re frequently a joy because they give you a single problem to focus on rather than a dozen.
That’s not Myth. When Myth asks you to hold a line, you know you’re in for a rapidly-deteriorating shitshow of a mission. In the one I remember best, “Across the Gjol”, you are given one of the strongest and most capable armies you’ll command throughout the entire game. And the moment you see what the game is placing at your disposal, you know exactly how deep in trouble you’re about to find yourself.
The thing about the Myth series is that combat is not a pure numbers game. Attacks get interrupted. Shots miss. Grenades fail to explode… or explode prematurely and turn a squad of infantry into a collection of meat and blood stains. Formations are critical: a half dozen swordsmen in a line of battle or an enveloping crescent formation are a basically a woodchipper that will grind the enemy to powder; those same half dozen swordsmen in a column are nothing but dominoes. Battle in Myth is about trying to manage that randomness by maintaining perfect positioning, in situations that constantly push you out of your comfort zone.
So in “Across the Gjol” you get a strong army and a great position: a bluff overlooking a set of river crossings. But the crossings strike behind your line, and so each wave of the enemy forces you to turn a bit more toward your own backside while fewer and fewer units are able to make use of deadly overlook you control. The waves of zombies and spectral javelinmen wrap themselves around your army like a garrote until you’re spending all your effort just trying to buy yourself another breath.
The Myth games often found that sweet spot where your heroic last stand actually felt heroic and desperate… without actually being impossible and miserable. Few games have ever sold it as well, and “Across the Gjol” is one of my all-time favorite “last stand” missions in any game.
What are your most epic defensive stands in a game?