Long before last year’s grisly crash of a highly-modified P-51 Mustang at the Reno Air Races, I fell madly in love with that iconic airplane. Between building model kits as a kid, to having the good fortune to have a P-51 hangared at the local airport, which I could peddle to on my bike on a sunny summer day (here’s the actual plane in the actual hangar), to the unmistakeable sound of its engine, every interaction I had with the Mustang’s perfect combination of form and function seduced me. Its power, its speed, its capability, its history — the more I learned and the more I exposed myself to that machine the more it became indelibly etched in my mind.
So when the personal computer came along, and people started making flight simulators, and flying games based on simulations, you know I eagerly anticipated the day when I could take a virtual P-51 into the skies. And when the PC developed to the point that full combat simulations were being created, often including dozens of planes in the air at the same time, and high-end joysticks hit the market with multiple functions including rudder, throttle and trigger controls, not only was I personally thrilled, but to my surprise the market for such products exploded. In fact, only a decade ago the world was awash in flight simulators of every imaginable kind.
So what happened? Where did all those flight sims go? Well, one limitation of flight sims is that they model 3-D space that you can’t actually experience. Yes, you can swivel your view around using keys on your keyboard or joystick, but it’s a very constrained view of what should literally be wide-open sky. Too, the inevitable feature-creep that infects all tech products (think Microsoft Word, which currently includes 2,016 functions that no human being has ever actually used), began driving a bigger and bigger wedge between players who wanted fun and players who wanted historical accuracy.
One of the most interesting aspects of the rise and fall of flight-sim software is not so much the fall but the rise. I don’t have sales figures handy, but I do know there were flight-sim titles all over the place, which seems a bit odd when you consider that even back in the day very few people were lamenting or protesting the lack of flight sims in the global marketplace. Even when flight sims were selling like hotcakes I suspect they didn’t top the list of games most consumers wanted to play. So why the popularity?
The answer lies in the central processing unit. Computers are good at one thing more than anything else, and that’s calculating. As long as the math can be programmed, computers can spit out results with dizzying speed and unerring accuracy. This leads to the potential not only for modeling complex processes like flight, but for allowing those processes to be affected by user inputs — which in turns leads to the intriguing idea of interactivity. (My definition of this badly abused term here.)
Flight sims, for a while, were on the bleeding edge not simply of simulations or computer games, but of the ability to deliver a complex interactive experience. What you put into a flight sim in terms of inputs was exactly what you got out of it, in three dimensions. Add in any combination of topographical features, landing strips, bogeys (unknown contacts), bandits (enemy planes), armament and performance specs and you had a consistent and instantly responsive simulated experience that was effectively endless in terms of playability — provided you enjoyed flying around in simulated 3D space.
It was assumed back then that the convincing simulation of the real-world experience of flying a plane was simply a stepping stone on the way to the simulation of anything that could be imagined. And for a while there was no serious challenge to that expectation, in large part because perceiving the practical limits of interactivity required expertise in both storytelling and interactive design — a rare mix back in the day, and one that’s still fairly uncommon. Unfortunately, while storytelling and game systems such as the pencil-and-paper version of Dungeons & Dragons have always gone hand-in-hand, and combat rules like those in D&D can easily modeled (simulated) on a computer, the potential for simulating storytelling was, is, and always will be essentially zero. (Further explanation here and here.)
The result of this impasse is that storytelling in interactive games has evolved negligibly for more than two decades. Curious and novel approaches appear from time to time, but any actual advance in what’s loosely described as interactive storytelling has come mostly as a result of an increase in the ability to mask this problem by what I’ve termed magicianship, rather than solving some aspect of the problem outright. In addition, it’s now fairly well assumed that in order to drive emotional involvement in interactive works you need to hand off that task to static or scripted narrative sequences that are added to whatever underlying simulation your product features, if any.
When flight sims were hitting their peak I was hired to design the missions for a WWII flight sim that had stalled in development but needed to be released in playable shape. At the time there were two other WWII flight sims (Jane’s and EAW) that had hit the market simultaneously, both eagerly anticipated by players and the gaming press, and both considerably advanced for that time. The original selling point of the game I worked on — Fighter Squadron — was that it was being designed by a small studio with a track record for meticulous flight models. Unfortunately, one of the features of the game that had to be cut back in order to get it to market was the realistic flight model, which led to savage reviews.
From my point of view, however, as both the mission designer for the game and as a storyteller well aware of the limits of interactive storytelling, Fighter Squadron was a smashing success because it taught me that simulations could be more fully integrated into narratives than I ever thought possible. I’ve written previously about this discovery in several posts and articles (scroll down for the highlighted text, or use CTRL-F to search for the words “fighter squadron,” in any of the links here), but the crux of my realization was that simulations could predictably produce emergent moments of emotional engagement that hinged on the same dynamics of plot, character and narrative context that stories do. All of the variables still needed to be pre-designed, but once you had them in place you could reliably expect the simulation to produce moments of emotional impact as a result of genuine interaction.
It was a mind-blowing realization at the time, and yet remains relatively unexplored as a design objective today. Why? Because it requires that the human beings behind the production of any title — many of whom come from either the gaming camp or the storytelling camp — put their partisan biases and professional blinders aside in pursuit of something that still needs to be explored. When money’s on the table and jobs are at stake nobody wants to hear that something might work, so it’s better to green-light projects that replicate previous hits, even if the those hits depended as much or more on chance circumstances. (One of the more depressing realizations I’ve had during my lifetime is that there are very few leaders in positions of power.)
Today almost every attempt at generating emotional involvement hinges not on interaction or even techniques related to computer game design, but to storytelling techniques that spring from passive mediums like film and literature. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but such titles predictably only go as far as the storytelling takes them, and often leave a bitter aftertaste precisely because they contain little or no genuine interactivity. (Actually, it’s even worse than that because many interactive development companies still do not hire qualified storytellers who know what will and won’t work when merging stories with games. Writers may be brought in late in production to craft scenes or write dialogue, but at the design level they’re often considered an impediment, if not a threat. This self-defeating trend leads to products that either fail to learn from previous titles or needlessly reinvent the wheel.)
While flight sims certainly had their moment, they’ve largely fallen off the radar these days. A few years ago Microsoft even tried to kill the long-running Flight Simulator series, but a funny thing happened on the way to the graveyard. Not only did Microsoft get back in the game with Microsoft Flight, predicated on the faddish free-to-play business model, but as often happens in such instances the hardest of the hardcore flight-sim fans also used that momentary void to lean back into the sunshine.
One glittering example of this kind of self-sustaining excess is the Digital Combat Simulator, which recently added an insanely detailed and drool-inducing P-51 to its arsenal of flyable craft. You can even download an awesome manual for the plane that includes information most propeller heads would have killed for only a few years ago.
What’s particularly important about this kind of narrow-market evolution, however, it that it continues to demonstrate the strength of simulations not just in delivering genuine interactivity, but in meeting the emotional requirements of players as well. Which is why the trailer for the DCS P-51 got as close to a slobbering rave review as you’re ever going to see on RPS.
Flight sims will never sell like hotcakes again, but if your particular jones involves flying planes and pretending to be a fighter pilot then you’ve never had it better. While most other genres have foundered on the chasm between game and story, flight sims continue to refine an already potent mix of simulation and narrative context. It’s a lesson nobody pays any attention to, but they should. There’s more to the potential narrative power of a CPU-driven code base than resolving who won and who lost. If what’s at stake is supportive of suspension of disbelief and deeply involving in terms of genuine interactivity, simulations can generate emotional involvement themselves.
— Mark Barrett