Over our century and a bit, gaming has taken wild turns. Into the heart of emotion, a first-person shooter craze, mind-numbing online multiplayer and even the rise of casual gaming. It’s all been so unexpected and moved so fast that it has become a blur. We cannot even begin to count the number of evolutions that have taken place in our medium; we can only count the generation of consoles. We are not defined by our technology, but the way in which we interpret our entertainment. More importantly, we define ourselves as an industry by having annual or bi-annual releases of constant sequels and barrages of franchises that we know and love. Innovation is a dying format in the modern battlefield that is gaming. That is why we must remember some changes that have taken place. Subtle changes which make all the difference in changing our little world, within the little world of entertainment.
Ask any gamer what they think is the best part of a game and many of them will either say ‘Story’ or ‘Shooting’. The first one is a blatant lie; most casual gamers barely care about a games story and just want to get to the meat and bones. That’s what annoys me in videogames, when a developer says that they compromised on something so as to not ‘belittle the story.’ If you’re going to give me a reason that I can use a certain gun or interact with a certain character than at least don’t bullshit me on it. ‘Shooting’ is simple, the way a gun moves, acts and sounds can make all the difference in the world. The canned animations that appear throughout a forte of weaponry can make all the difference. Which is why every FPS developer painstakingly animates every inch of a reload animation from different perspectives. The sound and ‘feel’ of a weapon can make a difference between it being a unique weapon to use, or just fodder that feels like everything else.
After all of this, the last thing that any gamer thinks of is something that holds close to my heart. Not just as a gamer, but as someone who thinks that gaming is a young art form. It’s kind of odd to see any pubescent male taking an interest in ‘gaming as art’, seeing as how 90% of my generation use words such as ‘fit’ to describe gaming experiences. You know: the ones who don’t know what a publisher and a developer are? Well to them, I say that a game’s story or shooting mechanics do not make a game. It is not innovation, consistence or any of the generic terms that can spin out of our ears. It is something entirely different, subtle and in every game imaginable.
It is flight.
You’re probably wondering, from the odd choice of photographs above, why on earth I chose such little ground to cover. It’s as if the British and American governments suddenly decided that a small Middle-eastern has been carrying weapons, and sent thousands of patriotic, brave men and women to stop the threat… oh wait. Aside from that borderline politically-incorrect joke, we gamers don’t consider how much time and effort that some developers will take just to make things work. One of these minute experiences is the art of flying, you know, when you’re in a plane, airship, or helicopter in-game. You can look down and see little blobs that are either cars or people. Or in GTA IV’s case, you can see a neon flurry that delights you in its atmospheric charm.
The addition of flight to games adds a hidden layer of challenge and subtle depth that more than makes a ‘little’ difference. If anything, it defines most experiences that you have with a game. When you’re playing a game (Modern Warfare 2, for example) and hop into multiplayer. You’ll be shooting dudes and taking names, but when a harrier airstrike comes in, you’ll have to adapt to survive. You’ll cower in a building or equip a Javelin to shoot it down. The tables only turn when you get that seven kill streak and get a harrier airstrike yourself. Also, let’s not forget that you can also hop inside an Apache helicopter gunner’s seat or shoot inside of an AC-130. We take these aviation kill-streaks for granted, not seeing the true impact that they have. It’s a whole other layer on to the game’s vision; you’re just one soldier of many. That’s what the original game did and what Modern Warfare captured too, it’s great that it has passed on to the multiplayer aspect of Modern Warfare 2.
As I mentioned above, you’ll have to change your playing style to survive when a flying behemoth comes in to take you out. You’re not in control of the harrier airstrike, even if you just call it in, but you know that you’ve got a little friend (or enemy) in the sky who’s raking up the kills for you (or against you). Once again, we take this change for granted, seeing it only as something to feed  our  kill-streak. But I argue this: if, instead, that flying apache helicopter or harrier jet was a different , it wouldn’t have the same effect. If it was a pack of dogs (World at War) or a sentry gun (which Modern Warfare 2 actually has), then you would react differently to it. In a game like World at War or Modern Warfare 2, you’re on the ground, fighting as just one soldier in one army, against another horde of soldiers. The whole hidden feeling of something in the sky, watching your back (or even trying to get your back) is something that the developers have accidently stumbled upon.
Then, there are those rare opportunities in which the developers pass the gearstick on to us. It reminds me of a scene from Yes Man, during the m-m-m-m-m-MONTAGE(!) in which Jim Carrey’s character says yes. One of the things he says ‘yes’ to is flying lessons, the pilot says “It’s all yours.”, and then Jim kicks back and flies the helicopter into the sunset. At first I thought it’d be a ‘hilarious’ sequence in which Jim’s character crashes the plane or does something clumsy. But it was a scene that has some sentimental value of which I think represents this transition. It’s a symbolic gesture in my head and captures perfectly what happens when they pass us the controls. It suddenly becomes a whole lot better.
You see, when a developer stops sending scripted events to fill in the pilot’s job, it throws the gearstick into the palm of your hand. Video-game controllers are perfect to mimic the realism of flight, especially ones tailored to the absolute medium of it. A gearstick is too common of a sight to see on some PC desks, and let’s not forget the age old retro consoles. Every single one of them had what we call today a ‘Flight Simulator’ (we’ll get to that later). I remember watching the Angry Video Game Nerd episode on NES accessories, and him using this piece of plastic to almost land on the infamous aircraft carrier from Top Gun. Give it a search on Google and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a good thing we have all of this simple control, and not the actual interface a pilot uses; otherwise, we would be overwhelmed, and most of us would probably fail.
Accessibility is what this industry has been built on, and this carries on into the world of simulated aviation. To understand truly how accessible flying has been in gaming, we need to take a look back into the past. We need to take a look at what, for many, would be the very first flying experience within a video-game. It would give us a taste of what would slowly evolve over time to become a giant within the gaming industry. It was a title that shocked the industry and gave one of the leading giants the thing it needed to one day conquer the industry. It was one small step for Nintendo, one giant leap for video-gaming.
It was Super Mario Bros. 3.
Well, it was actually the Tanooki Suit which gave players their first lick of future gaming history. You could run across the ground, and then take off into the air for a short period of time. It gave many gamers a rush that they hadn’t seen before, seeing Mario up in the air for so long was reserved for glitches before Bros. 3. Now flying was technically possible within games, and although it was an effortless representation of the airborne art, things would slowly start to change. Eventually, somewhere along the line, flying exploded within video-games and gave birth to an entirely new genre dedicated to aerodynamics. Before this birth, countless titles had sought to collect the experience of realistic flying, but only captured it in brief levels or small enemies. However, now everything would change. We would become the planes and flying machines, not mimic them.
It was an unexpected shift inside the gaming world, but gave rise to a whole new expressive medium in which the wings of gaming could spread wide, to a completely new audience: enthusiasts. Flight simulators started to pick up pace in the late 1990’s, coming across as a ‘craze’, but wannabe pilots and such took to them like fish to water. Those little boys, who held toy planes in their hands and ran around the house, could now live the dream. There were primitive programs, hugely expensive simulations, and most of them only ran on the most inaccessible of all platforms – the PC. But they began to pick up steam showing gaming its true colours and showing a new broad array of people the true meaning of gaming beauty. It allowed some of them to even cross the borders of simulators into the mainland of gaming. This was ‘casual gaming’ for the first time in gaming history. Older people, teenagers, aerodynamic professors – they could all get a taste of true flying, of true piloting. It was marvelous, wondrous, and changed the face of gaming as we know it.
It was just too bad it didn’t last as long as we wanted it to.
Even eight years removed and the world is still sore from it, the whole genre collapsed and for good reason. It was bad enough seeing the simulations on your news channel, but to have them easily accessible to gamers would be even worse. Thankfully, nothing controversial happened (although Littlebigplanet actually got a lot of hassle for allowing users to unsophisticatedly simulate the attacks once more). The flight genre died down however, with one true victor emerging from the wreckage – Microsoft Flight Simulator. The recent edition released in 2006, with an expansion out a year later. This was the last great breath of the genre, because the studio behind it, ACES, was closed last year. Now, more advanced simulators are available at Museum tours, leaving the whole genre to willow in its grave.
It’s a sad thing when a genre dies out, and a smaller one at that. But they didn’t die out; they evolved and interbred with the entire industry. It fed subtly into the minds of designers and artists who wanted players to experience flight on their own terms, and an accessible experience that should be played by everyone. It was not the death of the genre: it was a rebirth. In fact, the more things change, the more they stay the same (cookie if you get the quote). If anything, it was a giant overhaul of the system; now the ‘petty’ console gamers could experience the rush of being miles high above the ground, without ever stepping into a cockpit. The expensive PC’s were gone. The lavish simulators in museums now paled in comparison, because now we could shoot along the way. We could even just go out and enjoy the sights and delights that the developers had to offer. H.A.W.X , Ace Combat, Blazing Angels and many more have introduced us to the great flight genre. If anything, the addition of instant gratification (killing enemies) has made the genre even more accessible.
But there are a few candidates who are getting it all wrong. Modern Warfare 2 is a step in the right direction with flying being a more subtle companion in the infantry-based shooter. However, there’s one giant blotch on the face of the genre, for now, and it is annoyingly calling out to be mentioned. It’s Battlefield 1943.
You see, it takes a similar route of what the GTA III dodo plane did. It is difficult to master, difficult to control, and plays too small of a role to be encouraging to players. San Andreas, another GTA title, perfected the art of GTA aviation and allowed players to parachute out in case they failed. You can do the same in Battlefield 1943, but it doesn’t fit the pace of the game, the parachute goes way too slow for anyone’s tastes.
So, you’ll pack your virtual soldier boots up and move towards your chosen craft. Once aboard, you’ll have a few controls flash on the bottom and then be told, not directly, to get a bloody move on. That’s if you can even get in the plane in the first place, since BF1943 has the habit of sacrificing sheer fun to the gods of gaming balance. One of the major problems is that the planes don’t spawn often enough, and when they do spawn, everybody scrambles for one. It’s all for balance, but when a player hops into a plane you’ve been waiting five minutes for, it’s a disappointment to say the least. It’s like waiting at a bus stop for half an hour, only for the bus to be full when everybody in front of you boards.
So you’ll be moving along the runway, feeling yourself pick up speed, and even seeing the landing gear push itself back into the plane. It’s a visual touch that echoes the words ‘ALL SYSTEMS GO’, and now it’s just you and the sky… oh and enemy planes. You’ll be fiddling with both analogue sticks to try and stay in the sky. You’ll even try taking off into the sky, seeing how far you can get, only to tumble back down and have to gain momentum again. It’s not a satisfying bit of flying, to say the least, and it’s not the one that’s memorable in my mind. From recent games, one truly stands out amongst the rest.
A PS3 exclusive, one of the ones to break down the door and lead us to the promised land of digital distribution; it also just so happened to introduce something. Whenever you’re flying, it’s alone and it should be just the thrill of the dogfight and you. Warhawk did something different: it’s a multiplayer-only game,  so the planes can suit more than two players. One player can man a turret, and another player flies around picking up power-ups. The DLC has added even more aircraft and co-operative flight. It felt like a huge difference. It again reminded me of the scene from Yes Man, but my alternative take on it. Instead of the pilot handing Jim Carrey the flightstick, Jim Carrey got into a turret and fought off hordes of enemy squadrons. Then they both disconnected from game and added each on PSN.
Or something like that.
The history of flight in the real world is largely debated. Some say it was an English invention; some say it was the Wright brothers who led us into the skies. Whatever your opinion is about the history of flight, the evolution is something to remember. Mankind’s history of wars and inventions will always be cherished on our lessons, films, books and more importantly, videogames. We’ve seen our industry reach new heights and set new bars, not just for itself, but for everyone. The evolution of flight within videogames is a tale which should be remembered by every gamer. We take many things for granted: the developer’s time and effort, the largely inexpensive gaming experience, free patches and content and, most significantly, the evolution.
We should always be looking forward and back. History is BOTH made AND in the making.
I hope you enjoyed this flight, please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing.
A huge thanks to Patrick Talbert for his contributions, and for being an awesome proofreader.