The forgotten genre of the submarine simulation

Falko Löffler has posted a mini-rant about the lost genre of submarine simulations. In German. Basically, he doesn’t see the point of simulating a submarine.

I do. I don’t like them or play them, but I do see the point. They have one quality which is fairly rare, and it has to do with immersion.

There is a very basic assumption in computer games, which is that the more immersed a player is, the better. (It is so basic it tends to be forgotten, and this has caused an industry blind spot that is having interesting consequences right now… but that’s another blog post.)

The more immersed a player is, the more the player feels he or she is ‘there’, and the stronger the emotions that can be evoked.

A lot of time and money and effort is invested in photorealistic graphics in order to facilitate immersion. But rather than pushing the player towards immersion, it is much more important to remove obstacles that keep the player from immersing herself. Consistency is much more important than photorealism, and much harder to achieve (because everything needs to be consistent, not just the graphics).

A single element that is ‘off’ can break the player’s suspension of disbelief and thus reduce immersion, and photorealism actually makes this problem harder. Realistic-looking characters create expectations of realistic physics and realistic behavior, and before you know it you’ve fallen into the Uncanny Valley.

But back to submarine sims. The most basic obstacle to immersion is the physical interface between player and game. You are holding an odd piece of plastic in your hand while staring at your TV, but we are asking you to forget all that (on some level) and believe you are a secret agent sneaking around a building. That’s a pretty large leap.

(Luckily, over time people manage to forget things like this. The physical interface becomes a part of the conventions of the medium. Holding a bunch of paper sheets glued together or sitting in a dark room staring at a glowing rectangle are no longer inhibiting people from immersing themselves. By now, seeing glowy, floating icons in otherwise realistic surroundings no longer confuses people either – consider the interfaces of GTA versus The Getaway. People ‘get’ glowy, floating icons now, and it’s starting to flow back into the world outside of games. I fully expect augmented reality to use game iconography.)

Now as it happens, a lot of the work of controlling a submarine involves sitting in the dark behind a screen, pushing buttons and listening to sounds. Sure, the captain is standing around shouting orders and looking through periscopes, but typically submarine sims simulate the various positions under the captain and the captain role is implicit.

So submarine sims, in their heyday, had an interesting advantage: they were able to provide much deeper immersion than most other genres. After all, it’s not hard to simulate sitting in the dark behind a screen, pushing buttons and listening to sounds. The entire physical interface barrier drops down to almost nothing. Assuming you are fascinated enough by submarines to want to pretend to control one, very little is going to spoil your illusion that you’re in a narrow metal tube, deep under water, hunting the enemy – or being hunted. This was pointed out to me years ago by my friend Mark Barrett.

The only genres I can think of that do this better than submarine sims (and air-traffic controller sims), are games like Hacker and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). I would even go so far as to argue that Hacker is a proto-ARG. (If you like pondering this kind of stuff, consider the basic premise of the Dot Hack series. The player of these single-player console games is pretending to be the player of a massively-multiplayer online game… I haven’t played any of them, but I find it fascinating.)

The relationship between the player, as a physical person, and the fictional world of most computer games is quite complex and absolutely central to how games evoke emotions.

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