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.

Comments 13

  1. JP wrote:

    It’s really just a spiritual descendant of Hacker, but Introversion’s “Uplink” is fantastic in this regard… it’s a person-sitting-at-computer sim, so it’s an un-meta as an interface can be. A friend of mine reported some acute paranoia at various points when in-game entities would say things like “We’ve found you out, we’re coming for you.” Really wonderful stuff.

    Posted 29 Oct 2007 at 11:01
  2. Jurie wrote:

    Cool! I’d heard of it but I haven’t looked at it yet.

    Posted 29 Oct 2007 at 12:36
  3. Falko wrote:

    So, the other day was sitting there, thinking “Damn, I really need to type something in my blog”. I don’t know why, but somehow “Silent Service” on C64 came to mind. That’s something that happens to me from time to time – some half forgotten C64 game pops into my thoughts as if it wanted to say something to me. Right now it’s “Sanxion”, and I don’t know why … so I typed away. I didn’t mean to poke (haha) fun at someon. … alright, only at those people who were willing to spend hours and hours hunting actual pixels in “Silent Service” back in the 80s. I preferred wasting my time with “Power at Sea”. It also had a captain, but it made “boom”. ;)

    Posted 29 Oct 2007 at 13:55
  4. Stephane wrote:

    Great post.
    And if you had kept only the first two paragraphs, it would have been perfect ;)

    Posted 29 Oct 2007 at 13:58
  5. Jurie wrote:

    @Falko: See what your innocent post made me do in a caffeine-induced rush? :) (C64?… tisk. All the cool kids had ZX Spectrums)

    @Stephane: That would have been way too cryptic :P

    Fun fact: I am getting a ton of hits from

    Posted 29 Oct 2007 at 15:41
  6. Falko wrote:

    “Your daily source for submarine news and events”
    At least SOMEONE cares. :D

    Look, I found a typical screen how much fun these games were:

    Posted 29 Oct 2007 at 21:32
  7. Jurie wrote:

    You know, when I wrote that post, I wasn’t thinking of 8 bit machines…

    Danger From The Deep (open source submarine sim)

    Silent Hunter 4

    And this post is now in the top 10 if you google ‘submarine simulation game’…

    Posted 30 Oct 2007 at 2:39
  8. Jurie wrote:

    (Hahaha, ‘Bordsprache’ :D. Someone needs to add commenting to his blog…)

    Posted 30 Oct 2007 at 3:54
  9. Falko wrote:

    Disabled on purpose. I talk, others listen. I mean: read. Just doing my job there. :D

    Posted 30 Oct 2007 at 4:50
  10. Noah Falstein wrote:

    I spent many fond hours playing Red Storm Rising. Sid captured the feel of the submarine parts of the book, and I fully agree Jurie, the fact that the displays and setting in the real world was not too far from the fantasy world was a big plus, particularly in those low-res days.

    Posted 30 Oct 2007 at 10:46
  11. Falko wrote:

    It’s happening again! Now I have “PHM Pegasus” on my mind … I can’t imagine why. ;)

    Posted 30 Oct 2007 at 11:29
  12. Chosenblogger wrote:

    Posted 05 Mar 2008 at 22:05
  13. Paul Benoit wrote:

    Recently I have been searching for a good sub Sim that I could explor in a deep sea enviormen without having to fire a torpedo or sink somthing. In my mind I want to be able to. Turn the lights off and feel like im in the oceans darkness. have a four hour decent at crushing depths and see all the grandgure of the ocean and creatures as I go Down. with the inside of my acrillic sphere lit up in bright led instrament lights But nothing ..Nothing that holds my imagination. But then i dicovered a Simulation that will be comming out very soon out of the UK called project Venus wow I cant wait sims are getting bouring and it doesnt seem like creators are looking towards the future so lets get up and do it cuz i want some new Exploration im tired of shooting fish i want to go to the deepest depths of the oceant The Trench Good Name For an ARG sim dont you think

    Posted 25 Mar 2009 at 22:04