I have this thing that I do where, when I’m alone and have enough on my mind, I talk to myself. I do this a lot. The usual forum for this self-dialogue is the car; on the way home from work, or when I’m driving between two places that aren’t far enough apart to justify choosing a song on my iPod, my mouth will run on and on about whatever it is that happens to be on my mind at the time. I have a 35-40 minute commute between work and home, and it’s not unusual for most of the drive home to be taken up with my contextless ramblings.
I don’t feel too weird about this, although I know others might look at me funny if I told them. For me, it’s the most effective way to feel good about whatever’s on my mind. My brain often won’t let me move forward to thinking about something else until whatever it’s caught on at a given time is OUT; sometimes this takes the form of a blog post or forum post or Facebook status update, but more often than not it manifests itself in a half-hour long one-sided conversation where I explain to no one all my myriad thoughts and feelings about a particular subject.
If you know me personally, you may know that I tend to jump between interests, obsessions, and hobbies very frequently. I can’t sit still when it comes to how I use my time, and I tend to burn through hobbies at an alarming rate. I’ll be fairly invested in some subculture or fandom or video game for a week (sometimes less) and then the next week I’ll be completely disinterested. I’ll be really into some subject and spend all my free time at work reading up on it through Wikipedia and other sources, and then when I come in to work on Monday, all the tabs are still open in my browser but I have no desire to look at them. It’s frustrating, to say the least, but I’m getting used to it.
It helps that these interests tend to be cyclical; I go through a period of excessive interest in something and then forget about it for a month, a year, and then something external sparks that interest again. Naturally, this leads to repeated coversations with myself again and again. There are certain topics that I’ve talked to myself about to death, and I’m sick of hearing the same things over and over. But I have to do it, have to repeat the same observations whenever I’m reinvesting in a previous interest, because, well, that’s just the annoying way my brain chooses to operate.
This post is an experiment to counteract that, potentially anyway. See, I’m into something I haven’t been into for a while; but, it’s a dead horse that I’ve beaten so many times now I’ve lost count: space flight sims.
This topic is particularly close to my heart because I grew up on space flight sims. They were one of the most defining features of my childhood, and although I didn’t play too many different ones growing up, I do believe that the effect the ones I did play had on me as a gamer, and even more than that, as a person, cannot be overstated.
But that’s not even what this post is about, it’s simply justification for why this is so important to me. See, when I was young, and shortly after my parents got our family our first Windows computer, my dad bought me a game called Independence War, which to this day probably occupies the top spot in my list of favorite video games of all time (FYI, that list has not been put into written form in the last 8+ years, but I’m sure it will be at some point over this blog’s lifetime — stay posted). It’s just such a fantastic game, and I cannot emphasize this enough. It’s deep, complex, realistic, beautiful (for its time), dark, engaging on every level, smart…and nobody ever played it.
There are probably a lot of reasons for that. When I say the game is complex, I mean it — like many flight sims of the time, it required memorization of over half the keyboard, in addition to proficiency with a joystick. The tutorial (if you could find it in the game) was bare-bones, and even though it explained the basics fairly clearly, actually flying the ship and making it do what you wanted took a massive mental adjustment if you were already familiar with the SFS genre (and you probably wouldn’t be playing this game if you weren’t). In a time where games like TIE Fighter and Freespace (phenomenal games both) were stealing the spotlight with a more action-y, arcade-like approach, Independence War was utilizing Newtonian physics and you were flying a large spacecraft, not a small fighter. You were big and slow and heavy and turning the ship didn’t really do much because physics and you have inertia but more importantly YOU’RE IN SPACE.
Undoubtedly, this would turn off all but the most hardcore sim fans. It took me years to give the game so much as a chance; my drug of choice at the time was, indeed, TIE Fighter and I was happy with that game’s relative simplicity. When I finally decided to invest in Independence War, I found a mind-blowingly detailed, strategic, and fun game. It’s steeped in hard science (well, mostly, anyway) and it takes place in a universe that manages to feel completely open despite being heavily scripted. It has some of the most satisfying gameplay in any game I’ve ever played, space flight sim or no. Basically, it’s a game that didn’t get anywhere near the recognition it was due. Look on “Top Space Flight Sims” lists around the Internet (what few there are) and it’s on almost none of them. It flew under the radar and it frustrates me to no end that nobody paid it any attention.
Yes, part of this post is a sales pitch for I-War; it’s a game that easily holds up today, especially for space flight sim junkies. And, despite being made for Windows 95/98, it’s for sale on GOG.com and has been updated to work on modern systems. I just started playing it again this last weekend for the first time in…oh I dunno, six years or so? That’s why this is on my mind.
I love space flight/combat sims. When done correctly (and there are many that are) they are more immersive to me than any other genre of game. The mid to late ’90s was a golden age for these games: X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Tachyon: The Fringe, Freespace, Freespace 2…you really had no shortage of titles to choose from if you wanted to get into the genre, and there are many more frequently cited as great that I didn’t mention as I never got around to playing them.
But, sadly…the genre died. From the early 2000s up until very recently, you could probably count the number of significant space flight sim releases on one hand. The blame could likely be placed on a number of different things, but mostly I think it correlates with the way gaming as a whole shifted around that time. With the rise of the FPS, CRPG, and RTS genres (most of which were much shallower and simpler than any SFS), the space flight sim became extinct.
It’s really hard to kill off an entire genre of video games. They’re resilient, and broad categorization and genre mixing makes identifying such deaths difficult. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a couple other genres which have declined enough to be considered “dead” at any point in time; text-based adventure games come to mind (and the spirit of these games hasn’t really died, it’s just that technology has progressed), as do point-and-click adventure games à la Myst and Day of the Tentacle. Both of these genres live on in various incarnations today, but I think it’s safe to say that they both went the way of the space flight sim: neglected and supplanted by games that were more accessible.
Given the rise of the other genres that overshadowed the SFS, its death is somewhat perplexing. Looking at the other two dead genres mentioned gives an interesting contrast. Both of those genres collapsed simply because they became irrelevant; why limit a player to text when computers now had the ability to generate graphics? Why limit a player to clicking objects in a static room when advancing 3D technology could make the room itself and the objects within it interactive? Conversely, the SFS died right at the time when computer technology was really exploding, and if any genre had the potential to take advantage of that advancing technology, it was the SFS.
Instead, StarCraft, Half-Life, and Diablo II all released within a couple years of each other and that was it. The SFS hadn’t become irrelevant due to advancing technology, it had become irrelevant because these three games and others like them had introduced to the masses new ways to think about what gaming could be. You no longer had to invest in one or more hardware peripherals to get the most out of your game. You no longer had to suffer through the often demanding difficulty curves that many space flight sims were known for. You were no longer limited to the same star-filled backdrop mission after mission. The space flight sim hadn’t become stale — it never even got a chance! Instead, its innate inaccessibility killed it right at the peak of its Golden Age. Computer gaming was no longer an esoteric pursuit limited only to the hardcore supergeeks. The SFS may have naturally appealed to such a crowd, but with the advent of games that were simple enough for anyone with a passing interest in computer entertainment, and the massive influx of gamers that such games brought, it died a quiet death. It wasn’t until years later that anyone noticed — and even then, it was shrugged off and barely lamented.
In retrospect, I’m not that torn up over the way things went down. For one, the greatest things stop right at their peak — Seinfeld, LCD Soundsystem, Kevin Caldwell — and space flight sims are no exception. The genre didn’t have time to fester. True, it’s been around in some form or other since 1974 (!), but it didn’t really gain momentum until the mid-90s, and it was only a few years later that it died. In that limited amount of time there was an incredible amount of output, most of which was high-quality. It didn’t get stale. It burned out bright. No regrets.
And, in doing so, it skipped out on the growing pains that most genres have gone through over the last decade and a half (cough cough are we generic enough yet?). Now, the space flight sim is in the process of being reborn, and I’ve never been more excited to be a fan of the genre. The future looks brighter now than it ever has; take a look at Elite: Dangerous, for example. Holy crap. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited for a game to reach completion than I am with this one. It’s what I was dreaming of when I played Independence War 2 and experienced all of its almost-but-not-quite ambitions. Star Citizen, famous for its record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, looks like it’s shaping up to be something awesome as well. And even though EVE Online will never be a game I touch with a ten-foot pole (for fear of being irrevocably sucked into it in a bad, bad way), the upcoming spinoff looks like it’s got chops.
The genre is…mysteriously, I must admit, being revived.
I don’t understand it; my closest guess is that we’re starting to see the retro cycle hit this particular genre in gaming. Video games are still a relatively new thing in the history of entertainment media, so we haven’t had a whole lot of time to see how quickly the retro cycle oscillates. It’s starting to come into focus though, and I’m thinking that’s mostly to blame.
Whatever the reason, I’m grateful. We’re about to see, I think, a modest resurgence of a genre I was questioning would ever be revived. It will be interesting to see how this manifests itself in terms of gameplay; whether it will go the route of realism or FPS, the methodical or the fast-paced. I’m hoping for the former but frankly, I’ll be happy with whatever happens. The future is bright, the potential nearly limitless, and, depending on how a few key games do in the next year or so, the possibility of pushing the boundaries and allowing creativity to reign free is enormous.
In the meantime, just go get a joystick. You’re not going to want to miss out on the Space Flight Sim v2. And to tide you over until the upcoming games are released, go buy and play Independence War. That joystick’s not going to go to waste either way.