I remember sitting in Primary school in the 1980′s on the red carpet with my school friends being read a story by our teacher, Mrs Griffiths. The story was simple: we meet the main character, Spot, who loses his ball and goes on a quest to find it. By asking his friends, sooner or later, Spot finds his ball and is happy again – the end. By hearing this story, we, as children, learnt how to solve problems.
The story had a meaning and the ending brought us pleasure. However, in the world of flight simulation, the narrative (or story) seems to have been cast aside, unlike in computer games, leaving the simulation empty and meaningless…or has it? Since the beginning of the human race, we have been telling stories in a myriad of different ways. These stories have been told as pictures on cave walls, through dance and music, to novels, film and gossip. The art of story-telling has crossed cultures and time, mediums and hardships to create sense and to make meaning of our world.
A Narrative has such power that they are even attached to products like shampoo to sell it and we all tell our personal stories on Facebook and Twitter; but, more than that, they can define time in history and express social concerns. In flight simulation, the story is told in a different way. If we look at the Narrative in MSFS as a simple structure, then you could say that the beginning is the pre-flight and taxi phases, the middle is the take-off, cruise and landing, and the end is the taxi in, parking and shut down.
To add some jeopardy, we may program in some failures and/or simulate that emergency. However, the narrative is pretty benign. PMDG, for example, have introduced their own jeopardy by creating the option for random service failures as the NGX is flown, which also creates tension. MSFS, then, serves more as a setting rather than a story.
So, where are the characters? The characters within the flight simulation narrative play their roles within the developers and virtual airlines (VA). We, the audience, place spheres of action onto anyone who work for one of these worlds and some people adopt their own character. For instance, the Owner(s)/CEO/MD of one of these plays the role of the hero. This person carries the events of the narrative and has directorial and authoritarian control. This person has a helper(s) who aide the hero in day to day tasks and can take an authoritarian stance as well as holding a dogmatic position.
There are also donors who provide objects, often with some magical property to the developer or VA, such as: ACARS program, website, 3D models, Textures, etc.. There are also villains who try and change things (whether good or bad), as well as those who try to pirate software, don’t ask (break etiquette), provide inferior products and don’t meet their promises, attack websites and/or troll the many forums.
The princess (reward) in this narrative is money and to become market leader. The people taking the role of father and/or dispatcher are us, who reward the hero by buying their products or joining their VA and send the hero on their journey by demanding high-quality add-ons and realism.
If they want our princesses, they need to be good and listen to her Fathers and jump the hurdles. The flight simulation world has all the trademarks of a classic Fairy Tale.
However, we can also see within Flight Simulation other narratives taking place which capture our interest and intrigue. When the status quo is disrupted, like when a popular website was hacked, many of us took interest in seeing how this story would unfold and how the series of events after would transpire. Many of us also donated to the story and gave some of our princesses to this site. The result was a new status quo which was different to before – the ending was achieved.
Throughout the Flight Simulation world, we also have coded narratives playing out before us. One such code could be the enigma code where little puzzles for us to solve becomes a focus point like, “What are the VA owners planning now they tell us we cannot use a certain aircraft type?” and, what PMDG have done well, “Can you guess what this is?” There are many little puzzles presented to us and we, the audience, cannot wait to get stuck in. The largest puzzle is often, “When will this new add-on be released?”
We even hunt out and look for tantalizing clues. The action code invites us to make references to the outside world (or real world as we call it!), which also shows we are in a narrative medium. We look for references that link to the real world, like stickers on windshields and dust, wear and tear, and failures. The more that flight simulation makes references to the real world the more we, the audience, will become more involved in the narrative as our culturally formed expectations for realism are met.
Of course, a narrative wouldn’t be a narrative without oppositions and in the flight simulation world we can easily find these conflicts. Such conflicts taking place include realism vs. reality, members vs. owners, secrecy vs. openness, and quality vs. price. There are many more if we looked more deeply; however, this illustrates the abundance in narrative and structure, which is prevalent in the flight simulation community. When someone says that they think that flight simulation is boring, they are wrong.
Although the actual simulation may appear dull and uneventful, what we have is a learning tool and a taste of realism for those who cannot afford to fly in the real world. Behind the simulation, our community provides enough narrative drive to sate the hardiest of story-junkies and to keep us all amused for many years to come. There is always a drama unfolding and there is always something to look forward to as we consume each chapter before excitedly turning to the next page.
Flight Simulation is the least empty and least meaningless of all the software genres.
May 9th, 2012