Once upon a time, flight simulators were the most tantalising, promise-filled facet of nascent PC gaming. First-person perspectives were the bleeding edge of software entertainment and, at that point, sticking a gun in that first person-perspective had yet to achieve the total dominance it has now. (A first-person perspective never was the only way to play a flight sim, of course, but at the time it seemed like the most thrilling one, as the skies and clouds hurtled across peripheral vision, the ground loomed and zoomed dangerously into sight and rival planes threatened to fly directly into our eyeballs.)
I thought, even post-Wolfenstein, that flying a pretend aeroplane was the single most exciting concept I’d ever heard of. Apart from flying a real aeroplane, anyway.
A flight sim didn’t have to mean what the phrase usually entails now, and the genre hadn’t been dominated and imprisoned by a steely-gazed few who demanded ultimate simulation at the expense of escapism or fantasy-fulfillment.
While today I might shy from them, then I sought out flight sims because they were exciting, because they were wild and fantastical, not because they promised to faithfully recreate every last dial and lever. I thought the future was neither Doom or X-Plane: I thought it was Stunt Island.
The games-as-action-movie concept was, to me at least, not yet defined by the gun. It was defined by impossible, spectacular heroics – loop-the-loops around the Golden Gate bridge, plucking an escaped prisoner from the roof of Alcatraz, landing in the centre of a castle, nose-diving into the pyramids… In a pre-YouTube age, I could also ‘film’ and edit these polygonal tales of derring-do, reliving my own accomplishments without the need for a pop-up icon and some arbitrary reward of points to tell me that I’d done well.
This is perhaps to presuppose I was adept at Stunt Island. I most certainly was not. It was the near-death experiences which merited such treatment, not the achievement of cold, technical perfection. A nose dive recovered from, panicked steadying after a wing clipped on a skyscraper, a high-speed hurtle through a giant barn which missed fatal collision by mere millimetres: these are forever-memories, not the short-term pride of a perfectly-executed real-time flight from Stevenage to Orlando.
There is and always was a place for those too, and I do not deem them bad or unwelcome in any way: I simply wish that they’d not become a wholesale replacement for the adrenalised, tongue-in-proto-3D-cheek future which Stunt Island seemed to promise. It was a game by Disney in a way which seemed to make perfect sense then and now both – the very concept of Disney rather than the Epic Mickey-style license-milking of Disney.
All the thrills of a shooting game, none of the misanthropy. It was even a game I could play with my dad – granted, he was constantly admonishing me for my impatience and ineptitude, but at least his face wasn’t a mask of barely-concealed horror as bits of chopped man flew at the screen. And, at the end of the game-day, I wouldn’t simply click an Exit button – I would leave the set and head home, departing the island on a private ferry while I ruminated happily upon all that I had done, all the stunts I had pulled off, all the planes I had crashed, all the amazing micro-movies I had directed. It was always sunset.
It was always sunset, and it was always beautiful. It was always a fantasy, and unashamed to admit it.