In this week's Gaming Made Me, Brendan Caldwell revisits a time when flight sims could have had it all - and a time when zeppelins still ruled the Earth. This is Zipper Interactive's 2000 alterna-history aerial shooter Crimson Skies, and this is why it matters.
There are clouds above Hawaii. And there are monuments above the clouds. Who could have foreseen either of these things? In the hot wind of a Pacific sky a colossal white Zeppelin lumbers toward the site of a shipwreck, seeking the treasure once held by Sir Francis Drake. They call her the Pandora. Nestled in her belly is a squadron of fighter pilots. These are her citizens. Someone has painted four tarot cards across her sides. Justice. Wealth. Lovers. Death. This is her code.
Crimson Skies was all about that code. You played as Nathan Zachary, Captain of the Fortune Hunters. You were a pirate, which gave you a certain amount of respect for Sir Drake and the reassurance that, were he still around, he’d understand the raid you were about to pull on his ship.
But you aren’t going to board it via the ocean. The high seas aren’t high enough for Nathan Zachary. In an alternate world where The United States is no longer United and flight has become the main mode of transportation, no altitude is high enough for a notorious smuggler.
It did so much right, did Crimson Skies. From leisurely dropping out of the Pandora’s belly, to coasting around and pulling off aerial tricks with ease. And when those pesky British fighters started chipping away at your bi-plane’s paintjob, even the panic came easy.
Panic is the oil of an action game. If your mechanics are not well oiled with panic, they’ll seize up and become grind. Panic works well because it is among the most primal forms of motivation, alongside sex, food and fear of Messhof’s imagination. So keep your action well-lubricated. Too much panic though, and the mechanics drown.
At the risk of taking this metaphor to stupid heights, think of it this way. You want your player’s hands to be covered in a thin layer of this Panic-grease. You don’t want it to be so that they think the controls are ‘slippery’ but you want them to feel like at any moment of conflict their control might slop away from them, like the finest bar of Imperial Leather. You want them to feel like they are panicking at the controls of a difficult machine that will crash and burn and make them feel silly, when in reality they always seem to come out of it alive.
This is what Crimson Skies and other arcade dogfighters of the same era realised. In Flight Simulator you would climb too hastily and stall. You would panic and crazily hit keys all round you, like Jack Nicholson bullying a typewriter. Then you would crash.
In Crimson Skies you would get cut to pieces by .50 calibre bullets and dive under your Zeppelin for cover. You would panic here too. Yet, with just a few keys, you would roll out from within 10 metres of certain death, loop-the-loop, blast that British Ace out of the sky and speed through his remnant cloud of smoke feeling like fucking Maverick.
For the patient, crashing in Flight Simulator is a learning process and is an essential part of simulation. For the impatient, like me, it is a break in the action. Hear ye, hear ye! We, the impatient, do not want to be any mere pilot. We want to be a privateer of the airways. We want to be Nathan Zachary, charming all-American hero and the embodiment of daring-do. Give us trouble and then trick us into thinking we’ve navigated our way out of it with all the skill of a seasoned sky dog, when in fact all we’ve done is kick the throttle up to nine and pulled off a barrel roll using the left arrow key.
I don’t think I’m the only one who likes it like this. Give Flight Simulator to any child. Then step back. Don’t sit next to them and try to explain that this is a game about measurements and fine control. The first thing they will do is fly the plane into the ground, just to see it crash. Never mind that. That’s just kids being naturally morbid. They love that stuff. The second thing they’ll do (this is the important one) is pick a flight path near some skyscrapers and try to fly between them as if they’re in an action movie. Okay, now you may step in and explain to them that that was a STUPID THING TO DO YOU IRRESPONSIBLE WHELP. Tell them about the passengers’ lives they’ve just endangered (or ended).
Or! Just smile and hand them a copy of Crimson Skies. In time they’ll get to the level set in the Nation of California in which they can tumble through the second O in the Hollywood sign. It’s still hard and they’re going to crash a bit. The O will often be engulfed in orange flames like a giant, hellish spaghetti hoop. But daring flight is encouraged here. When they finally succeed a snapshot of the moment will be saved to Nathan’s scrapbook to view any time.
This is arcade flying. Just as complication is an essential part of the charm for simulators, flying like an ace and being King Cock of the Big Blue Void was part of the charm of Crimson Skies. And there’s no way that could co-exist peaceably with complex controls. So, there’s the O, kid. No preparation. No complications. Lights, camera, action.
It wasn’t simply the feeling of arcade ease that made the game soar. The alternate history of Crimson Skies – in which the Disunited States all vie for economic power – was like the Zeppelin it so proudly reinstated. It was outrageous, unfeasible and grand in scale. Yet there it was.
Now. It’s 2011. Look out there. Look up. What do you see? Empty sky. Birds. A speck of Boeing 747, if you’re lucky. I’ll tell you what you don’t see. You don’t see any Zeppelins up there. This is, without hyperbole, the greatest tragedy ever to befall every man, woman and non-human animal in the universe.
Jordan Weisman and Dave McCoy, the creators, took a piece of technology which to us seems dangerous and obsolete and then asked, “What would America do? If all the energy that went into building the railroads was interrupted and went somewhere else?” The answer of course is, “America is crazy. Sky pirates, please.”
If the alternate timeline wasn’t eccentric enough for you, the characters sure as heck were. Nathan Zachary himself was such an accurate pastiche of the charismatic radio drama hero, it was impossible not to like him just for being so predictably over the top. His plucky gang of Fortune Hunters were like the pirates you and your friends pretended to be when you were kids. Cheeky, cheesy, dangerous. Not to mention completely morally unimpeachable. You could do no wrong. You were a band of heroes. The only villains here were the people on the outside.
It was everything the United States professed to be in the early twentieth century, exaggerated almost to the point of parody. Competition and opportunity. Fierce conflict and unbelievable reward.
I first played Crimson Skies while on holiday in New York with my family. During the day we walked on the deck of the USS Intrepid, moored in the Hudson, or along the streets at the foot of monstrous skyscrapers. These are the things humans are capable of. The greatness of a nation galvanised to action.
Then we found out hundreds of men died to build those monuments above the clouds.
The achievements of those early industrialists can’t be denied. The skyline of New York City is an awe-inspiring sight. But in creating something glorious, death was inevitable. That’s Crimson Skies. Reflective of the entire arcade dog-fighter genre, which has sadly failed to transcend the stratosphere – and has stalled. That’s Crimson Skies. The bombastic American Dream. Preposterous, amazing, adventurous. Untenable.
The question that has plagued men and women throughout the ages didn’t come to me then. But it comes to me now, so I suppose I had better ask it.
Is glory – no matter how brief – worth dying for?
It is a question that Nathan Zachary answered years ago. He painted it in tarot cards across the only girl he ever really loved.
Justice. Wealth. Lovers. Death.