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Fly Papers: An Ode To Sim Manuals

Thanks to an image leaked last week we now know three new things about upcoming Spitfire-serenade Storm of War: Battle of Britain. 1) It's no longer called Storm of War: Battle of Britain. 2) Ubisoft are publishing. 3) The luscious-looking Collector's Edition with its cloth maps and plump manuals may be about to give today's teenagers a taste of what it was like to be a simmer in the Nineties.

When I was a lad, nobody ever locked their front doors, Wagon Wheels were the size of actual wagon wheels, and flight sim boxes came with lifting instructions.

Half the joy of purchasing a new aviation recreation was removing the lid and seeing what printed treasures nestled within. Often there were maps and keycharts. Almost always there was a manual of Gulag Archipelago proportions held together with a helix of sturdy wire. I miss those splendid shelf-stressing tomes not just for their convenience and comprehensiveness, but for their imaginative asides, their eagerness to draw me into the world of the sim.

Though the likes of LucasFilm, Microprose, Jane's, DI and DID all produced top-notch reading matter, for my money the stars of sim literature were UK outfit Rowan Software. Their manuals weren't always the fattest or the glossiest, but they were the ones I found myself clutching most often in bed and during tea-breaks and train trips.

Overlord (1994) came with a chunky, almost square slab of spiral-bound text that illustrates the  studio's approach to documentation perfectly. For the first 82 pages the game isn't mentioned once. Manual compiler Paul Rigby is too busy sharing a choice selection of D-Day docs and photos. We can pore over everything from the text of the original War Cabinet invasion plan to the not-quite-Henry-V words of Patton's June 5 speech to the 3rd Army. There's detailed bios of nine air commanders, a fascinating six-page essay on the disastrous Exercise Tiger, numerous pithy quotes from combat pilots, even the lyrics of some paratrooper songs. It's impossible to navigate this flea-market of Forties facts and flavour and not end up with D-Day under your skin.

With later Rowan releases, immersive background material sometimes took the form of separate booklets. Flying Corps (1996) shipped with a facsimile of a WWI RFC training manual, MiG Alley (1999) a copy of a mesmerising RAF intelligence report on the Korean War. Despite being authored in 1952 'The F-86 vs. The MiG 15' is the best game strategy guide I've ever read.

In clipped tone and closely-typed paragraphs RAF Squadron Leader W. Harbison describes what he has learnt while flying with the USAF 4th Fighter Wing near Seoul. The mix of technical and tactical analysis though written originally for the British Defence establishment, is so relevant to the sim it's almost disorientating. You can't read it without reliving sorties and making mental notes.

Through its unexpected details and unemotional discussion of danger the report also thrusts you into the world of the Korean War pilot far more effectively than any cut-scene or intro movie could ever hope to. I'm sure there are are those who'd argue that games shouldn't rely on external media for scene-setting or immersion enhancing. Me, I'm not so sure. MiG Alley is a significantly richer  sim thanks to 'The F-86 vs. The MiG 15' and I've no idea how a similar mood and feeling could have been conjured without the help of this unedited, untransmuted hunk of history.

The Spitfire Manual apparently included in the IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover CE would seem to be a perfect Rowan-style immersion booster, combining as it does several RAF training publications with extracts from Johnnie Johnson's pilot log books and combat reports. In tandem with that pleasingly plump manual, it really does look like a return to the Golden Age of sim literature. Not that the Golden Age ever went away completely.

While the last decade has been pretty disheartening for those of us that hate printing PDFs or Alt-tabbing out of the cockpit to seek help, a few devs and publishers have attempted to keep the doc dream alive. Most of Eagle Dynamics' recent output - high-fidelity air fare like DCS: Black Shark and Flaming Cliffs 2 - is complimented by hefty spiral-bound manuals. Available separately, these will set you back around £17 each. Sounds steep? You're obviously not one of PMDG's customers.

PMDG's 747-400 add-on for FSX retails for $54. The manual set for the same plane is an eye-watering $220. To be fair you do get a frightening amount of printed paper and procedural information for that sum, and as with those Rowan extras, you're also getting something harder to quantify and digitize: a handleable prop. A sim strengthener. A line smudger.

It's not difficult to imagine a future where cleverly integrated help systems take on most of the instructional/reference role of the old-fashioned sim manual. Devs could and should work harder to banish cockpit confusion. What's trickier to visualise is a time when bumph, books and booklets have no role whatsoever in flight simulation.

In my book, a WWI sim with paper maps will always be preferable to one without. A BoB sim that lets you thumb through training docs in their original creasable, tea-stainable, pencil-annotatable form, far superior to one that insists you commune with the Forties via Foxit or an eReader. Am I just a hopeless dinosaur? Are you also irrationally fond of a particular piece of sim paperwork? Scribble your thoughts in the margins, please.

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