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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Simmer

A couple of years ago Kieron and Jim were asked to put together a collection of the best games writing on the planet. Some of this material already existed, while other things had to be commissioned. Sadly, due to internal problems at the publisher, and a rather recalcitrant contract, the book never saw the light of day. Many of the articles contained therein have now been published elsewhere. One that hasn't so far been unveiled was this piece by Tim Stone. We asked him to write something about playing a flight sim. He, like other brave simmers, chose to undertake his journey in real time.

In June 1919 pilot John Alcock and navigator Arthur Whitten Brown flew a converted WWI bomber from St John's, Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland. It was the first time anyone had flown non-stop across the Atlantic. In June 2005, inspired by a real-life recreation of the flight and an interest in long-distance simulation I attempted the same feat in Microsoft Flight Simulator. What follows are extracts from the log of that trip.


"Although the actual time occupied in my Transatlantic flight was under 16 hours, it may be fairly said that it took ten years to accomplish" John Alcock

Ten years? I want to do this thing right but there's right right and there's undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome right. Ten days will have to suffice for prep. That should give me enough time to fit in a spot of Red Baron 3D (A&B honed their aviation skills during World War I), a few test flights in the Vickers Vimy, and a crash-course in astral navigation.

I'm wondering how best to simulate the time the support team spent preparing the strip (Hillocks had to be levelled, boulders blasted and walls removed to create the 500-yard runway at Lester's Field) and assembling the aircraft (The plane was shipped over from England in crates)

Ideas considered and rejected so far:
1. Create replica aerodrome within Microsoft Flight Simulator using freeware scenery editor. (Too technical. Too time-consuming.)
2. Construct plastic kit of Vickers Vimy. (Too fiddly. Too sticky.)
3. Clear corner of garden that landlord has started referring to as 'Mirkwood'. (Too strenuous. Too scary.)

First trial flight.

This really is a heartbreakingly slow aeroplane. A Falcon 4.0 Viper can tear along at 1350mph and streak heavenward at 50,000ft a minute. My chosen conveyance cruises at a stately 100mph and climbs at a comatose 1000 feet an hour. Worse than that it's also trim-less and lacking any form of auto-pilot. Keeping it pointed in the right direction looks like it's going to be awfully tricky.

Further trial jaunts, this time with different fuel loads. Slightly concerned I wont be able to match A&B's average ground speed. The trip may end-up taking a lot longer than anticipated. 18Hrs? 20hrs? Will the fuel last-out? What about the sandwiches? Should I set the video for Celebrity Love Island?

Ned Ludd would be proud of me. I've just ripped-out the perfectly good GPS that comes with the Vimy and replaced it with the kind of labour-intensive bubble sextant that Brown would have used. Now I just have to digest the chunky sextant manual, learn the constellations, print-out the relevant pages of the almanacs and I'll have this celestial navigation lark licked.

Celestial navigation proving much harder to master than expected. My head is spinning.

Reinstalled GPS.

Removed GPS. For Heaven's sake, I'm a reasonably intelligent fellow. I will master this.


Mountains shrouded in cloud, that's what most videogames are. Players start out at the bottom and climb up, up, up to the summit never able to see more than a few footsteps ahead. Right now I feel like I'm at the foot of a mountain that for once isn't obscured by cloud. Looking up at the distant snowcap and knowing tomorrow the ascent begins is as intimidating as it is invigorating. In 25 years of gaming I don't remember an occasion when the prospect of play made me feel quite like this.

(Dream record) A bustling station concourse somewhere in Eastern Europe. Arthur Whitten Brown and myself are at the back of a long ticket-office queue. I'm worried we will miss our train. When I voice these concerns Brown takes out a ridiculously elaborate marine sextant and trains it on the station clock. After making a reading he assures me we will make the train.



One hour aloft. The moment of truth; My first sun shot. 6 miles from assumed position. Not too shabby.

Fog bank ahead! Without an artificial horizon things could get interesting.

Like a hot rivet dropped into a snow drift we plunge into the fog. Perfect whiteness. Fabulous framerates.

The story of the past quarter hour: While attempting to climb out of the soup I lost my bearings completely. Soon it was clear the Vimy had, in modern aviation parlance, 'departed' The airspeed was yoyoing, the engine note rising and falling erratically. When the compass needle began to twirl I knew I was in real trouble. 4000 feet fled from the altimeter as I wrestled with the stick desperately trying to make sense of the plane's position. There were moments when I thought I'd returned to level flight only to see the symptoms of the spin take hold once more. At 500ft ASL, mentally prepared for the worst the world popped into view again. By 300 feet control had been regained and my heart rate was heading back toward single figures. All-in-all a sobering experience. Until the fog clears I'm staying stay down here where it's clear.

Round about this point in the real flight Brown was clambering about on the wing chipping ice from engine gauges with his pocket knife. Right now a spot of wing-walking/ice chipping sounds quite attractive.

Ate a hearty (and authentic) elevenses of jam sarnies, coffee and Fry's chocolate.

The fact that I'm thinking about the 1% right now probably means it was a good idea. The two Rolls Royce Eagle engines that pulled A&B's Vimy across the pond behaved impeccably throughout the flight. I wanted to reflect this in my humble recreation, but also wanted to acknowledge that the two men - despite their expressions of confidence - must have had doubts. In the end I chose to pre-program a 1% chance of irreparable engine failure. Tiny reality-based risks like these are Flight Simulator's shy but scary monsters.

Hemmed in by clouds. Sun shot impossible.

It's a long way to Tipperary
It's a long way to go
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know...

I'd anticipated a song-singing stage but didn't expect it to arrive quite so soon.

Have you ever stared at a page in a book and found yourself seeing the lattice of white between the words rather than the words themselves? I get like that sometimes with games. All I seem to see is the design; the contrivances and compromises. When this kind of jadedness hits, I tend to turn to non-military simulations. Their simple values (realism, realism, and realism) cleanse the play palette wonderfully.

The Atlantic is vast. The atlases don't lie.

If the civilian flight simmer has a blood brother in the hobby world it's surely the angler. Both men are technicians involved in a skilful solitary pursuit that blends long periods of inactivity with brief bursts of excitement. Both spend much of their time monitoring esoteric equipment. Both embrace a recreation that can be enjoyed in combination with other recreations. That must be of the most curious aspects of the MSFS phenomena. Here is a game that permits, even encourages, players to be inattentive, unfaithful. Virtual skies are crowded with aircraft flown by autopilots. The airmen that engaged those autopilots are all engrossed in books, browsing forums, catching-up on mail, chatting, daydreaming. Welcome to the bizarre unexamined world of Ambient Gaming.

According to most recent sun shots I'm at roughly the same position I was at 2 hours ago! Hell's bells, have I accidentally paused the sim without noticing? Phew, thankfully just a data entry error.

Right now, that part of my brain that usually dispenses 'Hand hurting. Take hand out of fire'-type advice is telling me to pack-in this absurd odyssey or make use of the time acceleration key. Manipulating time would be cheating but then I cheat occasionally in other single-player games so what's the difference here? I think the difference is simulations are as fragile as cobwebs and somewhere deep-down I understand that it wasn't a sadistic developer that decided to make the Atlantic 2500 miles wide or the Vimy stalactite-slow.

Indescribably bored. Are we nearly there yet?

Up here amongst the cotton-wool there's nothing to shoot, nothing to win, steal, sell or nurture. No mysteries. Few surprises. Is this really gaming?

"Search me"

Who said that?

"It was I. Down here on the sandwich crust."

Holy Handley Page Hannibal, a talking fly!

"Have you never seen The Spirit of St Louis? Jimmy Stewart sharing his thoughts with a fly."

I've seen it but I don't remember the fly answering back.

"That was an unusually shy fly."

Ate an anachronistic banana. Potassium injection immediately pays dividend in the form of great idea for avian flight simulator: World of Wings (working title)

"Skim the storm-whipped southern oceans as a mighty Albatross! Traverse the scorching Sahara as a swift swift! Crap on 8000 of the World's most famous statues and monuments as a soot-caked sky-rat!"

This has real potential. Will contact RS the second I land.

A jam sandwich, a cup of OXO and a conversation with the fly about boredom:

The way I see it, there are two kinds of boring simulations. The bad kind bore because they fail to replicate some or all of the interesting aspects of their subject matter. The good kind bore because the activities or machines they recreate contain elements that are inherently boring.

"Stop messing with my tiny insect mind. Good boring, bad boring - what does it matter? Either way you leave them on the shelf."

Not necessarily. You ever hear of a fellow called Wrratt? He's a minor celebrity within the Silent Hunter 3 community and an ardent believer in the concept of 'good boring'.

"I'm all ears."

Well, when Wrratt takes his Type VIIB out on patrol he does it totally in real-time. If it takes 50 hours to cruise out from Wilhelmshaven to patrol grid AN47 then 50 hours is how long it takes. No fat freighters one day? Cest la vie. It's a quiet day.

The best screenshot ever?

"Doesn't he ever work or kip?"

When he works he saves. When he sleeps he turns the sound way up so if a vessel is spotted or there's an emergency the shouts of the crew wake him.

"No offence, but he sounds a few corvettes short of an arctic convoy to me. Why would anyone want to play that way?"

I think it started out as an experiment. He realised it was feasible to play without any time distortion so tried it and enjoyed it. The 'good boredom' provided an opportunity to read about the history he was simming and indulge his penchant for writing and roleplaying (Wrratt's imaginative patrol logs can be read on the forums). It also gave events like combat and homecoming genuine significance. The excitement of seeing a smudge of smoke or the glimmering lights of home on the horizon is magnified many times when that horizon has been empty for hours beforehand.

"Talking of the glimmering lights of home, could that be Connemara at eleven o'clock?"


Don't balls it up now Tim. Watch that speed. Watch. That. Speed.

I taxi cautiously to the tower then flick the fuel switches. The Eagles starve and die.


Actually, not quite silence. Something prettier - the sound of the rain drumming on doped canvas.

So where's the hat-hurling throng? The local brass band butchering the theme from 'The Dambusters'?

Inside here, that's where.

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