Captain a U-Boat they said. It’ll be fun they said. Well, not exactly fun, they elaborated, but it’s a really good game and you’ll probably enjoy it; you like explosions and you’ve always had an inexplicable and intense hatred for merchant shipping.
The year was 2005, the game was Silent Hunter 3, and so help me they were right.
Silent Hunter 3 is a majestic whale of a game; huge, intelligent, soulful and of course based in the sea. The player is cast as the captain of a German U-Boat during WW2 - your job is to patrol the sea and destroy ships belonging to the Allies, while not getting destroyed yourself.
Despite the wartime setting and the fact that you are, ultimately, seeking to blow things up, Silent Hunter 3 is not an action game. You don’t get to be good at Silent Hunter 3 because you can perform a hundred actions per minute, or because you’ve got sharp reflexes, or because you played for the longest time and unlocked the best weapons. No. If you want to be the best at Silent Hunter 3, you need one skill above all others. Trigonometry.
You can master naval tactics. You can be the king of nautical stealth. You can shoot the scrambled eggs off a captain’s epaulets at a thousand yards with the deck gun. But you will never be worth a damn as a Silent Hunter 3 player if you can’t hit things with torpedoes. Hitting a ship with a torpedo isn’t quite rocket science, but it is not far off.
First you need to identify the type of ship from your ship recognition manual, this tells you the height of the ship, knowing the height of the ship you can calculate the distance to the ship, knowing the distance to the ship you can work out the speed and course the direction that the ship is moving. Once you know all that you can predict where the ship is going to be if they maintain speed and course, and once you know that you can fire a torpedo to meet them along the way. Assuming your torpedo doesn’t misfire or the target ship doesn’t spot it and take drastic evasive action, you should score a hit, if you did the maths right.
Few games ever manage to match the tension of Silent Hunter 3. The planning that goes into an attack (at least on realistic settings) gives the moment of impact or evasion a real gravity. The more tons of cargo you sink the better standing you have with the folks at HQ, so even as a simulator there is a very traditional game mechanic built in there. The fact that you could be out on patrol for more than a month with only a dozen or so torpedoes means that each shot counts.
But for all that tension it is well to remember, Silent Hunter 3 is played mostly on the map screen. The moments of the game where you are really tested are rare.
So why is Silent Hunter 3 still relevant today? Simply that it represents even now the pinnacle of a style of game that can only really be described as mundane. There is no twitch to this, no duck and weave; rather it is a contemplative activity, intensely cerebral at times, at times laid back. This is a game where most of your time is a simulation of looking at maps and doing trigonometry in a vintage war machine - on paper it sounds like a combination maths, geography and history GCSE coursework project. It should be boring. It should not be fun. Yet there it is in spite of everything; one of the all-time great games, unapologetically tough, engaging and rewarding, and not showing its age thanks to the Grey Wolves mod.
Silent Hunter 3 is not alone in this sort of design though. Other games such as Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Papers, Please offer gaming experiences that defer fun in the click-click-happiness-happens conventional style in favour of a more staid and thoughtful approach.
You could argue that games like Crusader Kings 2 or Football Manager 2014 are similar but they take a more abstract approach. In games like this you are playing within a system of visible numbers, and whether those numbers relate to the conquest of Europe or the conquest of the Champions League, ultimately they are visible and in play. These games distance you through their interfaces, you don’t see the daggers in the smiles of your courtiers, but you can see when they have -100 affection for you. That is not to say that these games lack drama or moments of payoff, but you play the game from a step outside the action, rather than in the midst of it.
One of the principle qualities that characterises the great mundane games is that through playing them you are sincerely attempting to do something using a skill set that typically you will never use outside of that particular game or game series, at least not intentionally. Euro Truck Simulator 2 obviously simulates driving, but not only are the vehicles frighteningly ordinary at first glance but the objective is more sensible, smart road driving than Smokey And The Bandit-style speed runs. For much of the time it’s just you rolling your truck down the highways of Europe, plotting your next move, trying not to get crashed into. You’re not trying to shave fractions of seconds off your record lap time at the Nürburgring, this is tortoise and the hare type stuff, and you’re a tortoise who needs to take regular rest stops or he gets a fine.
Papers, Please demands that you get good at checking paperwork. This is as mundane as it gets, but it doesn’t make it easy. Having myself done one of the most soul crushing bureaucratic jobs I can imagine, Papers, Please was immediately familiar, and in some ways quite an unpleasant experience, but an authentic one nonetheless. For all the idiosyncrasies of the art and sound style this is a game that works as a simulator and it has a distinct and quite brutal difficulty curve.
The power of these mundane games is interesting because of where games are going and how they are getting there. The games industry provides many series like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and GTA where the act of fighting and killing has become casual. Press a button, take a life. Walk to here, press a button, objective complete. Follow the arrows. Press B to call your mate back at base to drop a perfectly accurate artillery barrage on Johnny Foreigner in his sniper nest. Wait three seconds to heal. Congratulations you saved the universe forever. We got here gradually, games becoming more streamlined, more accessible, forgetting that a game is meant to be mastered, not watched.
There is more challenge and player investment in the simple act of checking a person’s travel documents in Papers, Please than there is in taking a life in a typical first-person shooter. In Silent Hunter 3 you can spend ages simply setting up a shot, let alone taking it. This is the challenge and this is what people play for. This is the reason that the multiplayer elements to so many FPS games are considered to be the main selling point.
By making what should be difficult into a casual, almost throwaway thing, we reach the point where games become shallow; constant action, sameness, noise and explosions, containing neither highs nor lows. Even Call of Duty got it right once. Modern Warfare, the Pripyat level, sneaking through the ruins, all to make one shot.
It is the games that can make maths problems into life or death conundrums, or three point turns into epic sagas, or imbue yes/no decisions at passport control with the tension of a cup final penalty that developers should be learning from. We need developers to find new ways to raise players up and beat them down, not cram more explosions per minute into the next big annual franchise.