The magic of the mundane: more games should reflect real-life's everyday tasks

"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."

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 CreedCall 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.

An in-game screenshot of Silent Hunter 3. (Image: Ubisoft)

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle