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

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit