It has been five days since I last dreamed of The Pet Shop Boys
. Today I would like to talk to you about Falcon 4.0. It is a flight simulation computer game that imagines a situation whereby North Korea
invades South Korea
, and you are the pilot of an F-16
for the United States Air Force of America (in South Korea), and you have to stop the North Koreans and drive them back, by killing them in the air and on the ground with your F-16. And I would also like to talk to you about radar
. And most of all I would like to talk to you about sin
. There can be no sin in the absence of a moral framework. Snails
cannot sin, because snails do not have a moral framework. Snails can be used to perform an act of sin, but they themselves cannot sin. Bridges
do not sin, even though they cause great suffering and human misery
. A person's clothes do not sin. A person's arm does not sin. A person's brain
does not sin. It is just a lump of flesh. No. It is a person's thoughts that sin. There is no sin in the physical world, because the physical world does not have a moral framework. Atoms and electrons and magnetic waves do not sin, they are not the source of evil. Aeroplanes do not sin
. A woman may sin, but woman-as-object cannot sin. The act of objectifying a woman removes from her the ability to sin, and transforms her into something less than human. That is why I refuse to objectify the woman.
Falcon 4.0 is a flight simulation computer game. It was the third major release in a venerable series of flight simulators that began in 1987, with Spectrum Holobyte's original Falcon. Falcon was a hit on the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, and it was also released for the Apple Macintosh business computer. In 1987 games were not generally released for the Apple Macintosh. The reason for this is because Apple Macintosh owners were not interested in playing games in 1987, and computer games manufacturers knew this. Apple Macintosh owners did not own joysticks and their machines had black and white graphics. Nowadays Apple Macintoshes are powerful enough to emulate a proper PC and run Windows, but nonetheless Apple Macintosh owners remain uninterested in games, especially flight simulators, and they still do not own joysticks, but that is normal nowadays. Apple Macintosh owners get plenty of fun without having to use a computer to satisfy their needs. In fact they are not really computer people. They are normal people who own a computer. They are not married to their computer, despite the fact that Apple Macintoshes are exactly the kind of computer a man might marry, if marriage between computer and man was possible. Falcon was also released for the IBM PC. It was followed by several mission discs, and a further sequel called Falcon 3.0 that was released in 1991 for the IBM PC alone, because by that time the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were no longer popular. There was never a Falcon 2.0.
It is worth pointing out that Falcon 4.0 was not called Falcon 4, and neither was Falcon 3.0 called Falcon 3. The Falcon games were supposed to be posh, in the same way that Microsoft's Flight Simulation was posh, and remains posh today. Traditionally, only business applications and operating systems have been numbered with a decimal point. Films and books and computer game sequels do not have a decimal point. By including a decimal point in the name, the creators of Falcon wanted to make the audience mentally associate their product with a spreadsheet or a database rather than a game. But the Falcon games were not your friend. They were not really games. They were work.
For a long time the flight simulator was one of the dominant genres of the PC gaming scene. Now it is not. There are still flight simulators - rather like flared trousers, the genre continually threatens to come back into fashion - but flight simulators have been overshadowed and left behind by games that offer more immediate rewards, and more opportunities for the player to closely inspect bump mapping and coloured lighting effects. Perhaps it is for the best. Once upon a time flight simulators were the engines of graphical change in the computer game world. No other genre absolutely required fast, detailed 3D graphics, and with the exception of a few war games, flight simulators drove advances in filled 3D polygon graphics and expansively modelled outdoors environments. In turn, flight simulators drove people to purchase more expensive and more advanced home computers. There were plenty of flight simulators for the early 8-bit machines such as my own Sinclair Spectrum, but I can remember the first time I saw a flight simulator running on a 16-bit computer, and it impressed me just as Battlezone had impressed me a few years beforehand. It filled me with desire to own a Commodore Amiga, a desire which remains unfulfilled to this day, like so many others although not the one that you're thinking of.
The game was called F/A-18 Interceptor and it was by Electronic Arts. It was an arcade-style simulation for the Commodore Amiga and no other machine. It is irritating to type F/A-18 Interceptor. The game took place in the bay of San Francisco in North America. You could fly underneath San Francisco's famous Golden Gate Bridge, which despite the name is actually red. The bridge was one of the few things in the game that was not blue or grey or green. F/A-18 Interceptor was technically impressive, especially for a handsome young country boy such as myself who been weaned on 8-bit machines that could barely display transparent wireframes without snot coming out of their computer noses. The graphics were detailed enough to resemble real-life objects such as the titular F/A-18 Interceptor, an aircraft that generally did not feature in flight simulations because it was and remains a boring aircraft. The F-18's exhaust pipes glowed when the afterburners were engaged. The aircraft left a shadow on the ground. Its undercarriage could be seen to raise and lower. There were several "external camera" views that were handy for sightseeing. The engine rumbled away in the background with a pleasing rumbling rumbling sound. All of these things seem trivial nowadays, but in 1988 they were still fresh and new.
Falcon was basically all of this but with a greater emphasis on realism, and on modelling the F-16 Falcon's in-cockpit systems, particularly the television display of the Maverick missile that you could shoot at tanks and other things on the ground such as your own airfield. Falcon 4.0 was all of this as well, but taken to a much higher plane of realism, with hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. I have to state at this point that I have a troubled relationship with the flight simulation genre. I used to be a big fan, but that was because of the 3D graphics and the flying. The reality of actually working an aircraft does not appeal to me. It is a job that involves following a complex set of complex procedures to the letter. For an adult this is not a problem; all jobs are much the same. My own job involves following a complex set of procedures, although I can cut corners and skim and make allowances and goof off, because I do not have sole responsibility for the lives of fee-paying passengers. As I sit at my desk at work I am safe in the knowledge that, if I was to be transfixed with terror or ecstasy, and rendered immobile, I would not cause the deaths of a hundred people or more. If I press the wrong button on my computer keyboard I will not dump aviation fuel onto the heads and homes of the people below. I cannot possibly fly my office into the side of a mountain. If I should die at my desk it will be because of a heart attack and that will have nothing to do with flying.
Falcon 4.0 therefore presents me with a vision of horror. It is a flight simulation in which flight is a trivial and unimportant thing. It is the dream of every child to be a fighter pilot or an astronaut. Part of the process of growing up involves the destruction of childhood illusions and fantasies. And one of the things that dies hardest and with the greatest fallout is the belief that all people are equal and that everyone you have not yet met is a potential friend. This is not the case. Another dream that becomes perverted and stiff and dead is the dream of owning a woman. And also the dream of being a fighter pilot or an astronaut. Falcon 4.0 presents a vision of horror in which a fighter pilot's job is to operate a Westinghouse AN/APG-68 radar set whilst sitting in a small cabin suspended twenty thousand feet in the air. The view outside is spectacular, but it does not matter. A fighter pilot is not paid to sightsee. He is paid to follow a complex set of complex procedures to the letter.
Falcon 4.0 is not so much a flight simulation as it is a simulation of the Westinghouse AN/APG-68 pulse-doppler radar, which has look-down/shoot-down capability and can stun pigeons with its negative waves. It is a simulation of the software that allows the pilot to use the radar to identify and destroy the enemy. Falcon 4.0 does not literally model the radar set's function - that would require a supercomputer - but it is a convincingly complicated virtual software simulation of a radar system. This is combined with a real-time wargame that operates in the background all the time. Unlike most other flight simulators, Falcon 4.0 takes place in a war that continues even when you are sitting on the runway, or waiting for a mission to become available. It is this aspect of the game that keeps people playing it, the fact that your actions today can affect the war tomorrow. It is a thoroughly pedantic game that is aimed at committed flight simulator players and I have no quarrel with those people. To quote a chap called Kevin Nunn who reviewed the game for Amazon.com, "you don't just have to fly waypoints - you have to do it *on time*". To further quote Kevin Nunn, because it saves me time, "if you're expecting to just press 't' to hit the nearest ground target, you'll be horrified at the array of radar modes, bombing crosshairs, and the insanely strange way in which you can't just press a button to drop a bomb - your fire control computer does that for you". I will not quote Kevin Nunn any more. Thank you Kevin. When I started to play Falcon 4.0 I did not expect to just press 't' or 'tab', although I was horrified at the array of radar modes, and I was puzzle by the aforementioned fire control system, which nonetheless works in practice. I will quote from the website of the game's current developers:
"12. Why did my bombs not come off when I pickle?
Firstly, check that your Master Arm is On. You can do this by moving the switch on the front left cockpit panel to the Arm position, or by using SHIFT+M. If you are using unguided bombs, in CCIP mode you will need to make sure you are at a sufficient altitude and dive angle for them to drop, otherwise there will be a short horizontal line across the centre of the vertical drop line of your HUD (see Mission 19 in Chapter 5 of the PDF manual). For CCRP mode with unguided bombs, you need to hold down the pickle button as consent to the onboard computer to drop when it calculates the correct instant to do so (see Mission 18 in Chapter 5 of the PDF manual)."
You and I can understand this. But a normal person cannot.
But there is something that struck me. Falcon 4.0 is a simulation of the software aspect of a radar set. It is a simulation of software. I do not know who writes military software. I assume the AN/APG-68 was developed by a team of anonymous, shirt-and-tie-wearing programmers at Westinghouse, or a team contracted by Westinghouse. I do not usually associate computer programmers with war and death, but it is nonetheless the case that the demands of the world's military forces drove the early development of modern computers and computer programming, with the codebreaking and artillery tabulation computers of WW2, the aeronautic and ballistic missile technology of the post-war years, and the internet of the 1970s. I do not know what drives advances in computing and computer programming nowadays. I tend to think of Doom source ports and free software as the cutting edge, but these things seem more notable for their improbability or philosophical novelty or for the unusual method of their writing than for introducing genuine technological or mathematical breakthroughs. Presumably the real super-secret hardcore stuff is being used to develop stealthy robotic fighting machines or integrated tactical command and control systems, which is perhaps one reason why flight simulators have fallen from grace. In terms of performance, modern military fighter jets are on a par with each other, and the business of fighting with an air force is more a matter of coordinating and controlling a diverse range of sensory inputs than flying. And air forces are now integral components of a total military force, which in turn is an extension of politics. It is the man in the AWACS aeroplane that fights the modern-day aerial war, and he sits in front of a computer just as I am sitting in front of a computer. Except that he is doing his job rather than writing about it. And he is paid more than me.
It strikes me now that there is an opening in the market for a website called Everythong.
Falcon 4.0 entertained me, and I was impressed by the nitty-gritty attention to detail that has kept the game going. The ecstasy of triumph is greater when the challenge is harder. This is why some people still play flight simulators. So many things that interest people today are easy and simple. It takes no effort to sign a petition or donate a small quantity of money to a charity, although people do both of these things because they enjoy the warm glow of righteousness that bathes them as they do so. Comfort is the enemy of triumph, and Falcon 4.0 is not a comfortable game. It is a hard game, an unsympathetic game. I feel ashamed and dirty for playing it with most of the realism options turned off - not the physics, because it is not hard to fly an F-16 through the air, but the radar modes. I feel guilty for ignoring most of my mission goals and instead dropping napalm on North Korean army groups, rather than for example flying a combat air patrol. But it is the only way to win the war. It is not the napalm that makes me ashamed, it is the transgression of disobeying the game's instructions that makes me ashamed. It is not hard, physically, to love a woman; but it is hard on an emotional level to smile at a woman or compliment her clothes or her beautiful long hair.
Falcon 4.0 was released by a company called Microprose, one of the giants of the computer simulation field in its day, which was a long time ago. Falcon 4.0 sold almost a million copies but Microprose is dead and gone, and the people who made the game have broken up, although there are a number of fan-made modifications. One of those modifications was even released as an official continuation in 2005, by a small company called GraphSim. Both GraphSim and the game's developers, Lead Pursuit, have impressively spartan and uninformative websites that tell me almost nothing about the game and its history, which is why I have chosen to pad out this article with lengthy diversions and musings on philosophy, technology and so forth, despite the fact that my day job involves massaging NHS waiting lists and I have no special insight into the worlds of philosophy, technology, or the two combined. I note from Lead Pursuit's FAQ that the game has a tool that pops up when it crashes to the desktop. Falcon 4.0 was quite infamous for its bugs. If I had compiled the FAQ for an updated version of Falcon 4.0 that had been in development for seven years I would not have mentioned crashes to the desktop on the first page of the FAQ. I would have mentioned crashes to the desktop on a separate page. To be fair, I was not aware of most of Falcon 4.0's bugs until I read the readme that comes with the first patch, which I had installed before playing the game for the first time. This is because I bought the game a couple of years after it had been released. I am now gripped with the nasty black hatred that is the obverse of the enthusiasm I felt as I wrote the initial paragraphs. I am not sorry for my moods, although I hate them.
Microprose was once one of the giants. People such as yourself aspired to work for Microprose. I believe the label was bought by Hasbro which was then bought by Infrogrames which has become Atari, and neither the label nor the name nor the logo not the people behind the label still exist as a going concern. By the time the light of my words has moved from the screen to your eyes and into your brain, Atari might have a different name. It might be called Bug-Byte. The company's most famous employee was one of the founders, a man called Bill Stealey, who was frequently called Major "Wild Bill" Stealey and is now called Lt Col "Wild Bill" Stealey, although few people have cause to call him anything because he is no longer famous. He is frequently described on the internet as a fighter pilot, which seems disingenuous as, according to his profile at Military.com, he flew a C-5A Galaxy transport aircraft, a T-28B Trojan prop trainer, and a Cessna A-37B jet trainer stroke light ground attack aircraft. I am sure that if he dogfought in F-4 Phantom against MiG-17s his Military.com profile would mention it. Presumably he nonetheless sleeps well at night and walks tall. He is one of a relative handful of people who can wear a baseball cap without attracting mockery.
A while ago a website called Gamespy ran a list of ten dying computer game genres. Dying like my enthusiasm for this article as I try to fight through the crash that I experience every so often, the inability to muster enough strength to even move my head. The point and click adventure seems particularly missed, and I have some pangs for the ancient text adventure genre, which died a long long time ago. Some people use the term "interactive fiction" nowadays, but that sickens me just as fan conventions sicken me, and grown adults dressing as cartoon heroes. Did my parents feel the same regret about the death of the movie musical? Was the movie musical ever a dominant form? Musicals still emerge here and there, and are shown in cinemas and talked about, but it has been decades since a text adventure made it to high street shop shelves. The side- or vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up is still around albeit that it is now the preserve of the hardcore elite. Looking at the games on the shelf in Game it seems that there are only two genres left, the real-time wargame and the first-person 3D shooter, which encompasses a substantial WW2 subgenre. Perhaps I am old and out of touch. It has been a long time since I have been able to hang out with young people without being put on a special police registry. I am two months past my thirtieth birthday, but I felt my physical degeneration begin a year ago, during the time of Hurricane Katrina, and a few months before that when I failed to step onto the pavement properly and bent my leg back the wrong way. The aches and pains no longer heal overnight. I have a pressure in my chest and left side that is apparently not a cardiac problem. As genres die perhaps new ones will emerge, or there will be a revolution.
I remember that most text adventures were pretty ropey, and even the best ones were hardly entertaining, with instant death and impenetrable puzzles. There were a few late-period games that used a modern windows-based interface, with maps, graphics, drag and drop inventories and so forth, but text adventures suffer from a problem that affects all games that try to model the real world, but moreso; whereas it is possible to automatically generate a landscape, or copy and paste a complex texture over a great distance, a text adventure must have hundreds of hand-coded locations, responses, and combinations thereof. Whereas a physics engine can model the effect of striking a glass bottle with a metal crowbar or any number of other objects, a text adventure must be coded by hand. Perhaps it takes less time to write "you strike the X with the Y; nothing happens" than it does to write a physics engine, and of course there is no reason why elementary physics cannot be applied to a text adventure, such that striking object X flagged as "breakable" with object Y flagged as "hard" results in the response "you strike the X with the Y; the X breaks into a thousand shimmering shards".
But the lie is more obvious when it is written, because there are only so many ways to write about an object breaking, whereas there are an infinite number of ways that an object can break, and its components scatter and bounce and shatter on the floor, like a melon dropped from a great height, or Lee Remick in "The Omen".