Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted April 21, 2018
Edits and introduction written September 3, 2018
Alongside the bustle of this past spring’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco—with its long queues snaking around pavilions for Google and Microsoft, or rows of high-end monitors displaying battle royales amidst unending beer service paid by top company dollar—is Flight Simulator, a game that invites players to slow down and relax on a real-time flight to Iceland. Created by Lebanese developer Hosni Auji and taking the name of the popular series originally released by Microsoft in 1982, Flight Simulator repositions the role of the player not as the pilot, but as a passenger onboard a transatlantic flight. The game’s real-time duration and everyday contexts asks players to explore the mundane pleasures of commercial air travel. Gaze out towards the passing cloud layer, browse the safety instruction card, fiddle with the in-flight entertainment, or simply sit and let time’s incessant march take hold. While many new changes and additions have been made to the game since this earlier build at GDC, the core of Auji’s Flight Simulator remains the same. You are a passenger, and your actions will have no effect on the trajectory of this plane. Whether or not that passivity produces frustration or relaxation is up to the individual player. Flight Simulator asks nothing of us except to simply sit and experience time move; we must negotiate our own boredom in whatever way we see fit.
This focus on the patient, mundane unfolding of time is of central importance to Hosni Auji. Flight Simulator’s long duration compels deeper contemplation into one’s own rituals and memories of plane travel. Does one immediately recline one’s seat to the chagrin of the passenger sitting behind? Is the course of a flight the opportune time to sleep uninterrupted and wake upon arrival? Can one even feel relaxed on a cramped, long journey such as this? Likewise, Zero Age wordlessly presents a series of puzzles that resist the fleetingness of its mobile game contemporaries. Unlike other iOS games that function as passing distractions with puzzles that take thirty seconds to solve, Zero Age lulls players into sequences that can take up to thirty minutes, obligating players to patiently take the time to explore its celestial dreamscapes and ruins. Now immersed in the game design program at New York University (NYU), Auji continues probing these themes and ideas, challenging the definitions and expectations of player interaction and videogame spaces.
From his time studying and working in Lebanon, to attending a film program in the Czech Republic, to receiving financial backing by the Netherlands, to his current home in New York City, Hosni Auji’s work is global in context and scope. With this diverse background come diverse influences as well. In addition to recounting the origins and obstacles of the development of both Zero Age and Flight Simulator, we discuss artistic inspirations as wide-ranging as Desert Bus to Giorgio de Chirico, and Metal Gear Acid to Sergei Rachmaninov in the formation of his games. We swap thoughts on the value of boredom in videogames, and how relaxation and anxiety can be intertwined. Moreover, Auji shares his unique perspective on the indie games scene in Lebanon, as well as the infrastructural challenges of being a game developer in Beirut. Below is our interview (conducted April 21, 2018), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“I was terrified of planes—like, genuinely terrified.”
Let’s start by talking about your background. Where are you currently based, and how did you come to work in videogames?
Right now, I’m based in New York. I moved here in the summer of 2016 to start the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) game design program at NYU. I’m originally from Beirut, Lebanon, which is where I got my undergrad degree in graphic design. I always really wanted to study film, and graphic design was my fallback because there was no English-language film program in Beirut. Eventually, I did study film, but at a program in Prague, Czech Republic. At that point, I was thinking about getting into indie game development, but I had no programming or game development background to speak of. I didn’t really even have an art background; I was a graphic designer, I laid out things. But I worked with a friend named Majd Akar on a game called Zero Age that we released for iOS. Majd is a good friend of mine, and one day we realized that we both had similar ambitions of leaving our day jobs and working on games. So we worked together, and while it took us two years to complete, it was enough to make me realize that this is what I wanted to do. I thought that the best opportunity was to move to this part of the world, and I received a scholarship at NYU. So not only am I getting a degree, but I’m also getting close to where I can meet up with other game designers and developers. The community would be more helpful, because in Beirut, the indie development scene is very small and virtually non-existent, to be frank.
Could you talk about your involvement in the NYU game design program? How has that been like?
I applied to various programs, and I was highly selective because I wanted a game design program specifically. It was a toss-up between a couple of schools, but ultimately it came down to Parsons School of Design and NYU because they offered the most money. I eventually went with NYU because when reading more about the program at Parsons, I realized that it focused more on design and technology. A little background: my background in graphic design was strange because my undergrad university in Lebanon had no fine arts program to speak of, and the only creative field that existed was graphic design. Basically, anyone who wanted to do anything in the fine arts from photography to fashion ended up in the graphic design program. That was great, but I was also kind of wary and wanted my master’s program to be much more concrete and focused on one specific thing. So while the Parsons program looked great, its program in design and technology had a bit of everything, and I was specifically interested in game design. I came to choose the NYU program, and I’ve been pretty happy here in the last two years. It’s very focused on game design, both digital and non-digital. They do offer technical courses on how to improve in code or audio design, but it remains very game design-centric. By the time I came to work on a thesis project, I figured I had picked up enough coding skills over the course of the last two years that I could work alone on a project, which is Flight Simulator.
I did have questions on Flight Simulator that I wanted to bring up later, but I wanted to go back to the point you made earlier about your background in Lebanon. How acquainted were you with the videogame scene in Lebanon? What was that culture like in comparison to New York? What kinds of games were people playing or creating?
Over there, it was very hyper-indie, if you will, to the extent where anything beyond an OS game was a bit too ambitious for a studio or developer to take on there. I didn’t realize how small the scene was in Lebanon until I left, but there were a bunch of people that were teaching themselves how to use game engines. By the time I left, there were a couple of little game jams. At the first game conference I was invited to, it became very clear that there was a lot of business interest in apps and games. There was a lot of buzz, but no actual development happening. At this conference, there were three local game developers and maybe four or five from the rest of the Middle East. This is kind of sad, you know? It’s a good community with talent, but people usually don’t stay long. There’s a huge brain drain there. So it’s a self-defeating situation where it would be great if the indie games scene grew, but the talent will eventually go elsewhere. That’s primarily due to other factors like political stability, the economic situation, and just general opportunities for employment. It’s a small market, so even when I was working as a graphic designer, our work was for the rest of the Middle East. It’s a very tiny place, in Lebanon.
“I didn’t realize how small the scene was in Lebanon until I left, but there were a bunch of people that were teaching themselves how to use game engines. By the time I left, there were a couple of little game jams.”
I’m very curious about the conference and the game jam. Who organized these events, and what kind of spaces were they held in?
There’s a lot of people interested in developing the Lebanese indie games community, but they don’t have the acumen to actually make games and stuff. So there are more people interested in the idea than there are game designers. Instead, they start organizing little things like competitions. Zero Age came to be because Majd Akar and I worked on a game right before it, like a demo, and that ended up winning an award set up by the Dutch embassy in Beirut. They’re trying to encourage indie game development, so we used the award money we won to continue on to develop Zero Age. That’s one route. Other people are just interested and trying to bring the community together in the hopes that the game development scene will improve. That’s possibly going to happen, but maybe not right now.
What was the award that you won?
It was called the Netherlands Game Award. That was the first year they did it; that was in 2012. It’s an annual award set up by the Dutch embassy and this entrepreneurship in Beirut, and the prize money they award is the exact amount of money to register a company in Beirut. It was set up to encourage people to start companies there, but we didn’t actually do that. We developed a game and kind of went our separate ways. Majd and I are in touch and on good terms, and he’s still working in Beirut. He’s a great developer.
Could you talk us through the early development of Zero Age? What were the motivations behind the art style and the overall structure of the game?
We did a lot of things backwards. We weren’t really intending to do so, but it just sort of happened. Neither Majd nor I had made a game before, and he had stumbled upon Unreal Engine 3 in 2011 and was playing with the engine. He’s like, “Listen, I want to make a game on this thing. Do you want to work together?” Initially, we had this whole puzzle idea that we were doing for the PC. It was mouse-based, and players drew spells on this interface to solve puzzles and fight enemies. The demo is called Q; there’s a demo on my site. What we realized halfway through the development of Q was that we were shooting ourselves in the foot by developing on PC. Since the mechanics are mouse-based, we figured we could make it touch-based to run on an iOS device. It would be easier to get people to play it, and it would be easier to publish. However, when Q was finished and won the award, we realized that there was only one person that could actually play it, and that was Majd. The game was really difficult and clunky, and the art style initially planned for the PC wasn’t translating well on iOS. And so we decided to keep the core interaction—where you draw spells with your finger, and a different combination of nodes will create different spells—and essentially redesign everything else as an iOS tablet game. That meant streamlining the visuals to make it look good and work on mobile, which was a challenge considering that Unreal Engine 3 was really bad at supporting mobile.
During the development of Zero Age, Unreal was restructuring and moving people and efforts to Unreal Engine 4. During a conference in the Netherlands—I think it was Casual Connect or something—I met with some Unreal Engine 3 people, and they were really trying to distance themselves from the engine and promote the new Unreal Engine 4 in a crazy way. That made the development difficult because we wanted to do iOS and Android, and it limited us in a way. We were hoping to have Zero Age finished in six months after the completion of Q, but it ended up taking two years of full-time development. We made some money afterwards, but nothing we were going to make was going to cover our costs. It was a huge loss financially—painful, but a fulfilling experience overall.
“Listen, I want to make a game on this thing. Do you want to work together?”
My role, since I knew how to design visuals but didn’t know how to code or work in a 3D program, focused on art direction, puzzle design, game design, sound design, or anything Majd couldn’t handle or would fall through the cracks. Part of the reason for going to school was that I wanted to strengthen my limited capacities. I wasn’t going to become a coder overnight, but I wanted to be confident enough to code or program something myself and be better at 3D software like Maya. I wanted the ability to work on a game from start to finish alone. That realization came to me during the development of Zero Age, in which I felt technically stunted in certain respects and as though there were only so much I could contribute.
I didn’t know that you were struggling to break even, and I even read in an interview for StepFeed that you and your collaborative partner Majd Akar didn’t even have to work from home. You had an office space that was sequestered for working on the game. Could you discuss these kinds of infrastructural issues that you needed to consider during game development, such as your access to the Internet or even electricity and power?
This is actually strange. In Lebanon, as far as I can remember, there’s no such thing as 24-hour electricity. It’s basically the intersection where bad infrastructure and corruption meets. The country doesn’t produce enough power for what it consumes, and there’s really no urgency to fix the situation because people sell big generators—what we call “power suppliers”—for additional power to cover what’s missing from the actual government power company. These started making a lot of money, and this has been the status quo for the last two decades, at least. Electricity kind of became expensive to have, especially for 24 hours. Normally, there’s a schedule in which the power is cut for three hours, and you base your whole day around the lack of power for three hours and find what else you can do. If you’re a big company, you’ll get a big generator, but if you’re working from your living room and it lacks that infrastructure, it becomes difficult to do anything. In Lebanon from 2010 to 2011, we had the third worst Internet connection in the world, and this was primarily because there was a high penetration of users as well. The broadband was not that high, but suppliers sold it to more people than they should have. What happened was that we lucked out because my friend’s brother was working in an office nearby, and he had an empty spare room. He told us, “Listen, we won’t charge you; you can just come and use this empty room. It has 24-hour power and Internet connection.” We were using that space until we couldn’t anymore and they needed the room again. For the last six months of the project, we each moved to our homes and worked remotely, even though we were in the same city. It was challenging and probably sounds worse than it was. [laughs]
When you moved back to your homes, how did the work schedule change? What did you do during times when you didn’t have electricity to work on the game?
That’s when I would either take my laptop to a Starbucks, or [laughs] I used a PS Vita for my good gaming hours with those three-hour breaks for handheld games. Otherwise, I would come to Majd’s place to work because we were on different cycles: when I had power, he didn’t have it, and vice-versa. Since he was working with a desktop, it was very difficult for him to be mobile, but I was working off my laptop. The lack of power was a nuisance more than a huge problem, but for these kinds of things, you work your way around them pretty quickly after they start actually popping up.
You make do in a lot of ways.
You make do, and then when you reflect back on it, you’re like, “Wow that was difficult.” But at the time, that’s reality, and you just move on.
“It’s basically the intersection where bad infrastructure and corruption meets.”
Going back to the actual content of Zero Age itself, I was very interested in how the purpose of the protagonist is to become immortal. In that sense, I think the game is a kind of pilgrimage, almost spiritual. What was the motivation behind that kind of specific journey?
It’s a bit of a patchwork decision: we did not have some vision for what the character would be. It kept changing through time, and one thing both of us had in common was that we’re not against narrative in games—we never were—but we also felt that it’s gotten to a point where game designers are a bit lazy because they create narratives out of a need to have it but without any consideration for it whatsoever. So you’re sitting there watching long cutscenes, and you wonder why these are even there. Sometimes games tell a story with a clear narrative arc with emotional connection to the characters, but sometimes, it’s just filler. We decided, realistically speaking, that we’re not going to have time to concoct a pretty compelling narrative, but Journey had come out and we liked what they did. Journey’s story was ambiguous in a way, but it’s clear that there’s some sort of pilgrimage in that game as well. The character is going somewhere, and you see small cutscenes that insinuate a clear story without ever being spoon-fed to you. We liked that approach and wanted to have one cutscene at the beginning and one cutscene at the end. From there, we started really talking about the different paths the story could take. We knew we wanted something celestial in some respect, and we realized we liked this Journey-esque idea of a pilgrimage. We already had the idea of collecting powers along the way, and we wanted to bring all these things together. What if she’s collecting powers from the tombs of similar people that made the journey before her? We started from there, and it became a journey of the afterlife because those objects looked like tombs.
We actually came up with the earlier idea of her becoming a star before focusing on these gravestones, and we liked that. We wanted her to go to the heavens and become a star, and in our minds at least, the whole thing was a kind of a pre-Big Bang existence. We kept trimming the story down to the very basics and focusing on communicating without words: the idea of being on a journey, of extracting powers from the tombs ahead of her, and of her ultimate transformation into a star. We thought that this transformation would be a compelling climax without having to really have much exposition and explanation. That’s what I mean by a patchwork of decisions. It was never one clear vision for a story that we had, and over the course of two or three years, things change. We were trying to do the best we could with our technical constraints, from a narrative perspective and in terms of its puzzle and visual design.
One funny moment did happen during development. It wasn’t a bad thing, but it became a point of contention for us. We were maybe five or six months away from release, and I was on Kotaku and saw a trailer for this game. I thought to myself, “Oh my God, this game kind of looks like ours.” It wasn’t really; it actually looked much better but had a very similar vibe to ours. This game was Monument Valley. I sent this trailer to Majd, and I was like, “Does this worry you?” And he was like, “No. I mean, it looks great, but it’s a completely different game. Besides, these iOS games get released and then disappear.” Of course, Monument Valley didn’t disappear and instead became this huge game. So when Zero Age released, we were perceived by many as an attempted Monument Valley clone, and anyone who’s ever asked about this game would either bring it up or mistake the game for it. This is a great thing because Monument Valley is a cool game that people really like, but it was a weird situation for us because we were completely overshadowed by it. Not that we could have sold anywhere near what they did, but it was one of those weird moments for us when we were thinking, “There’s this game that looks great and looks a bit similar to what we’re doing, but who knows what their fate will be?” Then, any review we got usually referenced Monument Valley. I once got a call from someone in the United States while I was in Lebanon. This person woke me up to tell me that my game featured in House of Cards, and I had to tell them, “Look, it’s not my game. It’s a different game.” That was a bittersweet thing: to be compared to such a great game, but on the other hand, it is what it is.
I like the term that you used, that it’s a patchwork of different ideas and inspirations. One other game I was thinking of was Ico, specifically the lonesome spaces and architecture that envelops the player. Was this a game you were thinking about too?
Absolutely. It was a combination of two things. We were looking at the art of Ico and the work of artist Giorgio de Chirico. We were using those two as inspirations for our architecture, especially in the first level.
“It was never one clear vision for a story that we had, and over the course of two or three years, things change.”
Were there any other inspirations when you were making the game?
I’m sure there were, but none come to mind right now. Like I said, it was a long two years. We wanted specifically to do something that we thought was not available on mobile: a game in which you didn’t spend thirty seconds on each puzzle, but rather, thirty minutes. That was really hard to demo at a casual games conference because it’s hard to have people go through more than one puzzle at the exhibition stand. But that’s something we wanted to do, and we wanted to challenge the iOS paradigm. We were looking more into console games and puzzle games we used to play in our youth more than what was available on iOS at the time.
What about the music? In the description on your website, you note that it was from “classical pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov [Rachmaninoff].” Why choose this composer?
This was actually a selection from my friend; he’s a big fan of his. He let me listen to a few tracks, and I was convinced. We originally had a musician attached to the project for a long time, but that musician ghosted us in the last two months. We were thus put in a position where we were a few months away from release but had no music. So we looked into getting some pieces from Rachmaninov on public domain. His music had actually entered the public domain only eight months earlier. So I got permission from people online to use their MIDI files because while the music is public domain, you still need a recording of it, and that wasn’t going to be publicly available. We got permission to use MIDI files from people who had posted them online, and we gave them to this guy who was helping us supervise the audio. We had to select one track for each world, and Majd already had three picked out. But selecting those last two was a month-long process of trying out different tracks. We wanted something that was pensive and relaxing, but compelling at the same time: not too much in the background, but not too distracting either. Like I said, puzzles could take thirty minutes to solve, and you just want something there with you.
The other thing I wanted to discuss was your game Flight Simulator, which I had the chance to play at GDC this past March. Obviously, you were drawing from the original Flight Simulator, but I wonder if you had other inspirations?
Totally. If I were to cite three other videogame inspirations, it would be The Stanley Parable, Desert Bus, and No Man’s Sky. This last game is a less obvious pick, but it was a big thing for me. I was playing a lot of No Man’s Sky right before I started developing the game, and I think a lot of that seeped into Flight Simulator. What I like about No Man’s Sky is that there’s no real clear idea of what you do, and people perceived that as boring. You take your spaceship and fly around, and while it may be boring, for me, it’s pretty cool because I would imagine that space travel is 99% boring anyway, you know? I think having boredom in the experience made it much more of a complete and immersive experience. When traveling between planets, you have a pulse engine that lets you quickly zoom between stars, but I would sometimes not use that feature. The game would tell me that I had 45 minutes before I reached this new planet, and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll go do something else.” There’s just something kind of cool about that. It was an immersive thing for me; I felt like this explorer in space. If I had 45 minutes, I’ll distract myself with something else in the meantime. And I realized that games don’t do this often enough. It’s clear why, but I thought it was an interesting moment and something I wanted to capture in Flight Simulator.
I claim The Stanley Parable as an inspiration because that’s a game I bought and played for ten to twenty minutes and understood what it was trying to do. I actually didn’t play it through afterwards, but I did play the same part at least twenty times to show twenty different people, because for me, it was an example that games could be self-critical and satirical in subtle and intelligent ways while still being playable. I thought that The Stanley Parable was one of those moments where I really enjoyed that, and that was part of the inspiration in making Flight Simulator. And the Desert Bus influence is obvious, I would imagine. I think this tradition should be maintained.
“There’s this game that looks great and looks a bit similar to what we’re doing, but who knows what their fate will be?”
I really like how your game raises a lot of compelling questions about player agency. The game frustrates typical ideas of what we’re supposed to do in games, which is very action-oriented. In the original Flight Simulator, we fly the plane, and this is framed as a very natural and obvious role for players, that we’re supposed to be the pilot. But suddenly, when we’re put in the role of a passenger—which is much more likely in everyday life—it throws us for a loop. Why do you think this is the case? Why do you think that people are shocked or even uncomfortable when put in that position?
To be completely honest, this is something I’m asking myself every day with every playtest because I’m not really sure why! If I’m playing the original Flight Simulator, I have control over the flight; if I get any of these buttons wrong, the plane won’t reach its destination. However, I’m not really doing anything specifically. I’m just tweaking values and making small interactions, and in that sense, my game versus the original doesn’t differ that much in terms of the way you interact. It does make a huge difference in terms of how you perceive what you’re doing. In one case, there’s winning and losing: I can reach the destination or screw it up and not reach it. From the passenger’s point-of-view, however, there’s really no winning or losing. Your videogame acumen is irrelevant. If you know how to use a mouse, then you’re just as good as anyone else. This unsettles people. I’m hesitant to use the word competitiveness—because it’s not exactly what I’m trying to say—but there’s a part of that as well, this idea that there’s some kind of skill that’s part and parcel with videogames for a long time. I think people perceive it as unsettling when you try to dissociate the two and tell people, “No, you’re not in control. The plane is going to fly no matter what you do, but you can still have a bunch of stuff to interact with, though it won’t impact the trajectory of the flight.”
What is the game doing? This is the question that people have, whereas some people get it: “Yeah, this makes sense. This is interesting.” The flight experience is banal, but also very specific and ritualistic. You can talk to ten different people about how they fly, and you realize that they all have idiosyncratic approaches, but a lot of that is dictated by protocol and social convention. There’s a lot of overlap in terms of the way people behave on flights. I think that’s kind of interesting because it’s a very familiar space that you never see in games. Not only do you never see it, we’re also always avoiding the space of the passenger. You’re always the pilot in the game, and if you’re a passenger, then something dramatic is going to happen. If you’re flying on a plane in a game, it’s always an exhilarating act of freedom, but this is not at all how flying pertains to us, where you just sit in the back and manage your boredom. I wanted to reflect that in a game, and I knew the challenge would be that there are certain things I needed to do for this experience to work. One of these challenges was that I had to stick to a very realistic and detailed look, and I felt that if I didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be as compelling as a simulator.
When I played Flight Simulator, it was like I was playing as the non-player character (NPC) instead of the main character in a game. Because of that, you don’t really have any control over the slow duration of the game, and so you get these feelings like boredom, as you say. And I think another feeling that you get is curiosity. Boredom compels you to look around and experiment with what you can do in the game. Can you talk more about these feelings? Why should games be interested in duration and boredom?
An early version of this game was completely different. Have you played Metal Gear Acid by any chance? It was similar to that. It was a card game, in which you are a person trying to escape a burning plane. The idea was that it was a game about anxiety, and I was trying to reflect on that feeling. I put the character on a burning plane because I thought that was sufficiently dramatic enough. For a while, maybe less than ten years ago, I was terrified of planes—like, genuinely terrified. At one point, it got really bad, and I would try to avoid going on planes altogether. It was very difficult for me to sustain this because I had work that was outside Lebanon at the time, my parents were living in a different country, and my partner was also living in a different country. I needed to be on planes all the time, so this fear was deadly. I got obsessed with trying to fix myself and this problem, so I would read a lot about planes. Eventually, things got better.
In the meantime, I had been so obsessed with reading about planes online that I became plane-obsessed. When I was on a plane, I thought that the best way to manage my anxiety was to keep track of where I was sitting, what’s making me anxious, what’s happening around me when I’m afraid, if there was turbulence, and if different parts of the plane made me feel better. I was documenting all this stuff. At one point, when I was working on this card game, I realized that it wasn’t working. I asked myself: what about the game do I want to retain, and what should I just leave? What I realized was that the only real thing I liked about it was its focus on dealing with plane anxiety. I felt like this was something I was taping into. I realized that if I just focused on making the flight and giving people space for their minds to wander, then people would assume something would happen on the plane. That’s why I’m scared on planes. You get on it, everything’s fine, and then you become bored and your mind wanders into places that are anxiety-inducing. What I was doing all the time was just managing my boredom so that I don’t have this issue where I’m wandering through disaster scenarios. Instead, I’ll watch a movie or eat food or play something. That’s part of what I wanted to put in the game. I’ll give you space, and I want you to be bored so you’ll think about things or wonder, “Is something going to happen? Why is this person flying to this destination?” These are always the questions I get when people finish playing. I won’t have the answers because I don’t know why he’s going to Iceland! [laughs] But I wanted to create a space where people start thinking about these things. They won’t necessarily come to the conclusion like, “Oh my God, am I simulating some sort of anxiety-inducing situation?” But I’d like to give them the space for them to wander there themselves, if they’re so inclined.
“Your videogame acumen is irrelevant. If you know how to use a mouse, then you’re just as good as anyone else. This unsettles people.”
In terms of boredom in games more generally, I don’t think it’s done enough. I think a boring game is perceived as a bad game, and that’s generally the case because what developers desire to express is probably not coming across mechanically or narratively. But I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. You can have these games that are slow-paced and more experiential, and I think this is an under-represented area in games.
It’s really interesting that you mention that the game is coming from a sense of anxiety, because there’s also a sense of relaxation that your games have. In Zero Age, for instance, the description on your website says that you aimed to “create a calming environment, offsetting the frustration that may accompany challenging situations.” In a way, I think that description is also relevant for Flight Simulator.
I totally agree with that. I made a conscious decision early on in development not to force any anxious situation or my flying experiences onto people. This one person tried the game, and within five minutes told me, “This is torture.” Apparently she was a flight attendant and hated it because it was all sending her back. Another person told me that his time on planes is his favorite time ever. He basically thought of it as his only real, guilt-free time that you can kill and not worry. Normally, if you’re killing time, you feel that there’s something you should be doing instead, but on a plane, killing time is all we can do. And so, he finds planes really relaxing and enjoyable, and he also found that in the game. That’s pretty cool: in the same game and the same situation, two people perceive and react to flying differently. That’s why I didn’t want to be heavy-handed with the anxiety I felt when flying. I just wanted it to be a place where their flight ritual comes out, and if they like to do stuff when flying that they can’t do in the game, they’ll notice it and mention it to me. For example, I’ll get, “Why can’t I take off my shoes?” I generally don’t take off my shoes when I fly, but for some people, this is a really big thing. This kind of feedback is bittersweet because it makes me realize that there’s so much more I have to put in the game, but also, my intention is working and people are actually thinking about what they would do on the plane.
I’m really interested in these reactions from players. I like that the game is creating all these different discussions about people’s personal experiences of flying. They’re not even talking about the game itself, but how the game evokes their own rituals in real life. What are some of the other reactions you’ve heard from people in playing the game?
People want a sleeping pill, or drugs. They say that if there’s no drugs or alcohol, then it’s not a flight. I tend to agree; I need some relaxation on the plane as well. One problem I’m having is with the reclining seat. It’s one of the first things that everyone wants to do. What I find strange is that what they request tells me more about how they feel about flying. For example, people will say that the game is too relaxing, and that I need to have more people, shouting, and stress. For them, that’s how flying feels: really anxiety-inducing and terrible. There’s noise everywhere, and you feel claustrophobic. And then some people will say they want more reading and watching material so that they can just chill. They’re asking for specific things, but it’s also a very different reflection on how their flying experience is. Either it’s this completely uncomfortable experience or something more relaxing where you can read a book or listen to music and just take it all in.
When I played the game over at GDC, there didn’t seem to be an in-game phone at the time. I don’t know if I was playing it wrong or whatever, but in the recent trailer, I saw that you also included a phone and even a book. Can you tell us more about the music and book?
For the music on the phone, I basically asked a bunch of my friends in Lebanon who are musicians or know musicians. Most of these people come from Lebanese indie bands, and I told them to send me music because I’m in a weird situation where I need music for the game but the music doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s not like it’s supposed to fit the game; I just needed music I could use legally. They sent me a bunch of tracks, and I curated a selection and tried to include everyone. For the book, I wanted something from the public domain but also something relevant to the game—not super on-the-nose, but at the same time not random either. I went through a lot of contenders before someone suggested À rebours (Against the Grain, or Against Nature), by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which is often revered as a prime example of nineteenth century “decadent” literature. Since I was going to be staring at pages all the time, I read it while I developed the game. I would read a few pages and add it to the book. There’s also video content on the screen. I’m also using public domain material, but I also try to pick and choose what I include.
“The flight experience is banal, but also very specific and ritualistic. You can talk to ten different people about how they fly, and you realize that they all have idiosyncratic approaches, but a lot of that is dictated by protocol and social convention.”
You also mentioned earlier a word which is important to me but that I haven’t mentioned yet, which is “curiosity.” I think that’s a very important thing, because I think it’s the only reason people will play for longer than the duration it takes to figure out what the game is trying to do. That is, the curiosity of what you can and cannot do in the game. I think that with the more content I add, the more time you spend sifting through it, and you may be inclined to wonder what else is coming. You may ask yourself, “This is what’s available here, but will the flight attendant come? What can I do with them?” Stuff like that.
Have you ever played The Darkness?
I bring it up because I’m reminded that The Darkness includes the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, which you can watch in its full duration within the game. That’s what your game reminded me of just now.
I did not know that; that’s pretty cool. I’ll check that out.
I did have one final question, which is: what other feelings or emotions do you hope people take away from your work?
I think the thing that I want most—and this is not only for Flight Simulator but in general—is for a person to play it and have a similar reaction that I had to The Stanley Parable. I want them to think, “Oh, games can be this too. This is something I can do and that people will experience and take seriously, and also enjoy without falling into what we think of videogames colloquially.” If just one person played it and felt that this was a good boring game that people can do, then that would make me super happy. I don’t know if there’s a market for it, but this is a valid form of videogame expression. More people should explore spaces and experiences that are maybe mundane, but ultimately less explored in this medium. That’s part of my motivation, and I hope more people do it.