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Recreating the marvelous mundanities of commercial flight in Airplane Mode

"We wanted to simulate the familiar space of a commercial airliner, to create a genuine experience players can reflect on," says Hosni Auji, Lead Designer for Airplane Mode.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Independent Games Festival finalist Airplane Mode captures all of the glitz and glamour of a six hour coach flight, something that honestly has an eerie appeal when the pandemic has scuttled most folks' ability to fly anywhere. It's a simulation of the experience of flight as a passenger -- wait times, small bathrooms, and all.

Gamasutra spoke with Hosni Auji, lead designer of the Nuovo Award-nominated title, to talk about how the game was born from the idea of anxiety in a crashing aircraft, what thoughts went into capturing that exact coach flight experience, and what appealed to the developer about exploring that space in travel.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Airplane Mode?

My name is Hosni Auji, and I’m the lead designer of Airplane Mode. Coming from a background in graphic design, I started working on games around 10 years ago, co-designing a 3D puzzle game for the iPad. A few years after we published that game, I enrolled in the NYU Game Center MFA program. Airplane Mode started as my grad thesis project (originally titled Flight Simulator) and it picked up a publisher, and a team, shortly after its time in NYU’s incubator program.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Airplane Mode was developed in Unity. I would say around 85% of the assets were created by the team, with the remaining 15% procured.

How did you come up with the concept for Airplane Mode?

Initially, I began work on a turn-based single-player card-game about anxiety, set to escaping a commercial airline crash. Little by little, as I was dropping features that weren't really working, it became clear to me that what interested me most about the idea was being in a commercial airliner.

So, the idea was: Why hit the anxiety head-on with a crash? Why not put the player in a normal flight and see if they get anxious waiting for something to happen? The more I started building out this straight-faced normal flight, the more I found the space interesting in itself.

What got you interested in making a game about flying Coach on a six hour flight?

For decades, we’ve seen and played tens, if not hundreds, of flight simulators, always from the pilot’s perspective. It is, of course, an understandable direction for games to take, but I was interested in seeing how people would respond to a simulation of what flying is actually like for most travelers. Flight has gone from an impossible dream to an entirely quotidian affair in such a short space of time. The challenge for those taking flight is not getting airborne, but managing boredom.

With Airplane Mode, we wanted to simulate the familiar space of a commercial airliner, to create a genuine experience players can reflect on... all while using deadpan humor we hoped players would enjoy.  

 

What thoughts went into creating the randomized events for the game? What were some vital moments to recreate to make this feel right?

One design approach that permeates throughout the game is our decision to treat resignation as a skill.
In order to properly capture the feel of flying, we needed players to be in for the long-haul (no pun intended). That means waiting for take-off and delays, waiting for meals, waiting for someone to take your tray away after the meal. More delays, more waiting, and all without the ability to save progress. The uncertainty around delays - when they occur or how long the last -- was one thing we felt we needed to capture with the luck of the draw.

With the pandemic making travel rare and difficult, how important do you feel games like Airplane Mode are to capturing a feeling of normalcy? In trying to capture that little twinge of excitement you got when traveling?.

Airplane Mode had been in development since 2017, so it wasn’t meant to reflect current real life air travel. Early in the design process (and long before the pandemic), there was a decision to make Airplane Mode a snapshot of a recent, yet particular, time in commercial aviation; to make it almost immediately nostalgic.

This became inadvertently but substantially pronounced during this last period. Which is all to say, I don’t think normalcy is a feeling one would attribute to this particular game. I like to think of it as evoking a mild dose of nostalgia, from small familiar moments -- pleasant or otherwise.     

What thoughts went into designing the player's space, and what they can do within that space? 

We thought about this in terms of designing a walking sim without any walking. From the player’s seated position, we wanted every angle of view to have something engaging -- be it looking out the window, face down in a book, eye-fixed on the inflight entertainment, or glancing around at the cabin.

In addition to that, and making sure all the standard coach amenities were available to players, we also wanted the player to have access to a carry-on which we designed as a sort of player inventory. This forced us to twist a major discomfort of flying in economy a bit  -- ensuring the seat next to the player is always empty so they may claim that territory with their carry-on for access.   

What do you feel draws players into these hyper-realistic simulations?

I think people tend to appreciate details, especially details that relate to their own experiences on some level. There is a certain satisfaction to ordinary interactions that go one or two steps beyond the expected level of simulated detail to capture a real feeling or moment.   

Did you do any research to create this experience beyond your own personal moments spent in traveling? What sorts of odd, interesting, or silly stories worked their way into the game?

People always have stories, moments and rituals when it comes to flying. We quickly realized that we could not include everything we wanted to, so I can safely say more time was spent figuring out what to exclude.
Of course, that is not to say we didn’t need to research: How fast does a long-range single-aisle aircraft go at cruising altitude?  What does the window bleed hole actually do? What actually happens if someone does tamper with the lavatory smoke alarm? You know... flight's great mysteries.

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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