A Lonely Impulse of Delight

As he settled into the snug cockpit he tried not to think about the obvious thing. Ahead of him, through the windscreen, he could see a long low hill. It was further away than it appeared to be, and much bigger. Yellow through the blue haze, the hill squatted on the plain, low and indolent and massive. He wanted to be over that hill and look beyond.

Before him stretched the grey runway, on the left a yellow haystack, on the right a white airfield building. All around him was the blue airplane.

He opened the throttle and the plane began to inch forwards. The nose veered to the right, towards the white building, and he rapidly trimmed the plane to the left.

By now the ground was rushing past and the tail starting to lift. The nose came down and he could see the ground immediately in front for the first time, a streaming grey blur, and the end of the runway rushing up to meet him. At the last possible moment he pulled the stick back into his stomach and the plane lurched into the air. Vertigo.

Afficionados of the Hellcats flight simulator will recognize the landscape - an American airstrip on one of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The time is WW2. This is the prologue to an account of an experience of my own, flying a Hellcat on a mission against the Japanese Navy.

Hellcats is effectively a screen and mouse based virtual reality system - 2nd person VR - offering non-linear adventure stories. The reader - or should it be participant, or player - is free to move in any direction, at all times, as long as he or she never gets out of the plane. This cuts down the scope of the story significantly - it's like Top Gun with everything but the flight scenes cut out. Hellcats is a simulator which models a space and a set of rules - the aerodynamics of a propeller plane - for moving through that space. It provides a simple narrative framework within which to act - the struggle against the enemy - and it provides characters to interact with and who appear to be independent narrative agents with their own characteristics and motivation - Japanese pilots, gunners and sailors.

As a representation of the experience of Americans during WW2 in the Pacific, Hellcats can be compared to South Pacific or From Here to Eternity. Yet despite the similarities of place and time, Hellcats is a very different kind of representation. Hellcats represents one specific aspect of the experience of the war in the Pacific, but it is the experience of the machine, to misquote Stephen Heath, rather than the experience of the pilot. More precisely, it is the experience of the pilot insofar as he or she is an extension of the machine, that part which keeps the plane in the air and flies this way or that way, presses the trigger and drops bombs, but never that part with a history, a family, skin colour, memories, desire, plans for this evening...

Certain key attributes of narrative form are missing. [3] Narrative closure has to be fought for - if you crash your plane while taking off the ‘story’ is short, insignificant and unsatisfying. It is up to the spectator to ensure that the action comes to a satisfying and meaningful end - closure is not part of the structure of the representation but is contingent on the moment of ‘reading’. Temporal and spatial coherence are more or less complete, but strictly limited to the skies above the Solomon Islands. There is no specific enigma to be resolved but a different kind of teleological imperative, that of a participant in a violent struggle. If we consider what Barthes has called the symbolic code, that code which accounts for the formal relationships created between terms within a text - the figurative patterning of antithesis, graduation, repetition etc, we find it absent in Hellcats. The simulator does not signify in this way. Neither do we find much in the way of a referential or gnomic code, the code of shared cultural knowledge about the world, nor the rich and diffuse code of connotations designated by Barthes as the code of semes. What is lost is the complex interplay of signs, Barthes’ ‘weaving of the voices’ across different registers, the ‘perspective of quotations’, the ‘mirage of structures’, the ‘multivalence of the text’. These are replaced with a wide band of sensory information refering to specific and schematic aspects of a situation - the proairetics of flight, the hermeneutics of battle. [4]

However, although complex narrative codes are not hard-wired into the simulation, they are not therefore altogether absent from it. The simulation is re-invested with narrative sense via the subjectivity of the participant - as if subjects have a will-to-narrative which imposes its order even in the sparsest of contexts. This is a narrative which issues from the identifications and interpretations the participant makes during the interactive experience - a personal, transient and contingent narrative unlegitimated by the external figure of the author.


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