A Simulated Retrospective, Part 3: Submarines

Welcome to Part 3 of this Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective! For these Retrospectives, I’ll take a broad approach to examine some of the tropes of particular game genres, their historical contexts, provide some examples, as well as explore why I think these genres are fun.

As a reminder, this first retrospective will consist of four parts, and will concentrate on marginalized or otherwise underrepresented simulations. I’ve already gone over pirate simulations and Old West simulations, and next week will cover space simulations.

However, this week is given over to the submarines, so let’s get to it!


Dive! Dive! Dive!

“Where did that destroyer come from? Well now that I’m under the waves, I can probably elude it.”

Ping!

“Damn! It’s got a bead on me. Quick! hide, hide hide.”

30 minutes pass.

“I haven’t been pinged in a while now. Maybe it’s safe to come up?”

Ping!

“Nope! He’s still there.”

Ping! Ping!

“Crap, he’s close! Maybe if I drop below the thermal layer…”

Ping!

“He’s still searching, but he seems to be moving away. I think I’m safe…”

Ping! Ping!

“Wait, what? There’s another one!”

Ping! Ping! Ping!

“Ahhhh, this one’s right above me!”

Ping! Ping!

“Did he miss me? I’m running silent after all…. maybe if I do a quick turn I’ll…”

Depth charges explode.

“Ahhh!”


There are few video games that capture the old military adage that war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and really, should this come as a surprise? I mean, who would want to play a game where, for most of the game, you do nothing, and when you are called upon to do something, you’ll end up terrified?

SEAL Team came close to approximating this by requiring that players quietly stalk targets through the wilderness. However, in SEAL Team, you still end up being the hunter, the one who is on the prowl. Terror is largely absent from the game.

Perhaps the genre that best captures the spirit of the old saying is the submarine simulation. Subsims are boring and terrifying. Subsims are intense. I was never a big fan of the survival horror genre. Rather, I got my frights by gaming under the sea.


I’d guess that many people who read this blog have never played a subsim, purely because of the fact that subsims are a rather rare niche genre. In the last ten years only five true subsims have been published, of which three belonged to the Silent Hunter series, the only real franchise the genre possesses.

With any other genre, I’d have commonly known tropes upon which to rely. However, given the eclectic nature of subsims, where should I begin? Perhaps by delineating some of those tropes.

First, it’s important to note that subsims focus almost exclusively on attack submarines. Subsims are the domain of the American Los Angeles-class, of the German U-boat, of the Russian Alfa-class. Rarely are ballistic missile submarines ever the heros of subsims.

A second trope is that, for most players, most, if not all, subsims play exactly the same. I’ll describe the gameplay in a second, but here I just want to mention that if variety if present, it’s usually in terms of submarine type, or historical period. Gameplay rarely varies to any great degree.

Third, subsims are slow. Don’t expect exhilarating action during a subsim. Rather, you’ll be quietly stalking convoys, and just as quietly trying to evade their escorts. Most of the environmental “action” will revolve around firing a torpedo or two, or hitting a ship or two with a deck gun. Beyond that, subsim action happens inside the claustrophobic walls of the submarine.


So what does playing a subsim feel like? Typically, a game begins with players being given command of a new boat, after which, some level of micromanagement is possible in terms of crew assignment and boat supplies. Once boat and crew are supplied, you’re given your orders, and set off to sea.

And this is where the boredom sets in, or rather, perhaps I should say patience because playing a subsims means going through a lot of waiting.  Typically, you set a course for the general area of ocean specified in your orders, and then listen to radio reports, sonar, and radar in the hopes of finding a convoy or a lone merchant ship.

While you’re traveling, it’s possible to move throughout the submarines. Generally, this is accomplished by separating the submarine into a series of rooms that can be navigated – through point-and-click mechanics, avatars are usually absent – by going through doors and hatches. Typical rooms include the engine room, bunks, radio/sonar room, bridge, command, and torpedo bays. However, most of your time will be spent either on the bridge, in the command room, or listening to your sonar.

A typically game will begin above the waves. Your orders or radio contacts will pinpoint the general area of a convoy or ship, and you’ll cruise there, usually on the bridge, which is the only part of the submarine that allows you to be outside the boat, and it’s where you’ll typically begin your mission with a pair of binoculars in order to spot merchant ships and convoys.

After contact with a potential target is establish, the proper approach much be decided: ships are moving targets, so angle of attack is crucial, especially given the relatively slow speed and short range of submarine armaments. After the approach is set, the method of attack is decided upon: torpedoes or deck gun?

Whether one method or the other is chosen will depend on a myriad of factors. Is it night or stormy? If so, a surface attack with the deck gun might be a good idea. You’ll be hard to spot, be able to maneuver much faster, and you’ll not waste the few precious torpedoes your boat is able to carry. Is the sea calm, the sun shining brightly, or the convoy heavily defended? Perhaps a torpedo attack is more advisable then. Sneak in, strike fast, escape silently.

After you strike, terror sets in. No longer are you the hunter. Rather, you become the target for every escort destroyer in the area. They’ll be searching for you doggedly, and it’s your job to use every trick you know to escape them.

And escape is slow, too. You’ll be running silent, which means that you’ll be going as slow as possible. Doing anything else will cause the hunters to converge on your position and shower you with depth charges. Once – if? – your escape is accomplished, you head back to port for your next mission.


Such description of the gameplay can hardly do justice to the atmosphere of subsims, so perhaps some examples are in order to best illustrates the tension that the genre so majestically creates.

I first encountered subsims in the 1990s with 688 Attack Sub, perhaps the seminal example of the genre. Prior to that, I had played a lot of RPGs and platformers. 688, however, provided me with a very different experience. Contrary to prior retrospectives, however, I won’t provide a game-by-game development. Rather, because subsims largely play in the same way, I’ll provide a composite account that encompasses my experience with many games, but most notably with the Silent Hunter series.

Subsims are one of the few games that succeed in making me feel actually claustrophobic. When I said early that most of your time will be spend inside the submarine, I meant just that. There are no windows out of which you can look, so you never really know what your environment is like. All you can do, is rely on the readings of your sonar to ensure that you aren’t about to collide with a cliff or the sea floor. Even when you are on the surface, the claustrophobia never really goes away. Often, your vision is limited to the overlapping circles of binoculars or the periscope.

My first experiences with subsims were utterly disastrous. I had managed to find a convoy and had succeeded in approaching unseen. It was day outside, so I was submerged and slowly working my way to the perfect firing angle. I targeted a large merchant ship using my periscope, and gave the order: fire!

Then, the waiting starts. If you’re lucky your torpedo will remain unseen and will not alert the convoy as to your presence. If you aren’t, then it’s wake will be spotted and the escort destroyers alerted.

On that day, I was lucky and my torpedo was not spotted as it made it’s way to its target. So I waited, my only friend the constant ticking of a chronometer. I knew it would take 73 seconds for my torpedo to reach its targets, and during that time, my eyes remained fixed on my prey in the hopes that I’d see the characteristic splash that results from a torpedo hit.

73 second passed and nothing. 80 second, then 90, and still nothing, so I knew something was wrong. Somehow I had missed, and now the convoy was outpacing me with little hope for me to catch it again. And that’s when I heard it.

Ping! The characteristic reverberating echo of a sonar wave hitting your hull. Ping! The singular sound that sends dread into the bowels of every subsim player. I knew that, somehow, I had been spotted. Ping! The destroyers were coming.

There’s several strategies that can be used to escape pursuit, though nearly all require near-complete silence. That means escape is slow, because fast-turning screws cause a lot of noise.

A prudent captain will head for the depths and try to cross the thermal layer, the area where the water’s temperature changes in the hopes that this “barrier” will confuse the hunters’ sonars. A balsy captain will head straight for the enemy destroyer and perform a sharp, downward turn as the destroyer is about to pass overhead. With luck, the destroyer will miss you because of the noise of its own engine and you’ll be able to make your way to safety.

At first, I was neither really prudent nor balsy. I was also stupid enough to hunt in areas with underwater canyons and relatively shallow depths.

I wasn’t balsy, but I thought I was, so I angled my boat to cross the closest destroyer’s path. As it approached, I executed a quick 90-degree turn… which caused me to scrape the side of a canyon.

Alarms blared! A quick look at my monitor revealed that two ballast tanks were punctured. I was rapidly taking on water and sinking.

As you can imagine, crashing a submarine into the side of a cliff makes a lot of noise. Ping! The hunters were back on my trail. Ping! Ping! They’re getting closer, and I’m slowly going down towards the bottom, trying to patch the breeches as best I could. Ping! Ping! Ping! They’re right above me, and there’s nothing I can do.

Ping! Ping! They’re leaving? Did they miss me? No they didn’t. The long following silence is broken by several explosions. The depth charges found me, and now I’m taking on water from every seam. I finally come to rest by crashing to the bottom of the sea, further damaging my boat.

The sonar pings are gone though, so I set myself to patching up my boat as best I can. Oxygen is limited, but by some miracle, I manage to jury-rig enough systems to regain control of my vessel. At this point, it’s been over 30 minutes since I’ve been down, so I figure it’s safe to go. I turn the engine on, and with what little propulsion and direction I still have, I set a course for my base for repairs.

Ping! Oh no…


I’d venture that many subsim players have similar stories. With time, I got better at evading my pursuers, learning that patience and silence were virtues. Rather than 30 minutes, I now spent over two or three hours performing evasive maneuvers to escape.

As years passed, I had many success stories, but I never quite forgot that first time. Because they put you in such a claustrophobic setting, and because they don’t allow you to see your environment, subsims rely almost exclusively on sound to produce dread and suspense. And I’ve yet to find a sound as nerve-wracking of the destroyer’s sonar ping.


As I said previously, submarine simulations are rare, but that’s perhaps not a surprise. Submarines aren’t exactly a common presence in everyday culture. Similarly, movies about submarines are fairly rare. Sure, we have films like The Hunt for Red October, U-571, Down Periscope! and Crimson Tide, but those films happen to be set aboard submarines without necessarily being about submarines. In fact, the last movie that I can remember being about submarines is Das Boot, released back in 1981. If you’ve seen Das Boot, however, you’ll know exactly what it feels like to play a subsim.

Subsims were born in a particular historical space. Few military vessels are so inherently military. While other navy ships can take part of a multitude of types of operations, submarines really have a single purpose: striking quietly.

It’s perhaps for such a reason that submarines rarely reach the popular imaginary outside of times of war. A cursory glance at a list of submarine films reveals that the majority of them were produced around the two World Wars. That’s perhaps not a surprise, I mean, given the role of German U-Boats in those conflicts. It’s also perhaps not a surprise that so many subsims take either of the World Wars as their historical period.

However, a look at a list of submarine simulators reveals that the 1990s were a boon decade of subsims. This, perhaps does come as a surprise, but again, let’s look at the historical context.

The year 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “end” of the Cold War. Those of us who grew up during the 1980s can well remember that presence of submarines. It was a rare week indeed that the popular media didn’t contain reports on either the Ohio-class or Typhoon-class submarines, respectively the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s naval ballistic missile platforms.

Submarines were there, and submarines were a threat. We were told that, given a global nuclear strike, the nuclear fleets would be the only weapons available for massive retaliation, and the Soviet Union had more of them than we did…

After the reunification of Germany, submarines began taking a back seat in the popular mind. Rather, images of smart weapons, guided bombs, and tactical strikes took over. Rather than being the hero, the submarine assumed the role of the delivery platform for the new decade’s protagonist: the tactical missile. If we heard about submarines during the Gulf War, it was because they were launching Tomahawks. During the 1990s, the submarine became “safe” in that it stopped being a tool of deterrence and all that the word implies, and came to be seen as little more than a delivery vehicle, at least when viewed through popular media.

From hunter, to deterrent, to delivery boy. This transition likely played a large part in submarines becoming allowable subject matter for video games. However, with the new, increasing focus on small-team tactics, it’s perhaps not surprising that shooters are as dominant a genre today as they are.


Today, subsims are also present online with Silent Hunter Online, the latest iteration of the venerable Silent Hunter franchise. It’s currently still in its beta phase of development, and is available for free if anyone wants to give it a try. I haven’t played it, but the description reminds me of WWII Online at sea.

For a more traditional subsim, however, I found Dangers from the Deep, a free, open-source subsim. It’s still in early development, and as far as I can tell hasn’t seen a new update since 2007. I haven’t tried it, but the screenshots are highly reminiscent of the Silent Hunter series.


Well that’s it for this week and submarines. Next week, I’ll be leaving the deepest depths of the ocean and heading for the farthest reaches of space.

So be sure to come back next week when Higher Level Gamer will feature space simulations in the final chapter of its first critical retrospective!

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About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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