The New Yorker once ran a page of jokey and imaginary short-lived comic strips. I can only remember one: A Yank in the Luftwaffe. There was the yank in his plane, halfway through a dogfight. “What?” he says, or words to that effect. “The controls are all in German! I’m gonna crash!”
I thought about the Yank in the Luftwaffe for the first time in about twenty years the other day, when loading up Nauticrawl: 20,000 Atmospheres on my iPhone, where it’s just come out. Nauticrawl is, I gather, a narrative roguelike about escaping from some awful society. None of that matters, though, because what it’s really about for your first few minutes is trying to do that escaping when faced with a wall of terrifying dials.
You’re escaping by submarine – okay, something a bit like a submarine – and submarines do not seem to be particularly user-friendly. There is a learning curve. For a while at first I just prodded buttons that seemed to do nothing, unaware that to even get any power flowing I had to pull down the big, satisfying handle at the top of the screen. After that, a series of difficult victories. How now to explode. How to maintain power. How to locate myself on the seabed, how to rotate myself, how – eventually – to move. Then how to move without exploding.
This stuff is fun because learning can be a panicky kind of thrill, and also, I think, because there’s a lot of role-playing in the idea of being given the controls to something and learning how to use it. The idea of emerging from a made-up game with a proper made-up skill.
But the tactility is perhaps the real pleasure. Besides the New Yorker, the game reminds me, inevitably, of one of my favourite moments in all of games, the beautiful and initially completely bewildering dash of your craft in MirrorMoon EP. No death in MirrorMoon EP, but that same pleasure of chunky animations and feedback you somehow feel through your fingers and hands and in your brain. The haptics of pure imagination, of giving yourself into a game’s fiction. I’m sure I will eventually get properly going in Nauticrawl, but I feel like I’ve already gotten something brilliant out of it.