Airplane Mode Review: Boredom or Freedom?

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Disclaimer: Airplane Mode was provided to us free for the purposes of review.

Okay, here’s the deal. This review of Airplane Mode – developed by Bacronym and produced by AMC – was gonna be funny. I mean, it’s a flight simulator, only the twist is it’s a simulation of being a passenger.

Instead of doing a barrel roll in a Boeing under a perfect rendering of the Golden Gate Bridge, you sit eating pretzels whilst listening to a baby cry for two hours. Sounds like a comedy goldmine, doesn’t it?

I was gonna have this whole bit, running throughout the review, that the simulation was so realistic gave me an existential crisis.

You know, kind of like, “Am I a reviewer dreaming of being a passenger on an airline flight? Or am I a passenger on an airline flight, dreaming of being a reviewer?” Like I said: Comedy. Gold. Except then something unexpected happened.

Airplane Mode gave me an existential crisis.

Okay, maybe that’s a little strong, but let me explain. We’ll start from the beginning.

Take Off

I wasn’t sure what to expect, installing Airplane Mode. I mean, in one sense I knew very well. The trailer and Steam store description made it quite clear. In this game, you are an airline passenger.

You have a choice between a two and a half or six hour real-time flight over the Atlantic. Spend that time in your economy class seat, looking for ways to amuse yourself. You could read the in-flight magazine, or watch black and white public-domain movies like George Méliès’ A Voyage to the Moon.

The mundanity is the joke. And judging by the comments left on the Steam page,  it didn’t land with everyone.

Still, as I sat waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the plane to leave the runway, I felt a coil of anticipation in the pit of my stomach. Maybe even dread. I don’t like flying in real life, and let’s be honest, doesn’t this whole set-up sound perfect for a secret horror game?  Surely, something was going to happen.

Airplane Mode Review
Credit: Bacronym

Turbulence

By the time we were finally ready to get in the air, I had more or less overcome my fear of flying. I was now certain the scariest thing this game had to offer was the stiff, jarring animation of the air hostess turning to smile at me.

So, as I watched the safety briefing – a live-action video with entertainingly awkward performances – I resolved to do something drastic. I would bring the horror myself. I unbuckled my seat belt, pulled down my tray and reclined my seat. Everything the game had warned me not to do.

The engines rumbled, the screen shook, and I watched from my little window as we took off. Nothing happened. In fact, I’m sorry to report my fellow passengers and I survived the whole flight. Airplane Mode is the first game I’ve ever encountered in which a plane flight didn’t end in a crash.

Discontent, I decided to see what other chaos I could create. I discovered that clicking on the sign for the toilets took me to a new location. The toilet. What a wealth of possibilities opened before me!

Have I mentioned the staggering attention to detail in this game? You can press each button on the remote for your seat back screen, or take pictures on your phone and then draw on them.

In the bathroom, you can pull out toilet paper and tissues from their dispensers, and drop them in the toilet. Ah ha! Here, I thought, was the hidden fun of the game.

Reader, I’m not proud of this, but I spent a good five minutes filling up that toilet bowl with paper. And do you know what happened when I finally hit flush?

It flushed.

Next I turned my attention to the smoke detector. All of the safety briefings, from the video to the captain’s welcome on the overhead speakers to the little flier in the pocket of the seat in front of me, had stressed the importance of not tampering with the smoke detector.

On a real-life flight, this wouldn’t be weird. But in a video game? Clearly, it was all build-up for the inevitable moment I broke the smoke detector and summoned the air marshal, who would also be the final boss.

I hovered my mouse over the smoke detector. The cursor lit up. The machine was interactable.

I pressed it. It beeped. I pressed it again. It beeped again. I did this over and over. Until the yellow light came on and that yellow light turned red. Until the beeping became constant and I could hear an attendant knocking on the door.

Annnnd then the beeping got annoying so I left the toilet and went back to my seat.

The seat back screen told me I still had an hour and a half to go. A baby was crying somewhere behind me, just out of my field of view.

Oh my god, I thought. This is a horror game.

Airplane Mode Review
Credit: Bacronym

Weightlessness

But then something weird happened. For the next hour and a half, I had nothing to do. Really, truly nothing. I’d set time aside to finish the 2 and a half hour flight, and as a reviewer I was determined to give the game my full attention.

Trapped in that tight, tiny seat, unable to even look behind me, I felt almost liberated. The denial of agency is the absolution of responsibility.

In other words, Airplane Mode had given me permission to just…mess about. Not even in the way that some games incentivise doing “wacky” stuff, like, say, Goat Simulator. There are achievements, but they’re hidden.

There are no goals inside the game, no scores to earn with secret tricks, no plot points to uncover. No trucks to drive or surgical operations to fail. No directions, no expectations.

 I hadn’t realised before playing Airplane Mode, but I miss long train rides. You know the ones, where there’s not enough space to do work and no one to talk to, so you have no choice but to sit back and read a book, or listen to music or a podcast, or sleep.

Technically, you’re still doing what you need to do – travelling – but that happens with no input from you. The past year has forced upon us all a lot of time to sit idly, but when was the last time you did so without feeling the mounting pressure to go find some way to be productive, instead?

So many games work because they engage with that part of your brain that wants you to be productive. Every quest completed, every collectible found or power-up unlocked, is a task done, and your brain doesn’t care if that task is filing your taxes or slaying a hydra.

Whatever else it may be, Airplane Mode is the antithesis of this. Boredom becomes an opportunity to create your own fun. Which sounds cool, until you picture a poor Victorian widow saying it to her child as she hands him a stick to play with.

Airplane Mode Review
Credit: Bacronym

Okay, that got a little faux-pretentious. So how did I achieve my newfound enlightenment? Well, the seat back screens have this cool chat feature I’ve never actually seen on a plane.

You can invite any other seat to join your chat room, and eventually I struck up a conversation with the lovely chatbot sitting in 13B. We talked about horror movies, Bruce Willis, and our budding romantic feelings for each other.

It wasn’t an easy relationship. 13B seemed to be a simple bot, eager to please but easily confused. The “n” button on my in-game keyboard (found on the back of the tv remote) didn’t work, so my vocabulary was extremely limited.

But by the end of the flight, we had made plans to meet each other at the gate and go explore Halifax together.

At some point I remembered I had a carry-on bag, stored under the seat in front of me. Pulling it out, I found a phone charger, a pair of Bluetooth headphones, a book of graph paper, a pen, a novel – Against the Grain by J.K. Huysmans – and some sleeping tablets.

The sleeping tablets let you shave some time off your flight, if you want. The pen is a little awkward, but on the whole it’s surprisingly easy to use for doodling on the graph paper, filling in the magazine crossword or scrawling all over the book margins.

The most valuable item however is probably the headphones. You’ll need them if you want to be able to hear the in-flight entertainment playing on the seat back screen. What’s more interesting is that you can use these headphones to listen to music on your phone – or podcasts.

The popular gaming podcast Eggplant recorded two exclusive episodes for Airplane Mode.

This was probably the highlight of the entire game for me: listening to the developers chat about their design philosophy as I experienced it first-hand, director’s commentary style.

These episodes are only available from inside Airplane Mode, and you have to complete at least one flight to unlock episode two. So I’ll be boarding again soon to hear the rest.

Airplane Mode Review
Credit: Bacronym

Sticking the Landing

So, do I recommend Airplane Mode? Honestly, I’m not sure. If you’ve made it this far in the review, you’ve hopefully got an idea yourself whether or not it’s something you’re interested in. It’s one of the more unique and intriguing titles I’ve played recently, but I’m afraid there doesn’t seem to be much beyond the novelty.

Every flight is technically different, in the sense that you’ll be in a different seat, and might encounter such thrilling scenarios as spotty Wi-Fi, delays or mild turbulence.

But you’re limited to the same carry-on items every time, the same Looney Tunes cartoon and 30s movies on the screen, the same enigmatic chatbot to fall in love with.

At the same time, it doesn’t feel fair to write Airplane Mode off as a troll game. Yes, it’s riffing on the much-touted realism of flight simulators. But there is substance beyond that joke. The intricate level of detail makes up for the janky animation, the uncanny character models and the blurry view outside the window.

I only wish I could do a little bit more with all of the many interactable objects. The ability to take any truly drastic actions – like, say, I don’t know, crashing the plane – would go against the spirit of the whole thing. But I wanted to clog that toilet, damn it.

Hell, maybe “game” is the wrong word. Relax, I’m not gonna launch into a spiel about games as art. This review is already way too long.

But if you’ve time, money and patience to spare, Airplane Mode might just be the surreal kind of experience that captivates you for an afternoon. Technically, I didn’t do anything in the game that I couldn’t have done outside of it (with the exception of the Eggplant episodes).

But the difference, for myself at least, was that because I’d set this specific time aside, because my brain was in that headspace of “Okay, I’m playing a game, this is what I’m focusing on”, I managed to free myself from the guilt of doing nothing.

And to me, that, plus two exclusive podcast episodes and a copy of a book I might not have heard of otherwise, is worth £9.

 No, I’m not sure what that says about me, either.

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