Wings: the 1990 ‘life simulator’ of a First World War ace
Michael Terry | Open University
Imagine if you had the opportunity to live a day in the life of a dashing First World War flying ace- an open cockpit, no parachute, just you and your skills matched against those of the enemy in a fair fight. Depictions of this romantic mythology have been popular for over a century. The memoirs of the aces, the legend of the Red Baron, the classic American aviation films of the 1920s and 30s, and Captain W. E. Johns’ ‘Biggles’ books all reflect the cultural power of the ace in literature and film. With the advent of video gaming, the opportunity to relive the experiences of one of these legends seemed to have been made possible. Yet in decades of effort, video gaming has failed to reflect the essence of the First World War aerial mythology seen in other media. This article examines how a drive for realism has made it difficult for video gaming to represent this mythology. It also analyses the approach of the one game, Cinemaware’s 1990 Wings, that defied the rest of the genre and came close to showing how gaming could indeed embrace the mythology of the First World War ace.
Video gaming rarely depicts the perspective of the soldier in the trenches, but from early on it embraced the perspective of the First World War pilot. Arcade cabinets named Red Baron were released in 1975 by Sega and 1980 by Atari, whilst the home computer scene saw such games as Blue Max (1983) for the Atari, Red Baron (1983) for the ZX Spectrum, and Sky Kid (1986) for the NES. But from 1990 onwards, First World War aviation games became increasingly focused on the ‘Combat Flight Simulation’ genre. Sierra’s 1990 Red Baron (a popular name!), for the PC, Mac, and Commodore Amiga, made the focus of this genre clear in its magazine advertising: ‘It goes without saying that a good flight simulator recreates, in perfect detail, the elements that make an aircraft what it is.’ This Red Baron game took its commitment to realism seriously. The box advertised it’s ‘200 page manual complete with maps, technical specifications, historical backgrounds, pilot profiles, and aerial tactics.’ The player was expected to navigate in-game using the physical maps provided, just as pilots during the war did. You could easily break your delicate plane by climbing, diving, or turning too hard. It was a game that demanded a serious commitment from the player.
Critical reviews at the time appreciated the move into the simulation genre, and the games were often judged by how realistic they were. An analysis by Mike Weksler in the June 1991 issue of Computer Gaming World faulted Red Baron for such issues as misjudging accurate stalling speeds. He preferred the realism of Red Baron’s rival, Microprose’s Knights of the Sky, also released in 1990 with the same approach. With the desirability for realism in the genre established, a succession of similar games followed like Dawn Patrol (1994), Flying Corps (1996), and Red Baron II (1997). Detailed flight simulation has remained a common form of First World War aerial gaming ever since. The advertising for 2019’s Flying Circus by 1C Game Studios proudly displays its ‘realistic physics model and performance of aircraft’ in much the same way Red Baron did thirty years earlier.
But what do we mean by ‘realism’ in such games? You cannot reload or restart in real life, so no war game is ever realistic in that sense. But First World War aviation games present specific issues. Do you want the chance of random engine or wing failure causing your plane to fall out of the sky mid-mission? Do you want to spend hours alone in freezing temperatures over 10,000 feet, waiting for just one chance to jump an unsuspecting enemy from behind? These things would certainly be realistic, but probably not fun to everyone. Furthermore, how can you realistically simulate the war above the Western Front unless you simulate the ground war as well? The two regularly interacted. Simulating the entire front was entirely beyond any game in the 1990s and largely beyond games today as well. The approach to realism, then, was always selective. The intent was often to create a sense of immersion in the experience by making things feel realistic even if they really were not. This sometimes worked- I enjoyed both Red Baron and Knights of the Sky- but the approach came with a price.
The first problem was that the realism was at odds with the mythology. The ‘dashing ace’ figure was part of a constructed, romantic ideal of aerial fighting known as the ‘knights of the air’. Nearly all interwar books and films about the first air war were based on this popular mythology. Even after more cynical interpretations became more prevalent in the 1970s, the appeal of the ‘knights of the air’ endured. To this day, it offers one of the few opportunities to depict the First World War in a romantic manner, which is exactly why it was an attractive idea for computer gaming. The simulators also wanted this romantic appeal, as seen in names like Knights of the Sky and their constant use of the imagery of the ‘Red Baron’, a figure at the heart of the ‘knights of the air’ ideal. But the realism of these games undermined the power of the myth. It was difficult to feel romantic when it was a challenge just to take-off, and when you might get lost or crash long before you got to the mission.
The other problem is that the focus of these games was almost entirely on flight. But the experience of the First World War fighter pilot was as much about the distinct physical and social circumstances of their life on the ground as it was about flying. The mythology reflected this. The 1927 film Wings for example- the first-ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture- interwove its innovative aerial combat scenes with a drama about a love triangle and the pressures of fame. The Dawn Patrol, first made in 1930 (later re-titled Flight Commander) and re-made in 1938, focused heavily on the tensions in the squadron mess and the protagonists’ rivalry with a German ace. Some of the most important moments in Biggles stories are about James Bigglesworth’s relations with his inner circle of friends. None of this was reflected in the flight simulators. For these reasons, these games were never able to fulfil the promise of bringing the ‘knights of the air’ mythology into computer game form. That would require a very different approach- and a different approach is exactly what one game tried.
In 1990, amidst the release of Red Baron and Knights of the Sky, Cinemaware released the Amiga game Wings, named in honour of the 1927 film. Cinemaware was a company with a distinct approach to gaming. Most of their releases, made with high standards in graphics and sound, were inspired by classic film genres, like medieval epics or monster movies. Wings was their take on interwar aviation films. Wings’ approach was entirely contrary to that of Red Baron. Designer John Cutter declared that ‘Wings would not be a “flight” simulator but a “life” simulator’ that explored what it was like to be a pilot ‘not just in the air, but off the battlefield as well.’ Wings was more interested in feeling like the films and the ‘knights of the air’ myth than it was in details like realistic flight physics or technical specifications. It was also highly accessible. The controls were simple, and each mission was kept short. Separate minigames covered strafing and bombing missions and hence avoided the issue of trying to simulate the ground war during dogfighting segments. But most significantly, a lot of the experience took place on the ground. The high-quality (for the time) graphics and period-inspired music re-created the feel of squadron life during sections in-between missions. The protagonist even kept a detailed diary tracking his experiences as a fighter pilot, a feature that would have no value in a game like Red Baron. The player was invited to be as invested in these ground sections as he was in the action scenes.
Cinemaware had realised that simulating the popular representation of First World War aerial combat, rather than its reality, could make for an excellent game. It had been six decades since the films Wings was emulating, and the war was now largely out of living memory, but the lasting power of the ‘knights of the air’ myth had created this opportunity in gaming where the modern could meet the classic. The final result was very effective. Playing the game as a teenager, I found it to be at least as immersive as the serious flight simulators and generally a lot less fiddly to play. Both sales and critical reception were positive, with several magazines giving it scores of 90% or higher. In the same article where Mike Weksler was irritated by Red Baron’s stalling mechanics, he was far less bothered by Wings’ inaccuracies because he felt when playing, ‘one feels like a WWI fighter pilot.’ A player poll in the December 1993 issue of Amiga World voted Wings the third-best Amiga game of all time.
So, is Wings a lost classic? Well, not exactly. The impact that Wings had was demonstrated when a successful Kickstarter led to a 2014 remaster, but playing it reveals an issue. All Cinemaware games have dated as our expectations of presentation and immersion in video games have changed over the last thirty years, and Wings has suffered more than most. Cinemaware games generally had a strategy section where the player’s choices influenced what action scenes would occur. Wings, though, was entirely linear, depending on its immersive approach for the experience to work. Despite the updated presentation, the remaster can no longer achieve that immersion. Lacking this, the game now feels like one lightweight flight simulator and two shallow minigames constantly repeated, with little long-term appeal. It has nostalgic value, but it is hard to get across just why the game felt so immersive at the time.
What is unfortunate is that Wings’ innovations were never further developed. Wings only made small steps towards its ambitions as a ‘life’ simulator. There was still nothing like the sort of squadron life as seen in films or books- no love triangles, no tensions, no rivalries. Other games could have built on Wings’ ideas. It is easy to imagine such games having role-playing sections where you lived the life of a pilot, building your relationships with friends and enemies on either side of the lines, with these tensions affecting what happened in the sky as well as on the ground.
But none of this ever happened. Origin’s Wings of Glory (1995) was distinct in putting a storyline into a First World War aviation game, but it did not really engage with ideas of mythological immersion. Since then, the genre has settled into a mixture of arcade games and realistic flight simulators. So why did no one try to follow up on Wings’ success? It is somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps one problem is how unusual it was for a company to come up with a game like Wings. It needed a team that was not only capable and resourced enough to make a good game, but also with creative leads that were interested in First World War aerial mythology and could figure out how to make what worked in books or films also work in gaming. It seems that such a combination is very rare.
As both a gamer and a specialist in the representation in media of First World War aerial combat, I find that a shame. Wings now remains as a curious artefact in gaming history, a reminder of a good idea that never truly fulfilled its potential. That potential still exists. Films like the 2006 Flyboys (not a film I’d recommend!) and the 2008 Red Baron demonstrate that the ‘knights of the air’ mythology has survived into the 21st century. One day, perhaps, a gaming company will realise what it was that Wings tried to do, and how it would be a cracking idea for a game today.
Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm, and Andrew B. R. Elliott, eds., Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)
Kempshall, Chris, The First World War in Computer Games (Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot, 2015)
Vega, Sin, ‘What Cinemaware Understood About Cinema and Games’, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 29 February 2016 https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/cinemaware-retrospective [accessed 17 April 2023]
Wings, dir. by William A. Wellman (Paramount Pictures, 1927), online film recording, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wings_(1927).webm [accessed 22 April 2023.
Michael Terry is an English Literature graduate and early career researcher at the Open University, where he is currently in the final year of writing a PhD thesis on the Representation of First World War Aerial Combat in Literature. He specialises in the analysis of all forms of literature created by First World War airmen, from memoirs to combat reports, and examining the mythology that resulted from these writings. His work is cross-disciplinary with History, and over the last two years he has presented a series of lectures for the British Commission for Military History and the Royal Air Force Museum examining the link between literature, mythology and the memory of the first air war.