Players of the 2020 reboot of “Microsoft Flight Simulator” have the ability to travel straight to the world’s wonders in minutes. It’s a spectacular experience to fly over the Pyramids of Giza, the Grand Canyon, or The Great Wall of China. But it’s more spectacular to fly over Brazil’s Lagoa Nova Airport because it’s currently an impossibly deep chasm.
The airport is unmissable—it’s a giant hole in the ground, available to be taken off from and landed at in-game. The distorted landscape careens downwards, its grass textures a complete mismatch with its canyon-like geometry. Buildings stick out of the pit like wisdom teeth. Attempting to land at the airport will almost certainly cause you to crash, glitching your camera through the landscape and showing the grid of hollow squares that sit beneath the Earth. Taking off is even harder. It’s a world wonder made exclusively for pilots.
But it wasn’t made by human hands. “Microsoft Flight Simulator”’s map, a one-to-one scale version of Earth, is built by an AI using pictures and data from Bing Maps. The world looks similar to ours from cruising altitude. From ground level, though, players have found a 212-story building in Melbourne, mysterious spires in Japan, and cosmic horror in Greenland. But these inconsistencies make the game better.
Video games are the most popular medium where immersion-breaking mistakes can actually be a good thing. A film can have a boom microphone drift into shot, a book can be riddled with grammatical errors, or a piece of clothing can be improperly threaded, for example—But unless those mistakes are purposeful or one mistake of thousands within a work, they usually make the piece worse. But well-timed bugs can be powerful; powerful enough to sustain multiple popular YouTube shows. Beyond being funny, though, glitches also remind us that the systems in life and games we hold to be completely immutable…aren’t. World-accurate results are the point of “Microsoft Flight Simulator”, but as we’ve all learned this year, they’re not the only outcome. World-accurate results sometimes feel as likely as the system breaking in “Microsoft Flight Simulator”, even if the system tries to keep running either way. Bugs are another way humanity breaks free from the cold rules of games and uses them to tell stories. Without them, games wouldn’t be the accurate reflection of systems think of them as—and they would be a lot more boring, too.
All of this is to say “Microsoft Flight Simulator” is a better game because it’s broken. It’s impressive to train an AI to faithfully recreate the world. But it’s more impressive to have an AI create its own world wonder, one that just so mystically happens to be the perfect tourist attraction for pilots in the same way our real wonders are tourist attractions for humans. Previously in this column, I argued, “AI Dungeon 2” condemns AI-created art, alleging it won’t ever be as good as the human-created thing. But this hole, created on accident, is its perfect counterargument—and an incredibly beautiful highlight of the power of AI and the power of strict rules in an already beautiful game about both of those things. — Quint Iverson
THE STORYTELLING MACHINE is a column about how games tell stories. Read more here.
Photo: Lagoa Nova airport in “Microsoft Flight Simulator” is a giant pit. The white blob, pictured in the upper-right, is a Cessna 172, with a real-world wingspan of approximately 36 feet.