Review: Airplane Mode

Here’s a fun fact about my own life: I had never traveled by air up until very recently. Even then, it was a handful of flights to and from my home city. Each time I did, I was seated in coach along with the usual random smattering of people trying to get back home or wherever they needed to be. Cabins can be cramped, amenities sparse on more discount airlines, and the usual unavoidable annoyances that come with a flight were on full display. While it is nice to be able to even afford to fly, it feels safe to say that being a passenger can and has been a less than enjoyable experience.

While fans of aviation-based content tend to get their kicks from titles like Bandai Namco’s Ace Combat series and Microsoft’s Flight Simulator (which had a new release this year), both of those franchises focus on dogfighting and general flying respectively. Airplane Mode’s creator Hosni Auji recognized that there was not content for the passenger experience and decided to fill that void with this game.

Who asked for this is really anyone’s guess, but at times it feels like a vehicle for some offbeat moments in a game that’s deliberately mundane. Even moreso than Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) can and has been in the past. Sure, the current hellscape we find ourselves in is making people balk at the notion of even setting foot in a sealed flying tube. But I guess some people have to get their experience somewhere if they don’t feel comfortable doing something like this at the current moment.

Developed by Bacronym and published by AMC Games, Airplane Mode is currently available on PC and MacOS (Steam). The PC version was played for this review.

Prepare for Takeoff

Let’s get this out of the way right now: this is a purely cabin-based experience. No annoying pre-flight TSA screening, no hurrying to (and possibly waiting at) your gate, and no rifling through gift shops before your flight either. You’re in your seat for around two-to-six hours in (basically) real-time from takeoff to landing. Taking off from New York City and landing at either Halifax or Keflavík, really it’s more of a choice of how much time you want to kill in-game. True to nearly any flight, the events unfolding in the cabin are randomized. Some people might see that as replay value, but that really depends on how much enjoyment you get from any one flight here. But hey, at least you have a window seat.

Before takeoff, you’re treated to the usual pre-flight safety demonstration delivered by a pre-recorded video on your seatback monitor. It’s about as exciting as you might expect, and has the same amount of information that you’d expect from something like this. True to flight form, the captain (played by Bennett Foddy of Getting Over It fame) pipes in updates and information throughout the flight. Once you’ve taxied, taken off, and settled in, it’s time to kill time until landing.

So how do you kill time? While I wouldn’t say any of it is particularly exciting, there are a number of distractions at your disposal. Your carry-on bag houses several items, your seatback monitor gives you public domain shorts/movies to watch and simple games to play, you can fiddle with the lights, look out the window throughout the flight, order food and drink, and basically keep to yourself. You might deal with flight specific issues like turbulence or almost blacking out, but the randomized nature of occurrences aim to make each playthrough as unique as it can.

What you have packed in your bag makes sense for a multi-hour flight. Catching up on your most recent book, drawing in your sketchbook, or listening to music/podcasts definitely doesn’t make for traditional gameplay. But in context it does make sense. You’ll end up fiddling with anything and everything to keep yourself occupied, and this can straddle the line between total boredom and keeping you sane depending on which destination you choose. Sure, you can screw around on your phone and do what you do there. But even then, you’re somewhat limited in what you can do. Music is sparse, as are the podcasts. The phone doesn’t even have a news app or a web browser. Weird.

Distractions available on your seatback are pretty limited in terms of entertainment, though. While you do have a selection of public domain content (definitely didn’t expect The Wabbit who Came to Supper to be included here), the amount of it is pretty limited. The same goes for the available games here. It’s basically just regular ‘ol solitaire and blackjack (with another activity “coming soon”). Once you get the chance to order food and drink, it’s a selection of a handful of meals, drinks, and snacks. You can consume it, but who really enjoys plane food anyway? The in-flight magazine has some sudoku/kakuro/crossword puzzles you can spend some time with as well. Oh, and you can hit the lavatory as well.

I’m fully aware that there are some seriously mundane simulator-style games out there, as there was a glut of them for a while. While those types of games tend to lean into the more technical side of things because of what they are; Airplane Mode‘s method of “simulation” gameplay falls more under trying to nail every detail that happens during a passenger flight. Nothing catastrophic happens, but you can tell that the gameplay focus was more broad so as to not run into any copyright issues. People do bring their gaming handhelds (or phone controller grips) on flights nowadays, but that would complicate things in terms of obtaining rights to even use in a game like this.

Simulating the experience of a passenger flight was nailed here, but I can’t say that anyone would find this to be entertaining as a game for more than a playthrough or two. Flying is a necessary evil to travel quickly, and what happens from Point A to Point B isn’t always the most exciting thing in the world. That’s just how it is, but at least what they’re simulating is pretty accurate.

Horizon Gazing

Since your entire environment exists in a confined space, there’s not much to see in relation to presentation. The cabin itself looks decent enough. It’s as accurate to a commercial cabin as you can get for a faux-airline, and the interior of the aircraft itself isn’t terrible to look at to boot. But like most commercial cabins, it’s not meant to be anything exciting. You’re in coach, this isn’t anything to write home about.

I just wish I could say the same about fellow passengers. I’m not expecting an indie game like this to have ridiculously detailed character models, but it would have been nice to not have to deal with uncanny valley design coupled with some awkward animations. Other passengers keep to themselves and keep themselves busy just like everyone else, but it seems like the off-kilter animations they use feel somewhat deliberate to add a weird atmosphere. What you see out of the window isn’t ridiculously detailed, either. It’s just kind of there to tick off what you see on a flight.

This ends up bleeding a little bit into the voice work as well. While you get your calm and collected speech from the Captain, in-cabin chatter tends to be delivered in an awkward way. Whether it’s the idle conversation from other passengers, or stilted dialogue from the flight attendants, it all just seems a little off. It somewhat transfers to some of the podcasts as well. I can’t see people who aren’t already into ASMR videos (think Joy of Painting episodes) listening to a podcast where they make potato salad, nor do I think some of the other podcasts will hit the same way for everyone. But at least the booth work put in here is decent enough.

Same goes for the music. Naturally, none of it is anything special due to copyright concerns. But I can’t say that it’s anything that would grate one’s ears looking out of their window seat either. It’s somewhat inoffensive, and it’s content to keep you busy as you fly. It just kind of exists.

Collectively, it’s not a terrible presentation, but it isn’t free of an air of weirdness either. While I did find myself wondering if that vibe was deliberate at times, it never leaned into anything horror related or anything of that nature. Honestly, sometimes it felt like I was flying with a plane full of pod people. If they were going for that kind of Adult Swim vibe, it makes sense. That sort of direction is deliberately weird, but here it just left me scratching my head.

Wheels Down

If you were to show me Airplane Mode as a proof of concept or some sort of tech demo, I’d say that it’s not a bad way to polish your design skills or as some way to get your foot in the door. But this is a simulation game first and foremost, and as such needs to be judged by what it’s simulating. Other games in this genre offer different aspects of the industry they’re showing in subject specific ways, those at least have more content you can experience in a way that keeps you engaged.

The narrow simulation aim here ultimately hampers how much enjoyment you get out of it, and even then it’s really limited. Even with the $11.99 price point, it feels like more could have been done to at least keep you more occupied. Maybe DLC will be in this game’s future, but its current state is pretty limited in how much enjoyment you’d get out of a game like this.

If you’re really desperate to get inside a virtual aircraft and experience passenger flight again, I’m not going to stop you. But even with Bacronym accurately depicting what happens on any given flight, the appeal is going to be limited. I’m really hoping that additional content is coming for this game. Mostly because this is a passing curiosity at best, and a nose-pickingly boring experience at worst. Wait for a sale if it piques your interest, but avoid it otherwise.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by AMC Games for Steam. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of AMC Games.