Titanic explorer David Gallo sets his sights on videogames

If someone pitches another Titanic videogame, oceanographer David Gallo has plenty of interest and credibility to do it, given his recent explorations in the Atlantic and beyond. He sees an opportunity to combine an ocean of high-definition data on the ship and its watery grave with the technology of his favorite game: World of Tanks, Wargaming’s free-to-play online game that reimagines historical battles with armored vehicles circa World War II. It’s to be followed by World of Warships, and that release just might be what Gallo needs to make a case for a virtual Titanic unlike any other. A few Titanic games have sank, with nary a public memorial. But Gallo is calling for a new game, or at least a virtual experience, that would allow researchers and the public to recover the ship faster. “It’s been down there 102 years,” he told me. “How much longer will it last?”

Despite leading a team that captured thousands of photos and film of the RMS Titanic’s wreckage site in 2010, the most recent expedition, Gallo says there’s much more to discover about the ship that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic in April 1912. He serves as director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts but travels often. He was a key player in the recovery of Air France flight 447 in 2009. A few weeks ago, he met with Australian Transportation Safety Bureau, looking for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, thought to be somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

“Once you get involved in the loss of life, your attention is focused just on that,” Gallo said. “Time goes by quickly, but time goes by in big chunks too.”

Between special projects, Gallo travels quite a bit as titanicguy2010, his Xbox Live handle and name in World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition. Gallo drives a US heavy tank (like a T-29) in maps like Himmelsdorf and Prokhorovka, all reflecting the conditions of World War II battles––from the weather to the mountains. The game has more than 200 tanks and 25 maps, and additions are constant. World of Tanks producer Joshua Morris told me that Wargaming has many staffers with military experience, and they research vehicles at museums, private collections and tank graveyards. “They also find all documentation and blueprints of tanks that never went to production or only underwent trials to bring those vehicles to life in game.”

World of Tanks’ historical accuracies satisfies Gallo’s long appreciation for armored vehicles, which rumbled through his childhood dreams. But it’s the game’s technology that got him thinking about the Titanic. “I really do believe there is a power in the technology, in the software and the connectivity, that can be used for other things,” he said. He thought about Titanic’s wreckage site, which spans roughly three-fourths of a mile. “You can put that in place of World of Tanks. There’s no reason why you can’t, instead of a tank, hop into a submarine and fly around that landscape with a goal in mind.”

Research is engaging when it’s embedded in entertainment. 

For Gallo, research is engaging when it’s embedded in entertainment, not a passive video or a live feed. He wants to be mobile––tank or no. As we continued talking, he recalled his time climbing ancient cities in Assassin’s Creed. “It got to me that I could see a church steeple, and I could go find that steeple and climb it. That kind of experience, to be in that landscape, and control your own movement and destiny … that to me is an experience that people would be interested in doing.”

A few game development teams and modders have tried to sink the Titanic and imagine its innards. Titanic: Adventure out of Time gives us a point-and-click plot inside the ship; Astragon and TML Studios’ simulator Dive to the Titanic commands us through dark abysses, until we finally reach a wreckage site full of collectible artifacts. Above water, Four Funnels Entertainment is developing Titanic: Honor and Glory, set aboard the ship and focusing on a criminal seeking redemption before the ship goes under.

But Gallo wants a Titanic game to go deeper, literally, because of the seemingly limitless knick-knacks and ship pieces scattered across the wreckage site. It might be as small as a bottle of Tabasco sauce, or as large as a dresser. A virtual construct, based on real data from the 2010 expedition and those that follow, would give researchers more access to areas that are too deep, too dark and too hostile.

“I don’t think people see quite what I’m talking about yet,” Gallo said. “It’s not an educational tool. And it’s not necessarily a game, but it’s an experience. But you could introduce something into that experience. You could put something into the ocean floor, and the object would be to find it. Or you could introduce underwater monsters of sorts to make it a game.”

Gallo is beginning to spread his ideas in public (this is why he was speaking to us in the first place). Friends at Microsoft have listened to his ideas, but to no avail. And he admits that he hasn’t reached out to Wargaming … yet. So I asked Morris.

“Our software is very specialized for making games,” he said in a long email, “but this concept is great and I hope that one day that a virtual Titanic wreckage site becomes reality. In the meantime, I hope that players will appreciate the work that is going into World of Warships.” For the time being, it looks like Gallo will have to continue to wait, as will whatever treasures lay buried along with the Titanic.