A month in Elite: Dangerous, or how to see beyond the stars

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No-one in this entire galaxy seems to like me very much. This is odd. You’d have thought, with its 400 billion solar systems there’d be a place in the Milky Way where I’m popular. But it seems I’m an odd fit everywhere I go. Of the three factions which vie for supremacy in the universe of Elite: Dangerous, the Alliance barely tolerate my presence, the Federation’s enforcers attack on sight and frankly my feelings about the slave traders in the oppressive Empire are probably less charitable than theirs’ about me.

The odd thing is, I’m not a bad person (at least, not in the game). I don’t have a criminal record and I try my best to please. My little Cobra Mk III, complete with original wireframe custom paint job, does its best to pootle around for a few hours a night without drawing much attention to itself. I desperately want to level up my reputation with the Feds and the Alliance and make friends again. I want to gain access to the kinds of top spec space hardware they restrict for their friends. I just can’t quite seem to win their affection.

Special edition wireframe paint job, straight outta the 1980s.
Special edition wireframe paint job, straight outta the 1980s.

The problem is that, my actions in the game haven’t been exactly sociable. I don’t tend to donate to food drives for starving planets and I can’t afford – yet – to take part in the collaborative player-led attempts to gather enough resources to build and launch a new space station. Most of my money so far has been made either by hunting down undesirables and killing them, or undertaking tasks that aren’t even borderline legal for money.

Objectively speaking, I’m a space-age sociopath with homicidal tendencies. No wonder no-one likes me.

It’s all about the politics, you see: the basic game mechanic for Elite: Dangerous is that you pull in at some relatively busy starport in a system aligned with one of the major factions and start looking for odd jobs to do. Each job is offered on behalf of a minor faction which may or may not be affiliated to one of the Big Three. At least in the early part of game, before you can afford tricked out ships with massive jump ranges and horribly bedecked weapons platforms, the most profitable of these involve sponsored salvage runs to look for something lost when a ship went down in unknown but probably violent circumstances.

The modern rendering of Elite's notoriously difficult letterbox docking bay doors. Thankfully much easier to navigate now.
The modern rendering of Elite’s notoriously difficult letterbox docking bay doors. Thankfully much easier to navigate now.

It might be a few canisters of prototype weapons, black box recorders, military plans, sensitive trade data – you know the stuff. Find it, scoop it into your cargo hold and return it to the commissioning agent, and you’ll get a just and large reward.

There’s a catch, however. Since no two arms of the state ever know what the other is really up to, if and when the cops catch you with a cargo scavenged from deep space they won’t wait to find out why you’re carrying shit you didn’t pay for. Whether you are hauling them because you’re an acting double-o agent for their own government, or because you’re a pirate laden with stolen booty, Elite cop logic is that if it’s not yours it must be a crime.

Projectile weapons bounce off shields, but are great for piercing armoured hulls.
Projectile weapons bounce off shields, but are great for piercing armoured hulls.

Carrying “stolen” goods is an immediate criminal offence, a fine and a decrease in reputation. If you don’t pay the fine it turns into a bounty on your head and the rep penalty just carries on growing.

And it’s much, much easier to win the opprobrium of a faction in this fashion than redemption by undertaking less obnoxious tasks to clean the slate – a few minor offences and you’ll end up with a “hostile” ranking that can take weeks of good deeds to return to just “unfriendly”, never mind “neutral”.

Hence the fact that no-one really likes me. Temptation is everywhere.

Take, for example, cargo scavenged from the wreck of craft belonging to criminals you’ve sent to the great magistrate’s court in the sky. Before their ship disintegrates, its cargo hatch might pop open spewing tons of gold into the vacuum – naturally your first inclination once the bad guys are down is to pick it up rather than see it go to waste.

But space is big and justice summary – presumably there are too many perps in the vastness of it all to be too discerning about how fairly fines are meted out. If you’re carrying anything you didn’t pay for, the cops will assume you’re a felon.

No-one really likes me. Sniff.
No-one really likes me. Sniff.

And I did that a lot when I started out, convinced I could dock that hooky cargo by flying fast into a landing pad or using my chaff launcher to confuse the cops’ scanners. It didn’t work often enough, at least until I’d plotted out a network of unpoliced stations with a healthy black market that you can slip into and out of with ease.

There are two ways to look at Elite: Dangerous, a game which places you as the pilot of a small single seater starship armed with a tiny laser and a pocket full of cash and sends you off to find your own way in space. You’re not, strictly speaking, alone: it’s a massively multiplayer online game, so there’s a lot of other humans flying around, but most of the people you’ll meet are NPCs of one form or another.

To its critics it’s an ambitious and beautiful looking game with a great ship control and combat system, that’s let down by the fact that in between all of those 400 billion stars there’s just not a lot to do. The missions are repetitive and characterless, space stations mostly look the same. There’s no overarching story or increasingly difficult mission areas to open up, like a traditional MMO, and what is in the game is just confusing.

Another day, another perp brought to justice.
Another day, another perp brought to justice.

Every inhabited systems appears to have at least four local factions as well as the three big ones – so the LHS 2637 Corporation is affiliated with the Alliance, but its local rivals in LHS 2637 also wear Federal colours and, in some cases, independent ones. Working out who is working with who and that by completing missions for one organisation might lose rep with another is tedious.

Worse, since every NPC pilot tends to be affiliated with one of these minor factions too, carrying out summary justice as a bounty hunter on behalf of the Alliance, for example, might see you taking down a high value Empire ship and losing rep with his Imperial majesty’s fleet.

With 400 billion stars to visit, it can feel a little parochial to get involved in local politics on a ship-to-ship basis. With so many places to visit, the thought of hanging around one system trying to gain reputation with one group – and therefore access to better paying missions – seems unbelievably small.

There are loads of ways to play Elite: Dangerous, detractors will concede. If you don’t want to play politics, you can trade by buying low and selling high in the commodities markets on most stations; you can work missions, engage in piracy or bounty hunting; you can even work your way up through the ranks of the Federal or Imperial navy by fighting in factional wars. You can mine raw materials from asteroid belts.

Some will want to play Elite: Dangerous as Kirk-like explorers, visiting new worlds: do that and you’ll be rewarded with the discovery of new astronomical phenomena and saleable star maps that can be worth thousands of credits in the right hands.

(I fell into the jack-of-all-trades borderline outlaw role that does all of the above. A victim of my own temptations who will do anything for cash. No wonder I’m not popular.)

Coming in to dock at one of the smaller stations with external landing pads. Mostly these are refineries or Bespin-style mining facilities.
Coming in to dock at one of the smaller stations with external landing pads. Mostly these are refineries or Bespin-style mining facilities.

Even the critics will concede that the ships are hugely customisable, and there’s a fair variety of craft types too. Earning enough money to buy a decent one is outrageously tough, though.

And, they continue, the game lacks polish. It’s a massively multiplayer online game (which in itself is source of much controversy) in which players can’t actually interact with each other because the comms system isn’t finished. The size and scale of the game is its biggest short coming: 400 billion stars and a few hundred thousand players. Why bother being online at all?

Then there’s the one dimensonal diplomacy with NPCs. Compared to story-driven space epics like, say, the Freelancer series it lacks focus and narrative. Sure, you can fly around in big ol’ space, but why?

To answer that question, let’s go back in history to the first Elite game. Launched in 1984 for the BBC Micro, Elite’s procedurally generated galaxy was much smaller than that in Elite: Dangerous, with thousands of stars to visit rather than billions, but it was functionally the same game. Fly, explore, shoot, trade, maybe one day earn the title of “Elite” for your prowess. Few ever earned that honorific – and it appears to be almost impossible in the new version of the game (despite a cash bounty of R180 000, no-one has hit Elite in all three disciplines of fighting, trading and exploration in the two months since the game launched).

The things I have seen... cold suns, dead worlds.
The things I have seen… cold suns, dead worlds.

But to fall back on cliché, Elite is a game about the journey, not the destination. To explain that, consider this. Two years before Elite appeared, the first Fighting Fantasy books were published to a similar audience of nascent computer geeks and sci-fi/fantasy nuts. These were books in which “you were the hero”, stories that were mostly in your head. The compelling reason to turn a page in these books was to see how your choices played out, not because of a particularly strong plot.

And so it is with Elite. The bones of this game carry little flesh, but for the players who “get it” they’re a skeletal framework that you build around. You don’t eat the meat. You are the meat.

It sounds like an excuse for lazy game design, but look at the Elite: Dangerous sub-Reddit. No other game I know of has pages and pages of players sharing stories about their exploits with each other, always embellishing on the details that the game didn’t provide. To the game engine, you might simply be delivering a small cargo of goods to a faction in need a few light years away, to the imaginative player it’s a straightforward milkrun that went awry when you were interdicted out of hyperspace by a random stranger.

For a game with only the most cursory and spurious of plots, the fact that it has inspired so many tall tales and a culture of storytelling is truly remarkable.

There are two types of jump drive or "frameshift". One leaps the light years between systems, the second is for racing between distant planets around one or two suns.
There are two types of jump drive or “frameshift”. One leaps the light years between systems, the second is for racing between distant planets around one or two suns.

For me, the lightbulb moment was when I realised that there was really no rush to explore Elite’s vastness. Better to focus on learning the markets and building rep in a small corner of systems than rush off blindly seeking fame and fortune – at least in the short term. If you need a reason to be working for the Sheela Na Gig Workers Co-operative, or whatever random name generated organisation you are doing stuff for, invent one.

The game’s mechanics are – as its detractors say – simple and one-dimensional. But that doesn’t mean turning them to your advantage isn’t both tough and rewarding. Plus, you can fly thousands of light years away and discover black holes. What more do you want?

What Elite: Dangerous is, is much like life. A blank slate with a few arbitrary rules that are often open to interpretation. It’s open to a degree rarely seen in videogame form, it’s the anti-Call of Duty, the sandboxer’s sandbox. As far as Elite is concerned you set your own goals, your own challenges and your own parameters for enjoyment. And if you run out of them, says the space sim with a Gallic shrug, there’s a billion other games in the galaxy to play.

Supernova imminent.
Supernova imminent.

There’s still a long way to go for Elite: Dangerous. Some of its failings – notably the lack of player interaction – are being addressed in an up-and-coming patch, but importantly the game is epic in scale like no other. At the last count barely half a million of the 400 billion solar systems had been visited by real human players. Since the majority of NPCs inhabit a core cluster around our own planet, Earth, there’s an exceptional number of ways the devs can grow the game over time.

Who knows what weird civilisations live out in the Eastern spiral arm? No-one’s gone there to find out yet. But I, for one, still want to be playing when they do.

Elite: Dangerous is available for download for Windows PC only (Mac and Linux versions are to come). It costs R715 and there’s no monthly fee.



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