by Anthony Murphy – Jan, 7, 2017 - Editorial
This week marked a momentous occasion in the timeline of Elite: Dangerous. First contact with alien life. A few days ago a player was ripped out of witch space (the game’s term for the area you enter when you hyperspace jump) and scanned by a large unknown organic looking spacecraft.
Previously hyperspace jumps were a time where you could take your hands off the controls and relax for a minute. Something you’d do a thousand times in the course of your time with the game. How did that player feel when his on-board computer said “Warning: Hyperspace Conduit Unstable”. Something no player had experienced before. He was only given a short time to deal with this before his dashboard glitched out and he’s ripped out of witch space and left tumbling helplessly as ice crawls up the windows of his stricken ship.
Then it happens; a slow droning noise followed by a whale like roar as the ship comes into view, star shaped, organic looking and utterly alien. It turns to face the helpless ship, flashes a few bursts of lurid yellow light before jumping out. Slowly the ship’s systems reinitialize and the pilot gives chase but it is too late, the aliens are gone.
Soon message boards and chats across the internet are on fire. Someone has found aliens in Elite: Dangerous. The news spills over into the regular gaming media and articles are written. Comments inevitably tend towards a refrain that’s often heard when Elite: Dangerous is discussed. “Wide as an Ocean, Shallow as a Puddle”.
Whilst there are things to do in Elite: Dangerous it can sometimes feel like they’re not really in service of anything. Get money to buy a better ship so you can get money faster to get a better ship faster. A traditional “game view” of Elite: Dangerous places ship acquisition as the primary game loop. But this isn’t true for the majority of players that call themselves fans. You’ll find them exploring the billions of star systems, rescuing stricken players, organizing month long convoys to the other side of the galaxy. In one video I watched, a pilot lines his ship up perfectly and tumbles backwards through the mailslot like entrance to a space station before landing precisely on his designated landing pad. A true display of skill I couldn’t hope to replicate.
While many people said “Wide as an Ocean, Shallow as Puddle”, others said “Sign me up!” they put on their space suit, climbed into their cockpits and disappeared into the black. This isn’t to say that dedicated players don’t have problems with the game, they just seem to be able to enjoy a game that doesn’t seem to have a traditional sense of progression or a main gameplay loop. Something that modern game design might have left us struggling to deal with.
To hear the game’s chief architect and creator, David Braben, talk about the game you’ll rarely hear him talk about the gameplay. He talks about the simulation and the science behind the game. How white dwarf stars appear safe but their titanic invisible gravitational pull represents danger for inexperienced pilots.
In this way Frontier Developments have created something a lot more like Ultima Online or EVE than World of Warcraft. To throw something like first contact into this scientific clockwork universe makes it that much more exciting. For a moment the natural order of things is disrupted and everything is on the table. There are not many games that can lay claim to that.