I guess it won’t come as a shock to anyone who knows me, and probably anyone else who might stumble across this blog, that I’m a gamer. This goes back a long way and, while it’s gone into remission occasionally, so far it’s always resurfaced eventually.
When I first started gaming on computers, games were pretty small in scope. Being chased by a Tyrannosaur around a primitively rendered maze, trying to avoid getting eaten, that sort of thing. There was a simple goal, games were usually over quickly and so forth. It was pretty much down to the limits of the computers in use at the time.
The first game I remember that broke that particular mould would be the original Elite. You had a ship, you had a galaxy of stars to play in and, mind-blowing point, it was pretty much up to you what you wanted to do. You could trade goods, you could hunt pirates, you could just explore the place. There were dozens of stars to choose from, there wasn’t just a pre-set route through a small area that you were forced into following, you could just get on with it and do whatever took your fancy. I loved it and played it as much as I could.
So, when, decades later, a new version of Elite, calling itself Elite Dangerous, comes out, it’s something that I absolutely have to check out. Armed with a nice new gaming computer (my first for many years), I paid my money and loaded it up.
Obviously, with the passage of many years and many increasingly powerful generations of computers, certain changes are to be expected on the graphical front. And the game doesn’t disappoint, looking genuinely gorgeous. Ships, planets and space stations are rendered in glorious detail and space around you is filled with things to see, nebulae, the grand sweep of the Milky Way and so forth. Star systems, rather than just consisting of a single planet, now contain multitudes, fully realised planetary systems, moons, rings, asteroid belts, with both planet-side bases and orbiting stations to pay visits to.
None of this would really matter, though, if the freedom that made the original game such a breath of fresh air was absent. Fortunately, it’s still there and then some. Indeed, your options have even increased. Over thirty types of ship can be bought and customised to fit your preferred requirements. Mining is a viable life choice, smugglers can jump between the stars, always on the lookout for unwanted attention, bounty hunters can chase fugitives through the galaxy, or those looking for a bit of variety can accept missions from factions looking to advance their own agendas within a star system. Or an explorer can hurl themselves out into the dark, visiting new stars, travelling to see those nebulae up close. And there’s a lot out there to visit.
The original Elite, as I said earlier, felt huge in comparison with other games of the time. I can’t, in all honesty, remember how many stars were available to visit in the galaxy; I have a suspicion that it may have been 64, given the traditional programmers obsession with powers of two. Regardless, it was in that sort of ballpark. Elite Dangerous is bigger on a completely unprecedented level.
Elite Dangerous has around 100 billion star systems.
That’s not a typo. I really mean billion there. The galaxy, as it exists in Elite Dangerous, is as close to a reproduction of our actual galaxy as the development team could create using the scientific information available to them. The vast majority of these are procedurally generated, but a number, somewhere in the region of 200,000, those closest to Earth, exist exactly as they do in the real world. So, if you go outside, look up at the night sky and pick out a visible star, you can go there in the game. It won’t even take that long to get there.
Humanity mostly hangs out in an area known as the “Bubble”, which is, loosely speaking, a sphere about 300 light years across centred on Sol and containing, according to the developers, somewhere in the region of 20,000 inhabited systems. There’s plenty there to keep you busy, with various different powers vying for dominance that you can sign up to help, goods to trade and/or smuggle, enemies to fight and so on. Unless the exploring life appeals to you, there’s really no reason to leave the Bubble at all.
Personally, while I’ve spent time flying cargoes, sourcing materials for different factions and so on, I do like the exploration, even though it can be boring at times. And it was while I was outside the Bubble that the sheer scale of the game really hit me. I’m currently heading for the galactic core, have been for several days and I’m only just reaching the edges of it. I’ve passed through hundreds of star systems, many of which have, to all appearances, never been visited before – the game tags each system with the name of the first pilot to investigate it and return the information to the Bubble. That blows my mind – Elite Dangerous has been out for the best part of two years, has a huge number of regular players, many of whom will have made the same journey I’m making now, to explore the galactic core, and I’m still running into systems that nobody appears to have visited before.
At end of a play-session, I tend to find some nearby planet or moon to park my trusty ship on until I come back again. I don’t actually have to, as my ship would be fine just left floating in space, but it feels like better role-playing to do so. It’s just me. When I do so, I tend to try to find a location that’s going to give me an appealing view; interesting stuff in the sky, and maybe some nice ground features. Some of the sights have been really quite beautiful. And when I’m sitting there, ship cooling down from the landing, something that occasionally crosses my mind is that, due to the astonishing scale of the game, I am, and will likely always will be, the only person who has ever seen it.
That’s both impressive and quite cool. But, somehow, I can’t entirely shake the feeling that it’s also rather sad.