'Elite: Dangerous' doesn't even need alien invasions for it to feel big, bold, and alive.
A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play.
It is two thirty in the morning and I am trying to become very rich.
Elite Dangerous is vast. I cannot overstate its scale. Every star in the galaxy is modelled, every planet, every asteroid belt. To travel any great distance in the game is an almost unimaginable task; even the most powerful "frame shift drives"—engine components that allow hyperspace travel—balk in the face of these journeys. The vast majority of this space, however, is uninhabited, patrolled only by brave pathfinders far from the light and sound of other humans.
But even the bubbles of human occupied space are impossibly large. There are thousands upon thousands of stations, of planetary outposts, of shipping lanes and tourist destinations. And permeating throughout, in credit transactions and full cargo holds, is the backbone of the simulation. The market.
The market is always live, and it is always changing. An outbreak in a distant colony might push opportunistic traders towards it, cargo holds filled with medicine. Perhaps a system finds itself in a boom, and the economy flourishes. Perhaps a civil war causes a bust, and traders scramble away. I've seen heavy trade ships idling outside blockades, fighters streaming in to try and break them.
There are a lot of ways to become rich in Elite Dangerous. You can rob traders. You can kill pirates. You can haul goods from station to station. My plan involves three components: A long journey, 50,000 credits, and several tons of luxury paté.
"Zorgon Peterson, echo sierra hotel," says a distorted voice over my comms. I am being hailed.
"You are approaching the station. Please request docking and observe speed regulations around the entrance."
Ahead of me, turning slowly on itself like a vast twelve- sided die, is my destination: The Ascending Phoenix. White and blue lights glitter on its sides, and as I move in closer I begin to see the shapes of security vehicles buzzing around. They are specks against the station itself. I check my rotation against a tiny station hologram on my dashboard and dip the nose a little. I am flying a Zorgon Peterson Adder, a bulky little trading ship held together by pale blue paint and dubious aerodynamics, and I fight with the stick a little as I approach. The Adder complains, and its dashboard rattles. A new voice comes over my comms: a woman with a British accent, from the midlands. It is a voice that you never hear in space.
"Uh, we're seeing a lot of traffic around the entrance today," she says, and as the station turns and it comes into view, I see what she's talking about. On one face of the die, there is a tiny blue slot. In actuality it is about the size of a 747, but the Phoenix is so gigantic and I am so small that even after playing Elite Dangerous for hours, the overall impression is of trying to land a paper plane on a postage stamp. Ships pour in and out of the entrance. I see several Vipers, the game's standard fighter units; a Cobra Mark III, a versatile mid-range ship; one or two trading crafts. Gliding serenely out of the slot is a Beluga: an extremely expensive passenger liner, all gleaming white and blue. I lower the throttle and match the station's rotation. It fills the screen.
"Please proceed to landing pad 31," says the voice, and I tentatively increase my speed, passing through the entrance and into the flickering light of the station. I deploy my landing gear and hear the Adder protest with a whine. Inside the station, messages on the tannoy remind loitering is an infraction, and I make my way to the landing pad and set my ship down gently. Relief washes over me. I put down the controller and rub my eyes. The room is dark.
The Ascending Phoenix is a station in the Chi Eridani system, an area of space containing several fertile, watery planets ideal for farming fish. As such, this is a place where one can buy Chi Eridani Paste, a sort of fish paté and one of the game's rare commodities. In the Phoenix, the paste can be bought extremely cheaply. Presumably, everybody in this system is sick of the stuff, but the trade interface tells me that, while I can buy it for 600 credits, the galactic average hovers around 8000.
I do not know what twelve tons of paté looks like. I do know that my Adder complains as I lift slowly off the pad, and I scrape the fuselage against a comms tower as I leave the station.
The paté plan is based on a very simple principle: Rare goods go up in value the further you are away from their original system. I open up the map and drown immediately in its stars. Picture, for a moment, a three dimensional map of a town. You can zoom out to look down on its roofs from above or swoop the camera to street level and be among the streets and houses. It would overwhelm, wouldn't it? Zoomed out, the town would feel too abstract. Zoomed in, the town would feel too detailed.
Elite Dangerous has mapped the entire galaxy in this way. To look at it is almost vertiginous. I once accidentally opened the map in virtual reality and very nearly fell over.
I set a course for a star that seems a good distance away, point my Adder in the direction marked on my ship's HUD, and, like the other ships alongside me, begin a hyperspace jump away from The Ascending Phoenix. Laden with paté, this takes a while. The engine begins to whine, and a thermometer on my dash shows that my temperature is rising rapidly. The cockpit begins to fill with smoke, and sparks erupt briefly, and then—
The countdown finishes, and everything explodes into colour. Oily shapes swirl past me, red and green and gold and I'm struck suddenly by how quiet everything has become. I can hear the rush of travel, and the sound of the plastic on my dashboard rattling, but there are no engine sounds. This is "witchspace", the space-that-is-not-a-space, the strange tunnel exploited by frame shift drives.
I think of the pilots far outside the bubble who, in recent weeks, were suddenly pulled out of witchspace by things that weren't human, and just as I begin to get nervous there is a bang and I arrive in the next system. Its sun blossoms in front of me. My frame shift drive charges, I align with the new system, and prepare to jump again.
Much of the business of trading in Elite Dangerous is monotonous. Long trading routes consist of jump after jump, of witchspace opening and closing around you. The paté sloshes in the cargo hold. One system I pass through has twin suns, burning with a brightness and intensity that hurts my eyes. In another, my comms panel picks up the chatter from a wedding barge, gliding slowly through the darkness. Perhaps, between sips of champagne, they take bites of canapés covered in Chi Eridani paste.
I lose focus, and the journey becomes a series of sounds. There's the whine of my jump drive, the temperature warning as it charges. My dashboard rattles, cooling fans inside the cockpit whir. There are tiny radar sounds, as I pick up and lose signals from other ships. A purple star. A red star. The whine of my jump drive charging.
And then there is a noise like somebody banging on a loose window, and my entire ship shakes. I snap back to the game, to see my screen lit up in bright white and blue. The Adder's nose is tilting wildly. "INTERDICTION WARNING," shouts my computer, and I lean forward towards the screen. In Elite, there are two speed stages outside of witchspace. You are either moving in "supercruise", a very fast form of travel intended for circumnavigating suns or crossing systems, or in natural flight. Interdiction is a particularly nasty method for pulling a ship from the former into the latter. It means only one thing: pirates.
There is a version of this story where I engage the pirates, torpedo launchers sliding from compartments on the front of the Adder, and take them down in a blizzard of laser fire. There is another version where I engage the pirates and my shields go down and the last thing I see is the glass on my cockpit shattering. Neither of these things happen. Instead, my knuckles white on the controller, I try and maintain the escape vector needed to avoid the interdiction.
I do not breathe for forty- five seconds, and then I escape.
In one system, I check to see what kind of a profit I can make on my paté. Its price has gone up by 200 credits. Later, I check again. 500 credits. I listen to an episode of a podcast and boil a kettle for some tea. 600 credits. The world around me shrinks to the size of my computer screen, and on that screen is the entire galaxy.
A semi-recent expansion allowed players to land on Elite's planets, but for technical reasons restricted them to those that are desert, or barren, or rocky. Landing on planets filled with wildlife, or with breathable atmospheres, is a fantastic prospect but the technical requirements of enabling that across the galaxy are vast. It is for this reason that your encounters with life in Elite are only on its vast metallic stations or on lonely planetary bases, never warmed by a kind atmosphere.
The overall impression is cold. In that coldness, though, a warmth can be found in the glow of dashboard lights and purple suns. In the distant radar readings that indicate a Beluga liner is silently passing by.
I sell my paté eventually, and I make a good profit. Soon I sell my Adder, too, and upgrade to a ship that allows me to carry more and more cargo. It turns on a dime, and I overcompensate, expecting the resistance of the Adder.
Trading in Elite is made easier and more involved by a variety of user built tools that hook into the game's API. The Elite Dangerous Database looks at where you are, how much money and cargo space you have, and suggests the most profitable routes. It does not, however, update its market prices automatically.
This is why there is a little window running behind the game as I play. Each time I land at a lonely base, or guide my ship into a station, or touch down on an outpost orbiting some distant moon, the tool quietly updates the databases about the prices I find there. Other players use that information to plot more and more efficient routes.
It is exploration, of a sort. I am leaving a breadcrumb trail behind me, jump by jump. The prices of fish paté. Of gold. Of nonlethal weapons. Of medicine and and grain and tea and copper.
The market is always live.