As I pull the trigger of my scanner for the fifth time this minute, my HUD pulses with fuzzy blue oblongs. The asteroids that clog my view like a million potatoes suspended mid-fall fade as the wave passes, except for the few that glow a burnt orange. These are the Baked variety of space potatoes, and their worth is measured in millions.
Elite Dangerous has its hooks in me again. This achingly slow game of piloting brick shaped craft between star systems is all I can think about. If I’m not guiding my own slab of rocket-boosted titanium through the black I’m watching videos on commodity markets, or searching companion websites for icy-ringed planetoids. Last week I sat for a full half hour, genuinely engrossed in a video on respeccing ships for mining. But for all the hours I’ve spent playing or reading or watching all things Elite, I can’t for the life of me understand why.
My journey began a year ago, picking up the game after binge watching The Expanse, jonesing for a space game that erred more towards simulation. I knew precisely two things about Elite back then: that it was the latest entry in a long-running space series, lauded as one of gaming’s most influential, and that it wasn’t Star Citizen, the other giant space sim often viewed as an elaborate pyramid scheme. The choice to dive in was hardly a choice at all.
Elite was indeed the simulation game I was looking for and although not as complex as something like the ARMA series or Digital Combat Simulator it’s still an unwieldy beast. The first iteration came without even the meagre tutorials currently provided which meant leaving the starting station could be a Sisyphean test of patience. I eventually managed to master the basics and began my travels in earnest while still having little idea of where to go and what to do. A lot of space, it turns out, is empty. Having never been one for experimental trial and failure gameplay I read up on starters guides and career paths and eventually settled not only on a roadmap but a goal: the Anaconda.
If the game’s tiny starter ship is an aging Nissan Micra putt-putting to town on the weekly shop, the Anaconda is it’s Bentley, roaring along the M25 in search of innocent pheasants to cull. It is unapologetically extravagant, senselessly massive and hideously expensive. It is neither the largest nor most costly ship in the game but it isn’t far off. On the game’s launch it was a fabled beast seen by few but desired by many and although by the time I rolled around the sheen had worn thin thanks to the more exotic treasures I wanted one. Suddenly this open ended game of infinite choice became shockingly linear.
To earn my very own interstellar trouser-snake meant assuming several of the game’s many identities. This has always been a cornerstone of the Elite franchise; the game doesn’t tell you how to play more than it gives you a galaxy, a ship and a vague set of rules with which to engage. Here for the shooting? Become a bounty hunter. Looking for a quick buck? Smuggling or piracy might be your game. Want to experience the wonders of the universe? Strap on a fuel-scoop and go exploring. Almost every way of existing in Elite comes with risks and rewards with none truly outshining the others.
But my aim was efficiency. I wanted that ‘conda and I wanted it now. So I read. And I read. During my first weeks I spent more time on forums and wikis than I did in the game itself. When I entered the game proper I became an explorer, a hunter, a trader and a bus service. I travelled between binary star systems and quasars, delved through the mists of nebulae and the frozen rings of far-flung gas giants. I worked for all three of the game’s superpowers, shuttling slaves for the Empire, diplomats for the Federation and scientists for the Alliance. I glimpsed alien structures on barren worlds and lost cargo loads of priceless gems to pirates. Slowly, ever so slowly, my bank balance grew.
It took over 100 hours of ponderous, ever changing busywork but I slew my white whale. The Anaconda was mine. The feeling of satisfaction when trading my trusty Type-7 for the sleek, arrow-headed might of my new capital ship was genuinely remarkable and remains perhaps my proudest gaming achievement. I was so excited I immediately spent £8 on a set of skins only marginally removed from the horse armours of yore and I was happy with my purchase. The likelihood of anyone else ever seeing my new black and red paint job was minimal but it wasn’t for anyone else. It was for me. I obnoxiously named her the Dapifer after a position in the French royal household and spent a few days parading her proudly about the Inner Systems. And then… and then…
I fell away. I had invested so much time into a singular goal that finding another was impossible. For a while I thought of joining the Fuel Rats, a player group who scour the galaxy for those in need of rescue. I had called on their services once before and the experience was so joyful I made a mental note to follow it up. But it required commitment. Association with other players. My Elite had been a solitary experience, a relaxing, contemplative dive into isolation and routine. To change my it so completely was intimidating, and I decided against it. I decided against everything, and eventually moved to other pursuits, my beautiful Anaconda left to rust in the service bay of some backwater pump station.
That is, until recently.
Almost a year after I parted ways with the galaxy I found myself back in its grasp, a new goal in mind with a new set of identities and play styles. I achieved my new raison d’etre fairly quickly, the rich really do get richer even in Elite, but this time I found my enthusiasm increase rather than diminish. Thanks to updates and patches, new roles had opened up or expanded and I found myself throwing millions into deep-core mining, scouring the universe for baked potatoes hiding multi-million credit hauls of void opals and low temperature diamonds. As one objective fell away another replaced it, and another, and another until now I feel I could play this game forever. I even invested in (read: borrowed) a flight stick and throttle controller. I followed instructions to edit my computer’s sound settings to increase the already immersive atmosphere of the game. I began watching videos on trade routes.
My time with Elite is now approaching 200 hours. My bank balance reads upwards of 1 billion credits (for reference: that original goal that took over 100 hours to amass for the Anaconda? 150 million). I have multiple ships in multiple systems and am a Rear-Admiral in the Federal Navy. And yet, the majority of the gameplay remains the act pointing my ship at a marker and pressing go.
But Elite remains the most relaxing, satisfying way to pass the time when time needs to be passed. I’ve discovered more new music whilst playing than I have in the past three years. I’ve watched several TV shows. I chat with friends. Elite is my sudoku, my knitting, my fidget cube, something to be done while doing. I’m still not entirely sure why I react the way I do to the game or why I find it so appealing, but I have realised that this, perhaps, is the point.