Immersion is a term thrown around a lot in the gaming world, and for good reason. As gaming began to grow, interactivity became far more than a vague collection of blocky pixels responding to your actions. You see, as humans, we are able to identify with a well-done character- their hopes and dreams, their personality, their philosophies. This is a concept that is used in almost all forms of entertainment, but I feel that gaming (both on a screen and on a tabletop) is special in that regard.
In a book, you can really tell what a character is thinking. You can get deep into every aspect of them. In a movie, this is communicated through visuals, through music, through tone. But games can afford to take a much more direct-and impactful-approach. See, you don’t just identify with the character. You are the character.
In this regard, Elite: Dangerous is somewhat of an oddity. You don’t really play as a character. Sure, you can customize the appearance of your avatar and your ship, but beyond that? Nothing. Even in regards to aspirations, there’s very little to go on. The game doesn’t really set any strict ‘goals’ or ‘quests’ for you to follow-at the start you’re given a barebones Sidewinder (the most basic ship in the game) and effectively plopped into space. No directional markers, no quest objectives.
I’ll admit that I was discouraged at the start. There I was, a lone Pilot in the vast darkness, unsure of my lot in life. I had gone through training, sure, but I wasn’t sure what to do, where to go. What I didn’t realize was that Elite isn’t a game about giving you goals; It’s about defining goals for yourself.
Everything in this game has nuance, from combat to even the simple act of docking with a space station. You even need to request for docking permissions from each station you intend to use! This may seem a bit tedious at first (don’t get me started on how awkward dropping from sublight speeds is for a new player), but it all becomes routine, much like learning to drive.
Well, you don’t strictly speaking need to ask for permission if you're willing to skirt past the law, and there are always unscrupulous folk who are willing to pay quite the pretty penny for illicit goods to be delivered to the right place-with or without the station’s permission.
In Elite, you’re afforded a huge amount of freedom in how you can play- fond of ship-to-ship combat? There are plenty of bounties to be collected upon, and even assassination contracts! Fond of optimizing routes, of making bank while gaining influence-often enough to influence entire systems with both wealth and political weight? Perhaps trading is for you.
Fond of risk, of daring, of high payouts and a life of crime? Smuggling or even piracy can be fun, and in the latter’s case you can acquire a module to drag loot-laden targets from faster-than-light speeds for an engagement.
Of course, there’s always my chosen role, one that I spent hours of trading and planning for: Exploration.
That image isn’t from some trailer. It isn’t from some animation, and it wasn't even an official release by the company that made the game. No, that image was shared on the game's forums by a player who took it using the in-game camera tools.
See, as complex as Elite is, its greatest offerings are scale and depth. The galaxy map has quite literally thousands or more systems to explore, and many of them remain unexplored today. On top of that, Elite’s galaxy is modeled after our own-many of the stars and black holes you find are ones that we know about today! It even models physics as closely as it can, meaning that even ‘slingshot’ maneuvers using a planet’s gravity are possible (and veteran explorers make good use of a similar function that utilizes a Neutron Star). But before I start gushing about the latter of the two offerings, let’s talk raw gameplay.
(The Galaxy Map, starting with a zoomed out view and then a much closer one. Believe it or not, every little dot in there is a system you can fly to… and the map isn’t a 2d plane, but rather a 3d space, with systems at varying heights and such. There are plenty of dots that aren’t visible there.)
The game is in the vein of a flight simulator in terms of controls, but has layers of nuance for any aspiring Ace to learn and master. For example, see those three bars on the bottom left? They’re a representation of what your ship’s power distribution. As a pilot, you can divert power to your Engines (speed and maneuverability, as well as the recharge time on your “boost”), Systems (Shield regeneration, faster cooling on your lasers), and Weapons (Damage and reload time for your projectile weapons).
Whereas for the average trader or explorer this is a simple mechanic- two pips to systems, four pips to engines is my personal preference. For combat-centric pilots, however, this is one of the most important functions to master. Experienced fighters divert power on the fly, adjusting their ship on a moment-to-moment basis to fit the combat scenario.
It’s honestly insane how much is involved in combat-whereas in other games it’s a relatively simple matter of pointing and shooting, in Elite there’s Hardpoints, weapon groups, chaff, ammunition management, heat management, power distribution, drones, fighter bays with hired pilots, and so much more!
But as much depth as combat has, exploration and trading achieves a similar level of nuance! Weight management, optimizing jump distance, managing routes, maximizing profits, capitalizing on rare materials and exclusive goods, even taking researchers or wealthy folks out into the vast depths of unexplored space! There’s always something new to do, to learn to strive for.
Now, you may recall that at the beginning of the article I wrote a whole two paragraphs about the concept of immersion. Let’s talk about that, shall we?
Elite: Dangerous is in large part a somewhat self-contained game. Events can happen without the influence of the players-governments rise and fall, economies go into recession and bounce back. But it’s what the player can do and how they can influence the galaxy around them that really allows for a level of immersion that I haven’t really seen in any other game (Though there’s a particular example of Elite’s crazy level of immersion that I’ll get to later- keep that image up there in mind.).
As a player, your actions can directly influence a system’s future. Do enough jobs for them or donate enough money and you can contribute to an economic boon-or even single-handedly cause one!-and massively increase your reputation. This leads to rewards for the player, sure, but also to political consequences for the controller of the system-whether a minor faction that holds a specific system, a Power that controls anywhere from a handful to hundreds of systems, or one of the three major factions vying for control of the galaxy. Perhaps they will expand to a nearby system, or attempt to control one that already has an owner.
Factions expand, grow, diminish, and struggle against each other in the background, and you influence it passively just by existing in the world, which both adds a sense of realism to the world and a sense of weight to every action you take. However, most players ignore this system, which makes sense. It’s complicated, and often doesn’t directly affect you as an individual. You can keep exploring and trading and fighting without worrying about it for a moment.
But Elite takes this a step further-savvy, experienced, and/or wealthy players can and do turn a keen eye to this, which is termed the “PowerPlay” system. There’s an entire, ridiculously deep mechanic behind it, and every controlling entity, major to minor, actively works to expand their influence and territory. Systems are attacked, guarded, taken, held-and again, this is all in the background for many players, much like a lot of the workings of the world today are behind the scenes.
Players can target specific systems to empower or hinder different factions in the greater galaxy, and a group of smart players without opposition can single handedly lead to the taking of a system-but there are a lot of smart players out there, all with different goals and motivations.
(The PowerPlay function of the Galaxy Map. It’s… a bit overwhelming, I know..)
But not everything happens behind the scenes. Unlike other MMOs, where major events might be teased through a trailer and announced similarly, without impacting the world too much, Elite takes a… different approach.
Remember that picture from earlier? Good, because it’s a picture from one of the greatest events in the game’s history, and lets us discuss some of the ways Elite makes you feel like more than just a player. Let’s talk about the Thargoids.
The footage above is the first direct encounter with the Thargoids that I know of. The Thargoids had not been announced. There was almost no indication that they existed save for tidbits in the lore, a lore that most players wouldn’t have ever touched, much less read thoroughly. It was a complete surprise that worked on every level-after all, dragging someone out of an inter-system jump was impossible. No module in the game, no matter how advanced, could do that. The only module that could do anything close was the Interdictor, which could only drag people out of ‘Supercruise’ (which is the way ships travel inside a system- faster than light, but not fast enough to cross the vast darkness between systems). Even then, it was unreliable.
Take a moment to consider all this. Suddenly, without warning, these… events started happening. Players would be dragged from another dimension (In Elite: Dangerous, ships jump into another dimension and back for inter-system travel, much like the ships in Star Wars do with Hyperspace) by strange floral entities, completely shut down, scanned, and then left adrift while their ships rebooted. It was crazy, and it lit a fire in the community. Suddenly, everyone was talking-what are these things? What are they after? What are they doing? How can they drag us out like that? You and everyone else were legitimately surprised and impacted by this information, both as a player and as a pilot!
People theorized, scoured the lore for all the information they could find, and checked the 'galactic news’ every day for even the smallest update on the situation. (located at https://community.elitedangerous.com/en/galnet#. I’d recommend skimming through if you’re curious. It doesn’t just cover major galactic events, but even relatively minor things much like the news today, and can provide valuable information for the savvy pilot.! On top of that, it’s in sync with our world-September 6th, 2018 is September 6th, 3304.)
Now consider this: this wasn’t just hype for an upcoming patch that was announced via trailer. These were real players affected by events that all happened live, in-game! In a sense, it wasn’t just players communicating and collaborating to figure out the events in a game, it was pilots, all communicating across the intergalactic network about strange entities that have suddenly appeared! It was then, during that tumultuous time, that it really hit me how immersive Elite could be.
I had completely forgotten that this was a fictional world for a moment. Right then, I was Commander CancerMage, concerned that these aliens would affect his life and funds, and wary of the risk that they presented. The same went for everyone- these aliens represented a risk to their hours and hours of dedication, to their in-game livelihoods. When the patch was announced, many players were even more hyped for what was to come than if it were simply announced wholesale.
In the same vein, the story didn’t simply start with some climactic battle or in-game event when the patch hit. No, the Thargoids as entities-and soon enough, as a threat-were developed over the course of more than a year. Government investigations were launched, researchers were sent out in droves, and the major powers began to mobilize a response as it became more and more clear that these aliens did not come in peace.
(A decimated fleet that carried important data on the strange new entities. It was only found due to the efforts of one Commander Edward Lewis, whos wrecked ship bore its location in a message heralding the return of the Thargoids. The capital ship’s final act was repeating a message in Morse Code over and over: “UNKNOWN VESSELS DETECTED. SERVER PURGE FAILED. SHIP ASSETS LIQUIDATED. PAYLOAD DESTROYED. SHIP STATUS: LOST.”)
But events didn’t occur purely in the background. Players were doing quite a bit of work themselves-fighting, losing, learning. The threat of the Thargoids unified much of the community, and it was quite literally on some news sited when a clan finally managed to engage a Thargoid ship and win. 4 kilometer long space stations were decimated by the Thargoids-and even that had player involvement even for newer players, as a call was put out to evacuate the survivors from the still-dangerous wreckage. Entire player-made organizations made huge ventures, such as the Canonn Research Group (https://canonn.science/) and their translation of markings on the Thargoid ships’ exterior and attempts at communication.
Entirely new ships were implemented into the game, but it all felt natural, as if it was the universe that spawned the new features in the game, not the game placing new features in the universe. Rather than new ships being added simply to provide new content, these new ships were weapons of war, some of which were refurbished and refitted versions of other ships in order to combat the new threat, as in the case of the Type-10 Defender, which was designed based on a previously existing cargo ship but made into a durable battering ram of a vehicle that still had impressive space in its Hold.
But more importantly for the purposes of the discussion, the war is still going. The return of the Thargoids to the galaxy wasn’t just a big event to commemorate a major patch. It wasn’t just a one-off thing that lasts a couple months before it ends with some news and a congratulations. No, the war with the Thargoids was-and is-just that: a war. That’s why Elite is so immersive.
It’s not just the depth of its systems or its lore. It’s not just your interactions with the universe. It’s how everything in the game-your actions, your job, the politics of the different Galactic Powers, and even the little things like having to request docking permissions-weave together to make something that’s just so believable, enough to make you feel like you’re not just controlling a ship, but rather that you’re an important player in galactic history.
No other game’s given me that feeling, and I don’t know if any game ever will. The game has its flaws, and it’s certainly not for everyone, especially not those with little patience. But inside of what may seem like the confusingl depths of an overly complex game at the start is really an ocean of adventure and wonder in an amazingly thought out experience, should you take the time to learn.
Should you buy it? Maybe, that’s up to you. The game with all its features is $40, so it’s fairly inexpensive as far as games of its size go. Whatever happens, though, you can be sure that Commander CancerMage will be out there, venturing out into the known and unknown reaches of space. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you out there, amongst the stars.
Sources (In order):
Playstation Store Page for Elite: Dangerous - Commander Edition
http://icrontic.com/discussion/99642/gaining-elite-in-a-dangerous-universe (Bottom of the page, posted by Nullenvoyd)
Screenshot of Making Money (and Merits) Elite Dangerous 2 4 Powerplay Tutorial by SSP Gaming
Video Posted by MrSenseofReason
http://elite-dangerous.wikia.com/wiki/Thargoid (Elite:Dangerous Wiki)
/u/HAWTRandomGuy on Reddit, acquired through the official Elite: Dangerous Twitter page's promotion of the image.