Elite Dangerous And The Silent Euphoria Of Leaving Earth Behind

One of the great tragedies of modern society is the inability to look past ourselves. To put aside our petty squabbles and confront the vast scope of our stratosphere and beyond. Try as we might, we find it almost impossible to stop staring into the void of humanity’s many, many mistakes and/or our latest gas bill to consider the possibilities of not only our planet, but the solar system and galaxy around it.

This is a deeply powerful reality that we somehow take for granted. Every astronaut that has ever ventured into Earth’s low orbit or the surface of the Moon has returned to say the exact same thing: Nothing else matters when you’re up there. When you looking at our tiny blue planet from above, all basic human concerns evaporate. Some of them for good.

Imagine what this does to a person: in a shocking instant, you completely reset your internal earthly compass and wash away a slew of things you thought you needed to worry about. In return, you are suddenly overwhelmed with the monumental size of the universe. That is, if we’re being honest here, probably not an even trade. To realise that we’re all simply floating on a big wet rock in a vast expanse of nothingness is a shattering thought that can’t be matched.

It’s an absolute misfortune of modern technology that very few of us will have this stunning experience in our lifetimes. Aside from Richard Branson, Elon Musk and other obscenely rich white dudes, the only people that continue to shake off their planet-based worries will be trained astronauts. And in this day and age, the number of kids wishing to chase this dream doesn’t seem to be all that large.

But not all hope is lost. We can still try our best to wrap our minds around the cosmos without ever actually being physically there.

Let’s give it a try.

4.3 light years from Earth, there’s a star. It’s the closest star to Earth aside from our own Sun, which is also a star. Because all suns are stars but not all stars are suns. Anyway, the star that’s four light years away is called Alpha Centauri and there’s some debate as to when it was first discovered. There’s evidence it was first spotted sometime between the years 100 and 170. Then there’s other people who saw it in 1582, 1689, 1752 and 1833 and all these people went blue in the face trying to convince other people that Alpha Centauri was a real thing that existed. Which we’ve now confirmed.

I mentioned it was four light years away. This means that if somehow we invented a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light, we could reach this star in four years. Unfortunately, such technology doesn’t exist yet.

Even though Alpha Centauri is in our own Milky Way galaxy, the space between us and this star is humongous. Most of outer space is empty blackness and it takes a long time to get across it. So to give you an example: if we don’t invent a spaceship which travels at the speed of light and just go with what we have now – it would take around 54,000 years to reach this star. Bear in mind, that’s only the speed of an unmanned probe. If we wanted to actually travel there in a standard space shuttle, it would take around 165,000 years.

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That’s how slow we are at the moment. Even though the astronauts that went to the moon arrived in four days and we now have satellite probes that can get there in six hours, in the grand scheme of things we’re about as fast as a very old snail trying to travel to a star in another solar system. If the snail stopped for coffee quite often. That’s what you get when you live in a galaxy that’s 100,000 light years in diameter.

Here’s some other fun/terrifying facts about our universe:

  • Including our sun, our galaxy alone is home to about 100 billion stars.
  • The Sun is over a million times bigger than Earth
  • The Milky Way galaxy is a part of 30 other galaxies that contains hundreds of billions of stars. This collection of galaxies is called the Local Group and it’s 10 million light years across
  • Our entire galaxy orbits what lies at the centre of the Milky Way – a supermassive black hole, which is estimated to be 4 million times bigger than the Sun and surrounded by at least a dozen other black holes

So in 2018, it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the intelligence or technology to get us anywhere significant in a timespan shorter than the Extended Editions of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. If that’s the case, why don’t we just say “Well, that destination is beyond our reach” and give up?

That’s not NASA’s style. Seemingly untouched by the frivolity of society’s nonsense, NASA is still getting the job done on a regular basis without most people on this planet giving a damn. They have about 35 active missions exploring different parts of our solar system. Robot rovers on Mars, probes orbiting dwarf planets and Voyager 1, which is the only spacecraft in history to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space. And that bad boy was launched in 1977.

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As completely impressive as NASA’s current efforts are, there is a future mission that is in the very early planning stages that is probably their most ambitious and exciting. In Alpha Centauri’s solar system, potentially habitable planets have been discovered. Over 3,000 planets outside of our solar system have been confirmed (these are the ones called ‘exoplanets’) and Alpha Centauri holds what might be the best one. But we need a closer look before popping any champagne corks.

That’s why NASA plans to send an interstellar probe to check it out. The launch date is 2069, which will be 100 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing.

I can’t even imagine what the year 2069 is going to look like. Will it be a brilliant utopia or a wasteland? Will humans be travelling in flying cars or fighting each other to the death for the prize of drinking out of a toilet? Who knows. But the point is – NASA is banking on someone still being here to launch a probe.

Exploring outer space. On some level as a species, when push comes to shove, it’s probably the only thing that really matters anymore. Reaching out to the true unknown to discover worlds beyond our own and possibilities we never imagined. It’s a better alternative to whatever the hell we’ve done to our own planet. So why not expand our horizons and hopefully start again without the same mistakes?

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The ambition and foresight held in the imagination of the scientists at NASA for the 2069 mission to Alpha Centauri is awesome. Like, I stand in awe of it. The necessary technology doesn’t exist in 2018 but they’ve already gone ahead and slotted in a date in the belief that once the calendar flips over to fifty-one years from now, we will have come up with a viable solution to make it happen. Will it be faster than light travel? A wormhole generator? Some kind of intergalactic Uber? Whatever we eventually create, this faith in the importance of discovery and exploration of our tiny corner of the cosmic neighbourhood is almost as inspiring as the universe itself. To throw ourselves out into the darkness of space with very little concrete information about what we’ll find.

This kind of raw enthusiasm for everything that exists beyond our own planet is one of the main reasons everybody should play Elite Dangerous.

Now in its fourth year, Frontier’s rebirth of their 1984 space trading/combat game has proved to be an extraordinary slow burn. While recent trends and genres in video games have exploded, flared and fizzled out, Elite Dangerous has quietly been creating an entire galaxy. This isn’t hyperbole; there’s hundreds of billions of stars in this game and if you have the fuel and the time, you can visit them all.

As astounding as these numbers are, that’s not the draw of Elite. It’s the solitude within the environment of space. The quiet achievement that you feel when you deliver illegal cargo. The tentative excitement when you stumble across valuable salvage on the surface of a distant moon. The confidence you attain after a long drawn-out battle with a criminal pilot.

In between these moments is where the true heart of Elite Dangerous beats. Much like the empty spans of black in our solar system, the majority of your time is spent maintaining flight patterns, inspecting menus, listening to news reports and mapping out where to go next. This becomes the deep, rewarding flow of this galaxy and within this minutiae, your achievements and satisfaction slowly compound until these activities transform from trivial to absolutely vital.

Within its unique multiplayer environment, it’s rare that you’ll see another person. They’re out there but as you’d expect, the galaxy is a big place and everyone is busy doing their own thing. But that’s not to say other players being present doesn’t make a difference. Quite the contrary. Through community goals and parts of the overall story, it would be essentially lifeless without this desolate version of a shared universe.

In the world of Elite Dangerous, it is currently the year 3304. Human society has expanded throughout the galaxy setting up thousands of space stations, planet-based colonies, trade routes and federated space. With enough credits in your pocket, you are loaned a small ship (called a Sidewinder), and you choose how exactly you’re going to carve out a niche for yourself in this monumental playground.

There’s an absurdly huge amount of background story and a perpetually evolving universe that pushes events forward but when it comes your own personal journey, it’s entirely up to you. You can become a bounty hunter. Earn thousands of credits as a courier between outposts or gather exploration data in unknown solar systems. You have no concrete direction however Elite Dangerous never feels directionless. You’re overwhelmingly alone, but never lonely. It’s just you, the entire galaxy and the decision about what to do next. A genuine and rewarding feeling of carving out a place for yourself in this massive void of outer space is ever present.

While you’re deciding on your interstellar career path, the external events of Elite shape the universe. Via an galaxy-wide news report service (GalNet), you begin to learn the immense scale of the corporate interests, power struggles, warring factions (which you can help or hinder) and countless other growing interests throughout the corners of the game. The details that further submerge you into the atmosphere of this quietly colossal cosmos are seemingly never ending.

One single player can make a huge impact in Elite Dangerous but there’s no inherent responsibility in the game for anyone to do so. For example, a player by the name of DP Sayre was minding their own business on the Xbox One version of the game in January 2017. Flying their ship to another part of a galaxy, they suddenly lost control and was pulled out of hyperspace. All power to the ship was lost and DP Sayre was left drifting in an unknown sector.

Up until this point, other players had the technology to ‘interdict’ your ship and pull it from supercruise (faster-than-light travel) but interfering with someone’s flight pattern while they were in hyperspace (even faster than FTL) was simply off-limits. Nobody in the game had experienced this event before. The reason for this? First contact with aliens.

This player had stumbled across the first ever Thargoid ship. It floated down, scanned their ship and disappeared again into the void of space. Power was soon restored and after they posted the encounter on Youtube, the Elite community went insane. Thargoids had been rumoured at the fringes of the Elite series but for this one single player to have the first encounter was staggering. The team at Frontier have been notoriously coy about how or why this particular section of space was chosen for this exchange. Which of course, lends itself to the further overall mystery about the future of Elite.

Since then, the presence of Thargoids in Elite Dangerous has expanded immeasurably. They’ve revealed more of their own planetary structures, spread to other areas and even attacked space stations. You can go searching for them or help out survivors of their attacks. Or neither. Instead, you can search ruins, investigate derelict mega-ships that have been missing for hundreds of years, act as an intergalactic taxi driver for passengers willing to pay millions of credits for long journeys, hunt down pirates in lawless systems or simply park yourself in the rings of a planet and quietly mine asteroids for valuable minerals to save up for that sweet new ship. Or maybe you can join the Fuel Rats, a dedicated group of players that help pilots who have run out of fuel. If you’re stranded in space, enter your coordinates on the Fuel Rats website and a player will come refuel your ship and send you on your way. But as I said, it’s all up to you.

Personally, I’ve never seen a Thargoid up close. However, knowing they are out there and could possibly arrive in my sector of the galaxy at any time is another exhilarating piece of my own personal puzzle. That’s what makes Elite feel so special. Despite the oppressive and sometimes terrifying solitude, this galaxy feels extremely vibrant and full of life. Today’s date is the exact date in the game (only 1,286 years in the future) and if you decide to take a look, there’s something happening every day.

To even approach simulating the feeling of being humiliated before the sheer mammoth scope of an entire galaxy is one thing but Frontier have not only achieved this but made it an incredibly rewarding and worthwhile journey to take. Even after dozens of hours in both the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game, layers are slowly being peeled back and my step-by-step discoveries of how, when and why to play Elite are still revealing themselves. I have to pay strict attention to my orbital flight path when landing on a planet or moon, take note of commodity prices in certain systems and I still get excited  when I receive an email on my comms panel telling me that my reputation with a particular faction has increased.

So recently, while I was docking at an outpost for repairs after being ambushed by pirates (they made an Unidentified Signal Source look like a distress call), my thoughts turned to Earth. Our own solar system does indeed exist in Elite and with a better ship and a scoop to harvest fuel from stars, I could get there eventually. But visiting our own planet might be the least interesting thing you could do in this galaxy.

Earth and everything on it no longer matters. Being this far out into deep space has rendered any of those concerns completely irrelevant. There are things happening in the Sol system but I have no desire to find out what they are. I’d rather be transporting data for the Styx Progressive Party. Or upgrading my cargo hold on Aulin Enterprise space station. Or searching for black box salvage on the 5th moon of a red dwarf star. All the time wondering if the Thargoids will arrive, who’s overthrowing the local government or whether to investigate the ruins of some ancient race called ‘Guardians’.

In the universe of Elite Dangerous, I’m currently 38.5 light years from Earth and I couldn’t be happier.