Choose My Adventure: It's lonely out in Elite: Dangerous

Elite: Dangerous

In 1990, hurtling across the edge of our solar system at around 40,000 miles per hour, NASA's Voyager 1 space probe performed a quick rotation and snapped a parting photograph of the planet on which it had been conceived, built, and launched. The resulting image, known as the Pale Blue Dot photo, features a tiny Earth surrounded on all sides by an infinite blackness. It was this image, transmitted a distance of 3.7 billion miles at the speed of light, that inspired Carl Sagan to write, "There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world."

In other words, space is big. Really big. And it is into this great unknown, this unimaginable void wrapped in darkness and silence, that Choose My Adventure now boldly goes via Elite: Dangerous, a crowdfunded space simulator (no, not that crowdfunded space simulator) from Frontier Developments. With 55 star systems and 38,000 cubic light-years of space to explore, Elite's Beta 1 release should offer us plenty of freedom to sate our interstellar cravings and to thrive or die as an independent pilot.

Small moves

What's most compelling about space simulators as an idea is their unique juxtaposition of the vast and undefined to the small and granular. Games like Elite: Dangerous promise us an almost boundless universe to explore but demand we experience this universe through the delicate management of flight controls, sub-systems, menus, and dials. Moons, stars, and planets dance in delicate orbits across the far corners of space and call out to be discovered, yet our personal universe is confined to a starship's cramped cockpit and the credits in our wallet. Simulators like Elite run on the premise that the minutia of piloting a ship -- throttle control, rotational correction, combat fitting, systems checks, etc. -- elevates the now-familiar video game act of investigating universes unknown into an unprecedented duel with nature.

Elite: Dangerous

Elite: Dangerous comes with a powerful pedigree. The original Elite, created by David Braben and Ian Bell and released in 1984, is considered one of the games responsible for cementing space simulators as a genre and stands to this day as a classic of PC gaming. Its sequel, Frontier: Elite II, was hailed for its realistic physics and brutal structure. When Braden and Frontier Developments announced a Kickstarter for an open-world, sandbox space simulator built with Elite's systems and design philosophies, backers contributed £1,578,316 to turn the project into reality and set a record for the highest funding goal achieved via the Kickstarter platform (at the time).

Elite: Dangerous is expected to release in the fourth quarter of 2014; this month's CMA focuses on the current beta version of the game. Elite is far from complete; Frontier has plans to add atmospheric flight, on-foot exploration, 1:1 scale living planets, ships with multiple crewmembers, and FPS combat. The beta gives us a much smaller niche to explore in the form of single-player combat scenarios, an online persistent world limited to in-cockpit interaction, basic missions and station functions, and a few different ships to pilot. The smaller slice of content is still significantly sized for the purposes of Choose My Adventure; even putting ourselves to the fullest possible use it's unlikely we'll see everything the beta has to offer.

A million suns

Elite: Dangerous provides us an opportunity to investigate one of the great conundrums of space travel: Once we solve the problem of getting there, what exactly comes next? How do we make a living in a place so unsuitable for life? Elite pilots are faced with a simple challenge: maintain a ship, take jobs as they come, and carve out a path to fortune and glory, all while avoiding the unfortunate fate of being left to die gasping in a broken ship or thrust through a breached hull to live the rest of your truncated life as a meat popsicle. Like other space sandboxes, Elite allows pilots to choose from several career paths on both sides of morality; you can attempt to find success via legitimate, legal enterprise or embrace a life of scum and villainy.

Elite: Dangerous

But as we know, this is Choose My Adventure. It's not I who needs to decide whether we become smugglers or military officers. It is you, dear readers, who must push my ship gently in the direction you wish it to go. In this first week, we'll be deciding how best to enter the world Frontier has created for us. A beginning is a very delicate time, so we must take care to tread lightly lest we find our bodies disintegrated and scattered to the galactic winds. We can check out the single-player combat scenarios, we can leap into the game's multiplayer open world, or we can link into that very same world alone in Elite's solo game mode.

How shall we start? My supersonic ship is at your disposal.
Elite: Dangerous offers us the option of an assisted flight mode that automatically corrects ship movement and accounts for inertia and rotating space stations. The game uses a Newtonian physics model, however, which means we can completely disable flight assistance should the desire take us. When this feature is disabled, the pilot must account for every factor of a ship's movement when attempting to steer it from one place to the next, and must apply counter-thrusts to stop rotation and other motion. As a rookie sim pilot I would probably rely on flight assist, but in the spirit of empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death I am leaving it in your hands.

Am I to fly the hard way?
Elite: Dangerous is giving us a chance to begin again in outer space's golden land of opportunity and adventure, assuming we have the right ship for the job and the piloting skills to take that ship where it needs to go. For the next three weeks, we'll be putting the spurs to Elite's beta to get an idea of where the game is headed, what it's like in its current state, and whether it's something sci-fi and space lovers will find worth the incredibly steep $75 beta access price tag.

Elite: Dangerous

Get your votes in by 11:59 p.m. EDT on Saturday, September 6th. And don't forget to tune in to my first Elite: Dangerous stream September 4th at 7:00 p.m. EDT, when I'll be hopping into my ship for the first time to discover if the simulator cockpit really does offer the seat with the clearest view of space and its many attractions.

Mike Foster is putting you in the driving seat of Choose My Adventure, the Massively column in which you make the rules, call the shots, and take the blame when things go horribly awry. Stop by every Wednesday to help Mike as he explores the ins and outs of games big and small and to see what happens when one man tries to take on a world of online games armed only with a solar keyboard and the power of spellcheck.