I recently started playing Elite: Dangerous and it has naturally made me interested in revisiting the original Elite which I played when I was a kid. I played the PC version, but I’m quickly learning that I was spoiled, since the most well-known versions most people played are the original BBC Model B version and the ZX Spectrum version. Drew Wagar has an interesting comparison between the two that you can watch here.
I never got very far in Elite as a kid — it’s quite a difficult game and I didn’t figure out most of the controls. But the more I read about it, the more I realise what a unique and ground-breaking game it was. There’s a good mini-documentary of the making of the game on Youtube:
The original Elite for the BBC B was released in 1984. To give some context, Game of the Year for the previous year was Ms. Pac-Man. A 3D shoot ‘em-up, on a massively underpowered home computer no less, was no small feat.
Moreover, gaming was still massively dominated by arcade games, which shaped public perceptions of what video games were even outside of the arcade. When your game has to run in an arcade cabinet, you want it to be:
- Short-lived (so you can pack in as many players as possible).
- Centred around accumulation of a score (since a high score table encourages competition and leads to more profits).
- Heavily action-based (since that’s no doubt what attracts potential players).
Elite had the action, but threw out all the rest. When your game runs on a home computer rather than in an arcade, you don’t have the same pressures. Unsurprisingly then, executives at established video game company Thorn EMI didn’t even recognise Elite as a complete game when they were shown it.
Elite’s creators recognised the potential for 3D graphics to provide the immersive experience of travelling to a fictional universe, and went to extraordinary lengths to build this — an effort which was deeply unusual in 1984’s world of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. The game even shipped with a mini novella set in the Elite universe.
When we think of games with procedurally-generated worlds we usually think of Minecraft, but Elite did it 25 years earlier in only 22KB of RAM. Every planet has a randomly generated name and a description explaining how it is populated by “black furry felines” or “ravaged by occasional solar activity”.
Elite’s manual makes for a very interesting read. Apart from being a thorough introduction to the game, it’s also written from an in-universe perspective, and goes out of its way to stoke the reader’s imagination and add depth to the game you’ll be playing. We read about “Faulcon de Lacy Spaceways”, the company who built your ship, and there are all manner of references to fictional organisations and publications which never appear in the game itself.
The image below is probably my favourite illustration from the manual.
In case you don’t recognise the keyboard, that’s a BBC Micro — the first computer Elite was released on. If you’re a kid wanting to imagine you’re really sitting at the cockpit of a spacecraft, what better image is there to help provide that immersion?
More than just a shoot ’em-up
Video games on home computers offered the chance for games to last more than a few minutes, and Elite is a great example of this. Its designers went to surprising lengths to add greater depth; here’s an interesting quote from an interview with Ian Bell:
I’m glad [Elite] isn’t Doom because I’m glad that even though we didn’t really think in these terms, I think its effect on players and on people’s lives is good, both in the sense of giving them good memories but also in making people think in different ways and awakening interest.
The comparison with Doom is an interesting one: Elite and Doom are both groundbreaking 3D shooters, and yet they diverge into wildly different approaches. Like Elite, Doom eschewed the arcade trappings of high scores and extra lives.
But Doom is a game that is intentionally visceral and base, described by one writer as “a symphony of annihilation”. Violence is central to the gameplay in Doom, and it is perhaps that aspect that Bell refers to.
Not so with Elite — although it appears on first look to be centred around action and combat, when you really get into the game, the combat parts are actually kind of an annoyance — they hinder you from the trading goals you’re really trying to achieve, drain your resources (missiles can be expensive), and threaten to destroy any progress you’ve built up — if your ship is destroyed, it’s game over.
Real life has no extra lives or power-ups, and neither does Elite. Elite’s universe is a hostile, unfair one where you must eke out a living from trading commodities while struggling to defend yourself from pirate attacks. Enhancements to your ship must be bought, with all the same opportunity cost you might face in real life. There’s no score in Elite, only your credit balance. All those space battles are for naught if you can’t turn a profit.
Superficially a space combat game, beneath this facade is another, separate game, based on commodities trading between different star systems.
I was surprised, and rather fascinated to discover that the two games really are entirely separable. Over on Ian Bell’s website you can download text mode Elite, a command line-based game rather like a text adventure that simulates the process of playing Elite as a pure sequence of trades without any of that tedious mucking around in hyperspace.
Text mode Elite is a space trading game that is thoroughly unexciting, yet it’s interesting to consider its logical complement. Elite as a pure action space combat shoot ’em-up would probably have ticked all the boxes Thorn EMI was looking for. It’s interesting to compare with Star Wars, an arcade game released a year previous to Elite: the two are very similar in terms of premise and technology, but Star Wars (the arcade game, at least) is now thoroughly forgotten.
Elite: Dangerous is a modern, faithful successor to the ’80s original and it’s nice to see all the nods to the original game, including all the original spacecraft (updated with a more modern look, of course), the iconic Coriolis space stations, and even the BBC B-style keyboard found in the cockpits.
It’s more than just a series of retro nods, though. This is a game that retains the fundamentals of the original game and builds upon them to add the extra levels of detail you’d expect from a modern game.
Just like the original, much of the universe is procedurally generated — the game contains over 400 billion stars — but a large portion of it is generated from real star chart data.
Elite: Dangerous differs from the original in one fundamental way: it can only be played online. While you can choose to play solo (and never encounter other players), your progress is still stored online. This is a universe shared with other players, whether you encounter them directly or not. Decisions have consequences, and you make progress slowly by trading and building your reputation.
In the past I’ve been annoyed games which have done this unnecessarily (such as SimCity 5), but with Elite: Dangerous it’s a choice that makes sense. The online aspect helps build the immersion; this isn’t a game you can just play for 30 minutes — it’s a whole universe you’re entering, and you’d better make your decisions carefully, just like the original. There are plenty of science fiction-themed video games, but more than any other game I’ve played this is hard science fiction in video game form.
One of the main criticisms of the game has been the repetitive and shallow nature of the gameplay — early versions of the game offered little more than an updated version of the original. But the development team have been working to expand the game with features that add new types of gameplay. The Powerplay political alliance system is one, and the recent addition of planetary landings adds a new level of depth. There are more features still in development, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how the game develops.