Elite Dangerous: Toby’s Rest expedition, VR and photography
An expedition as a tribute to a cat, Toby, the discovery of Odyssey and some experiences with photography in VR mark my return to writing about Elite Dangerous, three years after I last wrote about the simulation.
Last time I wrote about Elite was in 2019 and with the release of Odyssey — and its betrayal of VR fans — I’ve not felt much interest into the space simulation, although I did fly, in Horizons, now and then. I felt Frontier left down all of us who love the VR aspects of the game and with so much negative comments about the expansion Odyssey — which was buggy, slow and full of problems — I kept my distance from Elite, believing it was on its dying bed.
The truth is that this period I was away from the simulation — sporadically firing Horizons — has served Frontier to quash the bugs in Odyssey and make it acceptable to run, although, to be fair, especially in VR, you need a good machine to keep the pace. Even on a flat screen it seems to have been the reason why many people refused — and continue to refuse — to play it, although, to be fair, many might simply not have a computer to run the simulation, which has gained new graphics, requiring more power to move the whole program.
While I understand those who do not want to update their computers to run Odyssey, I sincerely believe they are losing what can be the bridge to the future of Elite. Some interface changes between versions have created love/hate discussions online, and the fact that some new options hide things that were easier to see by explorers have made people stay away from Odyssey. Still, and this is my point of view after having explored Odyssey in recent months, I am willing to trade what we had before for what we’ve now, simply because Odyssey offers some of the most exciting visual experiences you can have in a space simulation.
I never went to Colonia
I’ve stopped using Horizons altogether, because as I use VoiceAttack, EDDI and HCS Voice Packs, changing between Horizons and Odyssey messes my keyboard shortcuts, AFAICS, and I don’t want to be bothered with that, as I fly in VR and rely on voice commands — and my virtual crew — to keep everything running as it should.
Now, one of the things I hate in Elite: Dangerous is the time it takes to travel long distances. Although I’ve played the simulation since the very early beta, I never went to Colonia, as many have, because I did not have the time to do jump after jump, after jump, after jump… you know what I mean. Not being very proficient at the Neutron Highway, I’ve kept around the Bubble, with an occasional trip to see some Guardian ruins and visit other spots not too far from what I call home.
Anyways, if you’re into Elite not looking for an end-game — there is none! — and enjoy the options to be a pirate hunter today, a trader tomorrow and an explorer any other day, there is a lot of fun to be had, even more so in Odyssey, as you get to visit planets with lots of colour and shapes that will keep you busy. It’s like a giant sandbox where you can play anyway you want: no goals needed. I’ve no interest in having a huge Anaconda or lots of money, although I tried different ships and sold them immediately. More recently I bought a Krait Phantom to try it, but it’s parked somewhere, unused, as I keep myself happy with two vessels: a Cobra MK III and a DBX.
The DBX has been my home for exploration, and I surely would love to be able to move inside it if Frontier had followed with their suggestion that we would have ship interiors and space legs. Not like in Odyssey, but real VR space legs. So, to cut a long story short, I use the Cobra for some pirate hunting, as it is a good way to calm down after a busy day, and the DBX for travelling to lone planets, where it feels fantastic to send the ship back on orbit and just wander around with the SRV. It’s so lonely out there… it’s absolutely fantastic, and I love it.
Thanks, God, for Fleet Carriers!
Now, on my return to Elite I decided to read a bit more about Fleet Carriers, and that’s when I understood that they are like portals in other space simulations. Frontier never accepted portals as something that could make part of the lore, but FCs are like portals, or, if you want a more down to earth comparison, like buses travelling between parts of the world. Or planes. The good thing is that they run some regular schedules that take you to places from Rackham’s Peak to Colonia and beyond, making the hard part of a journey as easy as “board the FC in time and sit down for the ride”.
My first trip was to Rackham’s Peak, and I was amazed. It felt very much like being a tourist on a first visit to Paris or something else. I could not resist and as soon as I had a FC take me back to the Bubble, I boarded another FC to Colonia. It’s great, believe me, and it’s the best way to travel long distances if you do not have the time for the jump, jump, jump, jump… that makes Elite a bit boring, if you want to go somewhere fast.
There is a whole community of FC captains (we should thank them for their work), and there are even groups like the Fleet Carrier Owners Club (FCOC) posting their voyages (check reddit), like any travel agency would do. And there are also expeditions, which have been made easier thanks to the use of Fleet Carriers, which not only allow a group of users to jump across huge areas of space but also serve as a home away from home.
While the first expeditions were like true pioneers exploring the galaxy, now, with FCs, it’s more like a bus packed with tourists that jump out at each stop and start going round looking for things to watch… and photograph, and believe me, there is still a lot to be discovered, and some of it may well end having your name on it, as most of the void is still waiting to be “honked” for the first time.
The Distant Legacy expedition and a cat named Toby
So, curious to experience an expedition, I picked one that suited my idea of adventure: Distant Legacy. It’s 19 stops — 110,384.25 ly distance — over a period of months, from September 2022 to July 2023. According to the organizer, “Distant Legacy is an homage to the Distant Worlds expeditions of the past, and a final sendoff for our console CMDRs and the Horizons platform. We’ve combined the best of Distant Worlds 2, the Heart of the Storm, the Perseus Reach, and the Great Return expeditions into a 110,000 light year journey across the best sights the game has to offer.”
Open to all players on PC, Xbox, and PS4, Distant Legacy is supported by a Fleet Carrier, a luxury previous Distant Worlds expeditions did not offer. The Toby’s Rest (X6J-14V) carrier is the mobile base of operations throughout the expedition, but the carrier will not return to the Bubble, as it will stay at the final destination, Phua Brue FL-P e5–0 , as a memorial to Toby, the cat and cockpit companion of an Elite Commander, Airman_Dan, who died in 2018. The system was first visited on EDSM (which aggregates info from voyages in Elite) by Airman_Dan on May 13, 2021, 6:59:44 AM, as a tribute to Toby, a voyage that Airman-Dan planned to do with his companion but never manage to achieve. Follow the link to know more about this memorial, and feel free to access the Discord group for the Distant Legacy expedition, where more cat stories can be found.
I completely relate to Toby’s expedition, as my cat and cockpit companion, Yellow, which has been by my side in many Elite adventures, was diagnosed with PKD last August and may well not make it until this memorial expedition ends. The revelation of her illness — she is only 7 years old — was a shock and for a moment I thought about not entering this expedition, which started by the end of September, but I decided I would go ahead, because participating in a voyage that has a purpose like Toby’s Rest has made complete sense. Whatever happens with Yellow, she will be forever tied, in my memory, to an adventure that also has a cat as center figure, and a unique demonstration of how love and friendship exist, even inside games.
Capturing photos in VR is a PITA
Although The Toby’s Rest (X6J-14V) carrier will not return to the Bubble, transport back is assured by two other carriers that have volunteered to tag along and also serve as support on the way to Phua Brue FL-P e5–0 and back: the HMS Atreides Dawn (HBF-TTY) and IPX Omega Concern. This is one example of the bonds between people that can happen, even inside a space simulation as Elite.
Returning to Elite with an expedition in mind makes you want to capture photos of the places visited, as any other tourist would do. While Elite: Dangerous offers some fantastic scenery in general, those who explore the colours of Odyssey and the option to walk on planets will want to take even more pictures. Now, while in my time using a flatscreen or even a flatscreen with TrackIR photographing was easy, the move to VR, from where I can never return to a flatscreen, makes capturing screenshots a challenging task.
I’ve mostly given up taking pictures in Elite, because of VR — no way a flat rectangle shows all the magic of the feeling of being immersed into the scenery — and because the resulting images are nothing to talk about. They are at a lower resolution and getting everything properly framed is almost impossible. For the photographer in me it is a good reason to not even try. Well, until now, because I want to document the Distant Legacy expedition.
I never really bothered to set the advanced camera controls in VR, using only the basic views, but now I wanted to try something else. The first three waypoints of the expedition I did not bother much and decided I would only take a few snapshots and selfies, as tourists do, but then faced with the fantastic landscapes I was visiting, I decided I had to give the advanced camera suite a try.
Photo collages to tell the story of The Toby’s Rest expedition
I soon discovered that some of the functions available when running Elite on a flatscreen are not available in VR; focus and blur adjustment, essential features for more meaningful photos, are gone, so besides having to deal with hard to frame photos with lower resolution, you do not have access to expanded optical tricks that enhance photos. Still, I wanted to try it.
As I’ve done so many times in my professional life as a photographer and writer, I decided to use series of pictures in a collage to tell a story, in this case to create a postcard that reflects my experiences at each waypoint. This solved the problem of the low resolution of the images and the bad framing on some of them, allowing me to create a final product that is evolving, photographically speaking, as we keep moving through space.
The last two postcards in this series, from waypoints 4 and 5 are closer to what I feel is possible when capturing images in VR. I’ve had to set the controls for the camera, (re)learn how to use it in VR and try to get subjects framed properly. It’s not always easy, and it’s a time consuming task, more than on a flatscreen, but I believe I am getting better at it, and that’s, in part, the reason for this text. I wanted to share with others this experience, as it might help others to explore the same path.
Because this is a series, I want to keep all postcards the same size and with almost the same design, especially now that I am taking many more pictures than on the first waypoints. I’ve found a workflow solution that appeals to me, and in the end, I hope to have almost 20 postcards that tell a story.
I believe stories are what makes the journey of an explorer in Elite Dangerous so interesting, and it’s a pity when those stories get lost in singular screenshots buried inside a timeline in social media. Building narratives through the collage of series of pictures, and giving them context, helps to keep a memory of events. In the end, my series of pictures will be a memorial, itself, of The Toby’s Rest journey. Now imagine, if all of the more than 100 participants create their own picture logs, how rich the final story will be.
Hope this puts something in motion. Feel free to get in touch if you need some help starting with your own collage.