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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Boldly going forward, because I can't find reverse

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I started playing Elite Dangerous over the Christmas break. Now that I have a shiny new computer (which I still have to blog about), I can actually play PC games again. I’m pleasantly surprised by how well my XPS 15 can play such a demanding game, graphically—once I figured out why Windows kept crashing at the worst times (totally unrelated to the game) it started running without any hiccups at 1080p. I haven't been running it at 4K, but that might change, because I am going exploring!

Here’s the crash course: Elite Dangerous is a first-person cockpit simulator, much like flight sim games … except you're in space. It isn’t “realistic” but it is sci-fi realistic—which is to say, there are all the standard MacGuffins that let you travel faster-than-light and use amazing weapons, etc., but at sublight speed it’s mostly Newtonian physics and amazing views.

Elite Dangerous is one of the largest open-world sandbox games—literally, since you can go anywhere in the Milky Way. Like most such games, there is no “right” way to play it. If you fancy some imperialism, you can get involved in Powerplay, the interstellar struggle by various factions of humanity to expand the number of systems they control. You can make credits bounty hunting (or pirating), or you can get a ship with a big cargo hold and trade between stations (or systems).

And, if you are slightly crazy and very persistent, you can just set a course for a distant star and scan the systems that you find. (The game procedurally generates star systems based on what we know about that area of the galaxy—so all the systems and nebulae you're familiar with are there, and then it fills in the blanks with "best guesses.") If—that’s a big if, because space is a dangerous place—you make it back to inhabited space with your ship (and data) intact, you can make a living this way, and any systems you were the first to scan will get your name attached to them.

I find something very romantic about this. Elite Dangerous is a beautiful game, and it revels in the inherent beauty of the universe. Not only are stellar phenomena painstakingly rendered in 1080p (or glorious 4K), but the game has score that makes everything even more epic and enchanting. I, personally, will never go into space, never get to see another planet, let alone a black hole, neutron star, or binary system. This is as close as I can get. Check out this video below (I randomly found it Googling for an exploration highlights reel) to get a sense of what I mean:

Exploring also offers perspective on how truly, mind-bogglingly big space really is. With a good ship you can jump 30 light-years (more if you can manufacture special fuel boosts), but that's still peanuts compared to the distances involved on a galactic scale. Visiting Sagittarius A* (the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy) can take weeks, assuming you aren't just racing there and actually stop to see the sights. Crossing to the far side of the galaxy is an even more mind-boggling proposition. Some veterans of this journey have gotten together and organized a massive expedition that began at the end of January. Hundreds of players are making the trip over four months--yes, months--to a distant rendezvous.

I love the bottom-up organizing at work here. It's something MMOs do really well: no one told these players "you have to go explore the galaxy." It's just something they are doing. Even cooler might be the Fuel Rats--they're a faction of volunteers who will dispatch a rescue ship with fuel if you miscalculate and are stranded somewhere. Again, no one from Frontier Developments suggested that should be a thing.

I haven't played many other MMOs, however. I don't really have the time to dedicate to being a member of a group. So I appreciate that Elite Dangerous offers space for people to collaborate (or conflict), but it also has plenty of opportunity for solo players as well.

My Asp Explorer hanging over a star in Mu Cancri
My new Asp Explorer

Although you can explore in any class ship, it helps to have one of the more expensive models with a farther jump range. After taking a break for over a month, I finally resumed playing last week, and I saved up enough money for an Asp Explorer. I bought and outfitted the Asp last night. I didn't have quite enough money for all the explorer's bells and whistles, but I have what I need to make a first, tentative exploration voyage.

I’m setting my sights on Barnard’s Loop, which is over 1000 ly distant, but I’m going via the Witch Head nebula. We’ll see how long it takes to get there and whether I get distracted by the star systems therein and decide to return early.