Space sims are commonly regarded as being "a mile wide but an inch deep". Elite: Dangerous has fought to rid itself of this label for more than two years as it's successfully recreated the feeling of flying around in the wide vastness of space, but struggled to demonstrate the gameplay depth that most gamers prioritize when shopping for games.
Although a common concern, no game has battled with this label more than No Man's Sky, a game sold as having an "infinite procedurally generated galaxy". While on paper it was alluring, its gameplay repetition and harsh reliance on random planet geography has made it unfulfilling for many fans of the space sim genre.
It isn't impossible to make a space sim compelling, though. A shining—literally—example of how to create a sense of depth through intrigue was demonstrated yesterday in Elite: Dangerous' first ever alien encounter.
For years players have discovered subtle clues that hint at the existence of an alien species in Elite: Dangerous. More recently, ancient relics and crashed ships have been discovered, piquing the curiosity of spacefarers. Rumors and discussion have been rampant on the game's official forum as players have inquired to learn more about the secrets of Elite: Dangerous' fictional Milky Way galaxy.
That climaxed yesterday when a player by the name of CMDR Sayre encountered the first ever alien spaceship in the game's more than two years of history. The discussion-invoking event occurred a few moments after the player entered hyperspace, a mode used to quickly travel between star systems. Traditionally, hyperspace is a safe means of long-distance transportation, but in this instance it left the player vulnerable.
The player's hyperspace hop to Aries Dark Region XU-O B6-3 was interdicted, sending the player tumbling through space at high velocity. Bizarre noises could be heard as spaceship modules began to malfunction in a way similar to when Matthew McConaughey entered a black hole in Interstellar. Something wasn't right.
Following 12 seconds of violent turbulence the spaceship came to a halt. Without any power available to guide the spaceship to safety, the player had no choice but to stare out into the abyss. Soon, a massive star-like structure approached the player. Once it was only a few hundred meters away it became clear that it was a massive spaceship of extraordinary proportions, from which a powerful burst of yellow energy was projected outward. Disturbing noises could be heard echoing through the vacuum of space.
It was at this moment that CMDR Sayre knew that what he was experiencing wasn't ordinary. In-fact, it was the first time any player in the world had engaged in such an encounter.
The alien spaceship demonstrated awareness and advanced technology. Whatever it was doing was foreign and creepy, but also beautiful in a way. Its yellow lights and ear-piercing noises would soon subside before it would turn leftward and float away like a butterfly, revealing its strange arrangement of flower petal shaped structures and dark red energy trailing behind. And in an instant it vanished through hyperspace.
Thanks to the Xbox One's DVR capabilities, the event was recorded for the world to see. Three videos circulating the internet have accumulated more than 350,000 views within 24 hours, and a wealth of comments. You can see a compilation of CMDR Sayre's two videos below.
Although reports of the event naturally caused skepticism, Elite: Dangerous developer Frontier Developments effectively confirmed it as official via a tweet, which read, "A report just coming through that a CMDR has experienced something… strange". This was no fake.
A Wiki entry for the event describes it as a first encounter with an alien ship on the game's fictional date of January 5th, 3303. The flashing yellow lights were apparently a scan, and the "Unknown Ship" bore a striking resemblance to wreckage found at "Alien Crash Sites". The most important detail is the reference to Thargoids. Introduced in Frontier: First Encounters back in 1995, this mysterious insectoid alien race is said to possess great intelligence, "perhaps existing in a parallel universe". However, it is also described as a hostile species with dangerous technological capabilities.
If this is the case, why did the ship decide to leave the player alone? Something it observed during its scan appeared to have direct it away from confrontation, but why?
This, along with the sheer creepiness of the encounter itself, is the sort of thing that makes exploration-focused titles like Elite: Dangerous most interesting. Discovering unknowns fueled mankind's quest to map the Earth in the same way gamers are encouraged to venture out into virtual worlds. They might not be "real", but how else are you going to experience what it's like to fly to Polaris and land on a planet? And with a virtual reality headset on it might as well be real.
Frontier Developments did a particularly great job of designing the alien encounter, from the visual presentation to the audio. But every instance of discovery doesn't have to be of this magnitude. Content styled in a simple but surprising way goes a long way to making a space sim feel like it's something more than what's visible on the surface.
Elite: Dangerous is now in the headlines and being talked about by tens of thousands of people who likely knew little to nothing about the game prior to this week, and that's a great sign of success.
No Man's Sky could benefit greatly from something like this. Reaching the center of the galaxy was considered the original mystery that drove curiosity, one that failed to deliver in one of the most disappointing ways imaginable. But that doesn't mean it always has to be this way. Hello Games has something to build upon, and in time its procedural generation could become the conduit for a big news story just like Elite: Dangerous'.
And really, just about any game can learn from this. Randomness and peculiarity are great assets that create wonder within a game, a quality that is sadly uncommon in today's game design. Given the positive reception of the alien encounter, it appears that a large number of gamers are drawn toward wonder. Developers take note.