I come and go on old franchises and old ideas being resurrected by rich old men for rather less rich and old men and women. Sometimes it seems like a roadblock to fresh invention, other times it seems like returning to roads that games were forcibly and unfairly turned away from as forces of marketing and demographic-chasing decided they weren’t suitably commercially viable. For example: space sims didn’t all but die out because the possibilities were exhausted. Though there have always been survivors, they all but died out because they required huge budgets to pull off well, but could not command the sort of easily advertised-at mainstream audience required to earn their keep. What remained turned inwards, servicing the very particular demands of a passionate few, and making themselves all the more inaccessible to those who were interested but not quite so fervent about it.
The comeback, thanks to the removal of almost all middlemen and the ability to engage directly with an audience large enough but spread far and wide, is something I find incredibly exciting. After having barely touched space games for years, I now find myself owning a £120 joystick and obsessed with Elite 4.
I peer back into the mist of early teenage years stranded in the countryside with a 486 as almost my only companion, and space games were so important to me. Elite: Frontier, TIE Fighter and X-Wing, Privateer… Then, around 1997, it stopped, or at least seemed to. Part of that was me, as the earliest stages of an alcohol-orientated social life flickered into being, and part of that was the genre becoming less exciting and more elaborate – though it meant I missed out on some of greats, such as Freespace, I-War and the last worthwhile Lucasarts efforts.
Look to the turn of the century and the writing’s on the wall. Plenty of space games, yes, but what a mess: a split between poorly-received licensed drek and deep-dive sims with narrow appeal. Where’s the seat of the pants stuff? Where’s the fantasy of it all? Where’s the game that makes me want to stick a cardboard overlay on my keyboard, or buy a new joystick? Where’s the space game that matches the thrill and escapism of the first-person shooters of the time? Years later still, I dallied with Freelancer, but much as I liked it, somehow it wasn’t quite there.
April 2014. My desk is overwhelmed by an enormous flight stick, made of two shoebox-sized components bearing over 30 buttons and clad in surprisingly sleek, industrial black and chrome colours. This Saitek X52 Pro ‘HOTAS’ was designed for resolutely Earthly flight sims, but it absolutely looks like the controls for a spaceship. Springs and switches, resistances and triggers – just holding it, moving it, is incredibly satisfying even before it’s connected to anything. It cost me too much money. How I agonised over it. It was immediately worth it. I’ve never before been so enamoured of a game controller.
On my screen flickers alpha 3 of Elite: Dangerous, unofficially aka Elite 4, and David Braben and Frontier’s first return to the series which made him in almost twenty years. It has an extremely troubling alpha/beta access business model, and it is mere rudiments of the game it is promised to one day become, but it is beautiful. And it is thrilling. I reach for the throttle on the immense flight stick, ease it forward. The screen shudders in immediate response, and my cockpit glides towards and through an asteroid field. It’s one of the best feelings on Earth.
I hit the afterburner button, and unconsciously push myself backwards into my chair in response to imagined g-force. I flip open a small hatch and hit the seductively red button beneath, which causes the ship’s weapons to deploy with a wonderfully mechanical sound. I flick a D-pad on the neck of the main stick, setting an enemy Sidewinder as my target.
Then…. Then it all becomes too instinctive to describe. This is 3D space. It needs 3D controls. ‘Left’, ‘right’, ‘up’ and ‘down’ mean so little here. A mouse would mean 2D space. A gamepad is better, but no, thumbs alone could not sell this fantasy. A clenched hand held aloft, a wrist rotating in all directions, another hand pushing and pulling a throttle to create speed, that’s what’s needed.
A short dogfight against AI, from one of my earliest experiences with Elite Dangerous. Video goes up to 1440p, if you like.
I twist and turn and strafe and drift, fighting to keep the Sidewinder in my sights, gradually scouring away its energy shield then burning destruction into the hull beneath. The noises are right. The colours are right. The sense of trying to haul several tonnes of metal through a vacuum is right. The movement is right.
Afterwards, I return to a space station and commence the singular pleasure of docking. Gentle, careful movements, easing my ship into an enormous space station that yawns around me like the maw of a metal god. It is mere pixels I know, but I am completely sold on the fantasy of this being the pinnacle of future-human engineering. I lower the ship to the landing pad, a little less messily than last time, but no less tense. This is extreme piloting. I don’t care it’s accurate, if it’s Newtonian or arcade pyhsics, I just care about how it feels. I care about getting back to what was left behind, or what I imagined was left behind.
So yes, the movement is what I imagined two decades ago, when there was so much more abstraction between eye and screen, hand and controls, when a controller like this was unthinkable. It is a strange and slightly sad thing, to have come full circle but to need hundreds of pounds worth’ of technology at my disposal, and hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of person-hours creating these scenes, in order to do what my imagination could do back in 1994. But the adult mind criticises in a way a childish one did not, and the tireless march of technology means expectations have inevitably raised. Meeting them, having a space game experience which feels like the space game experiences I had in my youth, is costly and elaborate. There is guilt to that, but there’s also excitement. We’re back where we left off. Maybe this is where we’d have ended up anyway. Who can know?
This much I know: here I sit, a 35 year old man sat at a desk, with a £120 joystick stuck to it with suction pads, flying a pretend spaceship, and I couldn’t be happier. A big part of me wishes it weren’t Elite, it didn’t come from the Rich Old Men Of Kickstarter, it hadn’t been funded based only on vague promises, that it wasn’t employing the extremely high cost alpha/beta funding model it’s currently using to print money, that it was something brand new – but it isn’t, and it is still so very good. Already so good, with so much more to come.
I think of the year ahead, the other space games to come, and the guilt is tempered, the excitement grows. No Man’s Sky, Infinity, Rodina, the even more mercenary but perhaps also even more promising Star Citizen – reasons for this joystick, reasons to escape from a gaming world of soldiermen and lanes and free to play cashgrabs that I feel increasingly disconnected from, reasons to be cheerful. Reasons, after all these years of finding flight games so unappealing, to fly.
I push the throttle forwards. An impossible engine shudders into life. The cockpit shakes. The stars melt around me. The separation between body and screen disappears. If anyone saw me now, they’d laugh at me. I wouldn’t care a jot. I needed this. I don’t know how I ever lost it.
The Elite Dangerous alpha is out now for an eywatering £200, or the forthcoming ‘Premium beta’ is £100. Standard beta is £50. Much as the top-end prices make me uncomfortable, they do reflect the various backer tiers/rewards for the original Kickstarter. Honestly though, just wait a while. Yeah, the stuff that’s in there so far is great, but it’ll still be great, and there’ll be loads more of it, a few months from now, when you won’t have to pay so much.
I’ll be writing more about the X52 Pro and some other joy/flight sticks very soon.