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Elite's New Frontier - Part 1

Ian Bell and David Braben both had a vision when they met at Cambridge in 1982; they wanted to realize the vast worlds that the promise of computers could generate, but most computer and arcade games at the time were primitive in both activity and scope - they had a number of lives, a score, and a specific directive or task to accomplish. Vector graphics had been around since the very first videogame, but the technology was primarily used to imagine static tunnels and flat wastelands. There was room for so much more, and they knew if they didn’t do it, someone else would.[“Brits Who Made the Modern World: Video Games”, BBC] They developed an idea of the player flying among galaxies, trading goods among economies, and fighting pirates, all in rastered 3D. They managed to use function or procedural generation, inspired by the mathematics of Fibonacci, to create what was at the time a massive universe of 2,048 stars, with planets, space stations, marketplaces, mission boards, plus enemy and alien ships to dogfight, all within a virtual cockpit on the screen, and all composed in 22K of space on the BBC Micro computer. [Ibid.]

After being rejected by publishers for not having those exact features they had become tired of in other games - scores, lives, and “golden eggs”, [Ibid.] they found a kindred spirit in a small publisher Acornsoft, that helped complete development, and had grand plans for this unique adventure with no score and no finite ending. In the spirit of fully realizing the vector-based 3D universe within the game, they packaged every copy in a massive presentation game box that included a game manual that was written as if it was for flight training a pilot. This manual, describing specific aspects of the design, layout, and functions of the game’s Cobra Mk III spaceship, was hardly in the code - what wasn’t only imagined in the manual was presented in the game as simple text list, but the rich details of the manual provided the player context for imagining their surroundings when peering into their computer monitor.


Additionally, and more importantly, this was the first videogame ever published to include a novella, set within the fictional universe, called The Dark Wheel. It told the story of a pilot avenging his father’s death to a notorious pilot, and his path down a rabbit hole of consipiracy. This novel included places, ships, and actions the players themselves would see and take within the game, but embellished upon details far beyond the capabilities of those 22K of game data. The Dark Wheel added context to what the player was about to experience, while making the world feel bigger to the player than what it was on screen. (It also subversively added value to the purchase of the retail product, something a pirated copy didn’t have.)

An experience that only took place at the computer desk of the 1980's bedroom or home office was expanded into the pulp fiction space of the living room, the bus, or the nightstand - physical media that directly tied an electronic experience to a traditional narrative so many science fiction enthusiasts had been familiar - only this time, when they sat down at the computer, they could enact their own adventures and fill in the details for themselves. While the story was effectively written as a narrative extension of the game, Elite in its way became the player’s extension of the story; an interactive playground to make their own narrative like that imagined in The Dark Wheel.


Elite thus became the first “open-world” videogame [cit.], and changed the way games could tell stories.

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