Mikael Levoniemi is the type of gamer that Frontier Developments wants to attract to deep-space flight simulator Elite: Dangerous. The dedicated Elite player recently announced that he had completed a two-month-long, 60,000 light-year journey through the heart of Elite's Milky Way.
As a realistic model of the entire Milky Way Galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, Elite embraces the huge abyss of space. One of the criticisms leveled at Elite is that trading and exploring in the galaxy, however, amount to nothing but a spacefaring version of the cult hit Euro Truck Simulator 2, in which players obey traffic rules and meet freight delivery schedules.
Though I love Elite, I have to admit that this is a fair criticism. It seems that everyone wanted a Star Wars simulator, but Elite has spent too much time with the "trade wars" part: the best way to make big money is to trade cargo, obey laws, and watch your profit margins.
Exploring is less profitable than trading, but it appeals to my wanderlust. Picking a distant star and venturing out beyond the borders of civilized space, way out into the black, and seeing things no human has ever seen before, well. It's a bit romantic. Unfortunately, it took me only a few days and a thousand light-years of exploring before I was bored of my mind.
You start to rack up the hours spent alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the empty blackness of a galaxy-sized massively multiplayer online game
Since its release in December, thousands of players have spent their time plotting courses out into the blackness of space, scanning undiscovered systems, and journeying back to make bank. Traveling through hyperspace tunnels is pretty fast, but the process of plotting a course, jumping, and refueling off of nearby stars can make a hundred-light-year trip take half an hour. Multiply that out by tens of thousands, and you start to rack up the hours spent alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the empty blackness of a galaxy-sized massively multiplayer online game.
As with Euro Truck Simulator, though, the right kind of loneliness can be extremely attractive for the right kind of players. I've spent a few dozen hours piloting, and I find myself drawn to the game. The mechanical complexity of flight itself, as played on a flight stick and throttle combination, is deep enough that each docking attempt is a chance to perfect my pilot skills. The feeling of ownership over my cockpit, of mastery over that mechanical space, keeps me coming back for more flights.
The appeal of distance and escape brings me back, too. Unlike many space games, space in Elite is more than a black skybox. It's real. It's distance. Targeting a space station at full throttle tells me that I'll arrive in two days, or a few seconds if I hyperjump. If I don't hyperjump, if I leave the throttle up and the computer on for two days, I'd get there. The feeling of isolation and real distance makes the terror of space palpable, and the game is so much the better for embracing that context. Even if, sometimes, I find myself watching Netflix on a second monitor or reading a book.
I'm not alone in seeking diversions, either. Much of the Elite subreddit is devoted to Spotify playlists and community-built radio stations. Comments recount the oft-repeated advice to marathon-stream Battlestar Galactica and or surf Reddit itself. A doctored video shows one player dreaming of playing a cell phone game while en-route to a gas giant.
The more I asked people about it, the more I found that the game is valued by people who enjoy just a little bit of loneliness.
The right kind of loneliness can be extremely attractive for the right kind of players
So how similar is space trucking to real trucking? To find out, I found truckers and Elite players and compared their experiences. I discovered that flying ships in Elite is a lot like driving, except that terrestrial trucking is worse in every conceivable way.
Truckers, it turns out, spend a lot of time on the internet. I dropped in on the long-haul drivers on the forum TruckingTruth.com and asked them straight out: Don't you get bored? They universally reported books on tape, music, and scenery gawking as their pastime of choice on the road. Some routes ("the 500 miles across Nebraska on the I-80" and "Indiana at night" were cited by name) were more boring than others.
One driver, who gave his name as David, pointed out that for safety concerns, "Boredom is a pretty good indicator that you need some home time or at least some quality time out of the left seat to recharge."
Another driver, "Amy," agreed. "[I]f it really gets too tedious, then it's time to pull over and get out of the seat. I don't know how that will translate to 'truckers in space,' but it seems to be a general rule that the folks drawn to this job tend to deal well with solitude."
Levoniemi's responses match almost word-for-word for the truckers I talked to. Levoniemi spent two months plotting courses by hand (this trip began before Elite had a functioning long-distance plotting computer), jumping into unexplored systems, scanning all of the valuable planetary bodies, scooping up hydrogen fuel from the local star, and jumping on.
He did this for several hours, about a thousand light years at a time. The game rewards him for his work by putting his name on any system he discovers first. Selling all that data also brings in a huge pile of cash. He also enjoyed the journey. "I saw things of great beauty, power, size," he told me. "The beginning of a galactic spiral arm was something to behold. Never have I seen so many bright objects in a cluster. [The] emptiness of space while traveling 2,800 light years beneath Sagittarius… Stellar nurseries up close."
But loneliness was an issue. Levoniemi kept in touch with Elite players in his local gamers' association, but for two months of in-game time he never saw another human player—quite a feat for a massively multiplayer online game. Levoniemi listened to a Spotify playlist a few times over to stay sharp, but mostly he just didn't let himself get bored. He marveled at astronomical curiosities, saw the sights of the local neighborhood, and kept things moving. If he was a bit bored, he didn't play.
The ability to walk away from the PC was my first hint that, simulated fidelity or no, there are aspects of the trucking life that don't make it into games. Trucking is a business, and every business cuts corners for profit.
"[I had] a romantic idea of life on the road," Rachel Barron told me. Now a massage therapist, Rachel started training as a long-haul driver. After a week of on-the-job training, she quit. "The reality was very different. I resented that I had to fucking pay to take a shower in some places… Not being able to see my family, being stuck with a stranger for six more months... feeling like my soul belonged to the company I was driving for… it was just completely different from anything I thought it would be. I couldn't muster the will to stick it out."
While tedium and distance helped push Rachel out of her new job, boredom may be Elite's greatest strength. It's so easy to make an empty box, paint it black, and fill it with spaceships and lasers. If Elite were nothing but the trench run from A New Hope, it would be broken because space—true, cold, astronomical space—is too big. Without distance, it's not real. It's Elite's emptiness that makes it feel authentic, and boredom is the secret sauce that sells the illusion.