"Sorry for the delay," said an apologetic Robert "DP Sayre" Bettig. "Life's been really busy lately." Bettig's been busy because last week, by complete chance, he became the first player in Elite: Dangerous to encounter extraterrestrial life.
Over the course of two years, Bettig has invested over 2,000 hours—more than 12 weeks—into a game that attracted him because he dug flight simulators. (Being set in space was merely a cool bonus.) Until recently, Bettig was just another space voyager in Elite: Dangerous, a man running trade routes, exploring planets, and shooting down space pirates. Now, he's famous.
"I was not actively seeking out aliens," he said. " [...] The whole experience was intense, like being pulled into a Ridley Scott film."
Elite: Dangerous fans have, for more than two years, thought they were alone. Though the Elite series has always featured encounters with the dangerous and insect-like Thargoids, they haven't been present in this version of the game. But for the past 18 months, the developers have slowly teased the existence of intelligent life, dropping hints for players to discover along the way.
Other players have spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours analyzing the breadcrumbs about the Thargoids. Generally, players who put in the bulk of the detective work are usually rewarded with the biggest prize—in this case, aliens. Instead, this time, the game was quietly updated, and the developers waited for someone to fall into their trap. It might have taken days, weeks, or months, but the bigger risk was worth the bigger reward.
(The developers turned down my request to talk about what happened, likely because it's the beginning of something more. We'll revisit this with them later.)
What Bettig encountered, though, was not subtle; it was straight-up terrifying.
In Elite: Dangerous, players can be yanked out of supercruise, a method of faster-than-light travel, by both players and other dangerous elements. It's called an interdiction. The game subjects you to a mini-game that, if failed, causes heat damage to your ship and a lengthy cooldown, which is perfect for anyone who'd like to take advantage of you. What happened to Bettig was far more troubling: hyperdiction, where his ship was yanked out of a hyperspace jump.
In the video, all of his systems go dead. There's a hostile ship nearby, suggesting his demise is close at hand. He was prepared for the worst.
"As the strange vessel flies overhead and comes about to face me, while I'm completely disabled, I'm thinking that I'm about to enter a world of hurt," he said. "This is going to cost a re-buy—40 million credits for that ship, no small amount of work. I just resigned myself to watching, dead in space as the NPC bounty hunter opens up on my ship."
Then, just as everything seems to be headed in a bad direction, it gets worse. Creepy music swells and strange object passes overhead; an organic-looking ship that pulses and rotates—this was not made by mankind. This thing, whatever it is, scans his ship, then leaves as quickly as it arrived. It was toying with him, studying him.
"I was in shock, hands shaking, thinking just clearly enough to spam the record button," he said. " [...] It took me a moment to gather myself. I'm on coms telling everyone what I see, and they don't want to believe me."
Bettig plays the game on Xbox One, where he travels through space while chatting with players in the 75th Ranger Regiment of the Ryder Rangers, an in-game organization he's a part of. (You actually have to apply to become a 75th ranger; the group actively interviews new recruits.) Like Mulder pleading with Scully, Bettig was adamant about what he saw. The group began searching for information, but nothing came up. Whatever happened, Bettig was first.
"I had to wait about a half hour to share the first video while it rendered before anyone could see it in my profile," he said. "I could watch it, but wanted to disprove any chance of brain damage—I think someone [jokingly] suggested that as a possibility over chat."
"I was in shock, hands shaking, thinking just clearly enough to spam the record button."
When the video went live, it blew up. His video has nearly 200,000 views, and it's been shared widely across Internet. Even the game's developer, Frontier, acknowledged his discovery, calling it "strange."
The response has been overwhelming, to the point that Bettig's brother, Matt, was brought in to help field all the requests, since he'd been "swamped with all kinds of unexpected attention." His brother, as it turns out, is the reason we know more about what happened; Bettig wanted to disappear.
"My brother was on his way to my house when the encounter happened to, among other reasons, brag about beating me to the galactic core," he said. "Had he not been here, I would have gone underground and hidden until the hype was over. I'm not a social butterfly, so I asked him almost right away to be my 'manager.'"
(You're doing a very good job, Matt.)
"It was stressful [last] Friday when I finally crawled out of bed after a long night before," he said. "My brother had his laptop set up on my dining room table and he said 'sit down and start typing.' I hadn't realized how 'big' this was—so many people on so many social media platforms. I was really glad I was limited to email. Later that evening, I started through the first hundred messages on my Xbox Live account. It was truly exhausting. I'm still receiving messages today."
In a game full of mostly anonymous players, for a brief moment, Bettig has become the center of attention. Though not comfortable with the spotlight, he's trying.
"I'd rather be out exploring," he said, "but now, especially with the newly found fame, I will be sticking around 'occupied space' to help other players out and hopefully continue to inspire the community."
If the latest patch notes for Elite: Dangerous are any indication, it appears war is coming. If Bettig and others are to survive whatever's next, they'll need all the help they can get.