Another Business-as-Usual Bad Guy

It seems that them Thargoids are indeed on their way back to human space.

Rawr. (Or whatever noise sapient insects make.)

After years of speculation and months of more direct teasing, Frontier Developments have announced that the next update to Elite: Dangerous — version 2.4, titled “The Return” — will re-introduce the Thargoids proper into the Elite universe.

The Return continues the Horizons season with ongoing story events that will see pilots thrust into battle against the Thargoids for the first time in gaming’s modern age. […] Players will be forced to develop new tactics and technologies of their own, or see humanity’s grip on our sectors of the galaxy recede.”

For many players this is a whole batch of simultaneous Christmases (or insert preferred midwinter festival here): finally, they’ll get chance to test their combat mettle against a fearsome, alien enemy, instead of just human “care-bear” players.


But there are some people who aren’t quite so keen on this development. Me included.

Wait, wait, wait. Before you tell me I’m just about busting people’s happy bubbles of violent alien-zappin’ joy, it’s not like that at all. I’m very big on the idea of you — yes, you — enjoying whatever game you decide to play; or, for that matter, enjoying whatever it is you do instead of playing computer games, you weirdo, you.

This final move towards the actual arrival of the chitinous hooligans doesn’t excite me for a couple of reasons. The first is my concern, previously written of, that the Thargies will end up little more than another business-as-usual bad guy alien race, along with the Sectoids, the Kilrathi, and the like. An alien threat loses a great deal of its intrigue and mystique once it stops being alien. And it stops being alien when it becomes human — even if it still has antennae, or big black ‘wraparound’ eyes, or fangs and claws.

Once the Thargoids are established as being driven by human motivations — revenge, fear, greed — then, as with the non-human species in Star Trek, they stop being aliens, and become metaphors for elements of human attitudes and behaviour.

There’s also a gameplay reason for my caution over the Thargoids.

Elite: Dangerous — henceforth mostly ‘ED’, because I’m bone idle — isn’t a combat game. Well, it is: as a segment of its forum population will incessantly remind anyone suggesting otherwise, “It’s called Elite DANGEROUS!” — and its title, or subtitle at least, is taken from the Pilot’s Federation combat ranking system, implying that combat is a central part of the game.

In the original Elite, back in 1984, a player’s performance was measured in three ways: the number of credits in their account; their legal status (Clean, Offender or Fugitive); and their combat rating (a scale from ‘Harmless’ to ‘Elite’).

This system stayed largely un-buggered-about-with through Elite’s two earlier sequels, Frontier and First Encounters. But in ED, the system’s been reworked. Now, there’s credits, legal status, and three separate competency ratings — one each for combat, trade, and exploration. Each one has profession-specific ranks, starting at ‘Harmless’, ‘Penniless’ and ‘Aimless’ respectively, but they all end at ‘Elite’. So while ‘Dangerous’ only appears on the combat scale, the title ‘Elite’ could now be taken to refer to any of these primary activities, the three ‘pillars’ of the game.

Okay, so combat remains important, but unlike the original game, ED doesn’t make combat quite as central. It’s not wholly avoidable, as my modest-but-undeniable kill count shows, but a canny player who wishes to avoid combat may well do so to a large extent. Such a choice is often derided in the forums as ‘cowardice’, as though a player takes some sort of risk or needs courage to engage in simulated combat on a computer or console[1], but in many cases — as in mine — it can be better attributed to a lack of interest in the combat mechanic.

I’m a simulator player by nature. By which I mean those are the games I tend to prefer. I like things to be reasonably realistic — or as realistic as a desktop-computer setup can make them — and I draw satisfaction from doing things that the person doing the real-life equivalent would do. I fly civilian flight simulators; I drive trucks across Europe and the western USA; I sail boats. I enjoy ED very much insofar as it plays like a flight sim or a trucking sim (accepting that it doesn’t have a direct real-life equivalent), but I find combat a distraction from that, and from the other two pillars, which I enjoy much more.

(It’d also be disingenuous to pretend that my personal philosophy doesn’t come into this. In recent years I’ve found that combat just doesn’t seem like fun any more, even when it’s simulated. Oh, I have my moments of vengeful rage when I can think of nothing I’d rather do than log onto a game and laser-blast the shit out of some artificial fools, for lack of being able — ethically or legally — to do it to real ones. But, for the most part, I prefer a peaceful pastime.)

All that said, of the three, combat is definitely the pillar that’s enjoyed the most attention from the developers. Exploration offers a relatively superficial mechanic, and trade is basic at best. While I generally welcome updates and improvements and polish to the game, I’m cautious about The Return. Not only does it promise to bust the bubble of mystique surrounding the elusive aliens, but it also threatens to focus ED even more on combat when, if I’m honest, that pillar has already had a disproportionate amount of love lavished on it. I don’t begrudge anyone having the opportunity to go out there and dogfight the aliens if that’s what ignites their reactor — but I would like to believe that F-Dev will continue to support all three pastimes that they themselves initially decided to build into the game.

I already have an old copy of X-Com: Interceptor. I really don’t want to see ED become another.

[1] – I realise there’s a logical fallacy of some sort in presenting videogaming in these terms. I’m not sure what it’s called, but for now I’ll label it “Doyle’s Football”:


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