Elite [1984]

(Content warning: Slavery.)

THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

On August Tenth, 1675, at precisely 3:14 PM, John Flamsteed laid the first foundation stone to renovate Greenwich Castle into The Royal Greenwich Observatory. Who laid the second, the third, the fourth and so on are, strangely, not so well-specified — those would have been, I can safely assume, actual construction workers beneath the notice of capital-h History notated down to the minute and not the first Astronomer Royal. The Greenwich Observatory is fascinating to me as a place of tremendous centrality. The dependence on the actual mechanisms within the Greenwich Observatory have been technologically outmoded, but 346 years on, it’s still the foundation stone for measuring large swathes of time and space across the surface of the Earth: all time zones are expressed relative to Greenwich Mean Time, and the Prime Meridian that defines 0 degrees latitude still hugs close to the observatory. These functions that fix time and space both in place ironically themselves supplant the practical utility of navigation by the once-groundbreakingly accurate star charts (including, for the first time in history, Uranus) that Flamsteed made using the actual observatory part.

That’s a turn from the heavenly bodies to terra firma. It’s also a concurrent and poetically dovetailing turn towards what we might think of as a systemic, even scientific, rationalism. As far as I can tell, John Flamsteed (unlike his rival Issac Newton) was not a superstitious man in the slightest: he inveighed against astrology, and a legend has it that when some symbolically-important ravens at the Tower of London were bothering him, he had no compunctions against evicting them. But it’s not just rational to plot the data points in the sky and turn the globe into a grid. It’s ideological, it’s an idea that existence is to be measured and cataloged, it’s a map that flattens the territory and depicts nothing in its uniformity, it’s a practical solution for a world-spanning naval empire’s logistical problems, it’s rendering the planet legible to capital in the same sense as one renders animal fat into lard, it’s an assertion that the whole world and the sky above is hungry imperial England’s to carve up and chart, it’s a supreme arrogance, it’s completely narcissistic and arbitrary to use the Greenwich Observatory as the axis mundi. It makes it the closest thing you can get to a leyline without magic.

John Flamsteed’s nominal, perfunctory alma mater was Jesus College, Cambridge. That’s coincidentally where, around 300 years later, Elite [1984] developers Ian Bell and David Braben met.

Positive Messenger (aka Newcleus) – Wind Over Eden [1983 or 84]. A pretty incredible demo that didn’t make it onto the “Jam On Revenge” album.

Elite’s astronomical vision, and the ideology thus expressed, is markedly different from Flamsteed’s. Elite had to be built from scratch, and thus more cleanly authored. Real things have to be omitted, for reasons of medium constraints. It is a complete flight of fantasy that works to create a convincing impression of astrophysics without the astrophysics. For instance, as was once intuited in ancient times, the stars have no relationship to suns. Instead, they are just meaningless dots that swipe past you rapidly to indicate motion, which makes them seem very small more than it makes you feel very fast, especially when you seemingly pass by hundreds of stars, hung between a planet and the space station orbiting it. So there’s no constellations, and no chance of navigating by this TV static.

It’s a random cosmology… but then, infamously, nothing in a computer is truly random. Like Pitfall [1982], the whole vast gameworld is procedurally generated with an algorithm, this one based around the Fibonacci sequence, and unlike most modern implementations of that concept, it’s fixed so that it’s always the same every time. That’s how you put a galaxy in a can. You don’t plot the stars, you write the rules. So it’s a deterministic universe. Nothing is truly random, it’s just chaotic, proceeding according to rules that are too obscure xor complex for us to understand or maybe even perceive. If you’re yourself determined, you could reject the quantum and the relative and see reality the same way: even TV static is cosmic background radiation predetermined from the Big Bang. But with Elite, it’s absolute: if it’s too esoteric to reverse-engineer the workings of the clock from observation, you can actually go and read the magic incantations.

But as absolute as Elite is, it’s also all relative. There’s no fixed center to the galaxy, in fact, there’s no firm reference points to universally measure coordinates against, in fact, there’s no clocks and no legible measure of distance at all. Humanity, it seems, has evolved beyond a compulsive mathematical accounting of spacetime. The closest thing spaceships have on their instrument panel to a tape measure is a near-sighted non-unit gauge that tells you when you’re getting close to crashing into something, because in the game when you’re close enough to something big, you can’t see it. Next to that, there is a big 3-dimensional radar that tells you the positions of other ships relative to you. It is, literally, self-centered. But the player is the only actor in this ordered system with the freedom to be arbitrary and undetermined and chaotic.

PERSPECTIVE

Actually, this is the first 3-dimensional game I’ve covered, the drawn prosceniums of Mystery House [1980] notwithstanding. (There was an abandoned attempt at Maze War [1974] that amounted to naught but frustration and shame.) Moreover, though it’s not really considered as such, Elite is a first-person shooter. (Like Maze War.) This is actually the foundation of the game, on which all else was built before scope creeped. The initial ambition was to clone Star Raiders [1979], which now looks like a stripped-back Elite because it only has combat, but is possibly even more of a technological marvel at bringing you a galaxy in a can for doing it in the 1970s.

Your main weapon is a set of two laser beams. They’re always aimed squarely at the exact center of the screen. Two laser beams: one for each eye. These unnatural straight lines reach out into the universe like emission theory in ancient times once intuited our eyes did. Just enough to create the illusion of depth in a way that one line would not, just enough to sketch out the elementary artist’s guidelines of linear perspective, just enough to tie itself to the European tradition of oil paintings and geometric optics, all converging on a single, mathematical vanishing point. And it really is a vanishing point when your gaze is converted to violence, annihilating the object of your most central focus. This kind of projection, though, takes as its central focus the viewer, the player. They are the First Person.

Maze War makes what the player is thunderously literal. In Elite, you are your spaceship.

But this perspective doesn’t feel like turnabout annihilation, lines of CRT radiation pointed accusatorily back at you. It feels like a flattery, a blue ribbon, a prized position. Other points of view have been very rigid, they have been fixed canvases decided upon by game creators; now, the player gets to be a computer eye — you can call that freedom, or control, but it’s both, it’s freedom through control, directly tied to the control to deal out death.

Traditionally, video games let you both shoot AND move, and in Elite, both are equally tied to vision. You are always going straight ahead where you are looking, deeper and deeper, never fully stopping, only slowing. There is palpably no “at rest” in space. You actually have surprisingly good control over your speed for what is ostensibly space, it’s just like pulling back on the throttle or using a lighter touch on the gas pedal. You’d think this would require reverse thrust, but you don’t get to reverse except by turning completely around. It’s hard to tell, but I don’t think the ship even gets carried away even slightly in a direction different from where it is pointed by the momentum it had. Oddly, you can’t turn left or right. That’s too intuitive. I suppose if you were allowed to turn left and right, it would feel too familiar to our terrestrial world. Instead, you have to rotate on your side and go up or down, which forcefully emphasizes the disoriented all-directional motion of space. However, you do have the option to look at the ship’s left or right flank… and not above or below you. This for once puts motion and vision at exact cross-purposes, and makes lining things up a pain.

There’s also the aforementioned radar, a second perspective on the same events. This resides in a split-screen, mounted in an instrument panel that’s an ancestor to the FPS HUD, one that invokes flight-simulator-esque verisimilitude for an impossible vehicle. The viewer must rely on both visual inputs near-simultaneously, and occasionally the also-aforementioned side and rear view mirrors, compositing the information to imagine a whole, since neither alone is sufficient. Since everything is rendered in wireframe, you even have X-Ray vision. Sure, even taken all together it’s not the omnipotence of the top-down view, but what it loses in the power of knowledge, it gains in identification with the player character. It does this explicitly without gravity, which has hitherto been in my eyes the primary way games have made characters feel less like mere pawns and cursors. It’s trading that tactile restriction for perceptual restrictions.

Actually, I know I just used a picture, but look at this:

That’s a picture from the Elite manual, and it blows my mind a little. All along, the computer screen, keyboard, and joystick that you have as a real-life player was diegetic, a one-to-one exact correspondence to what the character sees. You’re not looking through a window or a camera feed, but at a digital monitor. The most obvious reason for this is to underline again the identification with the player character, to make the imaginative boundary between you at your desk and you in the game lesser. At the same time, the maneuver also works around another potential boundary case of the imagination: not being convinced by a universe drawn in sparse wireframe. It’s kinda an excuse.

But that excuse has another implication: your view on the Elite universe provided by the game Elite does not faithfully reflect the Elite universe. It’s explicitly a mediated view. Perspective isn’t all about what you can see, but what you can’t. First-person is a kind of tunnel vision, you’re looking ahead but can’t see beyond the border. And as we know, in Elite, when you’re close enough to something big… you can’t see it.

ECONOMICS IS SCIENCE FICTION

Really, it’s all Spacewar [1962] again, it’s just what it means to be pressing the limits of technology has moved on. As has the reference material, to Star Wars [1977] — which, as the similarity in titles should be enough to illustrate, is drawing on inspiration from the exact same milleu of cheesy pulp sci-fi that Spacewar was. Elite is a Han Solo simulator, like how X-Wing [1993] is a Jedi pilot simulator and TIE Fighter [1994] is an Empire pilot simulator, except it doesn’t have any of the trappings of the Star Wars setting. So instead, the setting warps around the Han Solo role. Everything is geared to justify a rogue, independent goods-mule with their own ship and an ambiguous scoundrel streak.

So in short, the player character is a space trucker.

Deep Purple – Space Truckin’ [1972]

But you’re way more alone than a real trucker with their CB, or Han Solo with the hairy guy. Elite’s deep space is deeply empty, a void pocketed only with the occasional sun or pit-stop planet with ships passing silent in the perpetual night: an infinite Nebraska. That is, it has more to do with American supply chains and our concept of the Wild West, a frontier of wide-open expanses where it’s just you and your horse but violent bandits reign between struggling pockets of civilization, than it seems to riff on the British imaginary of faction-heavy and heavily-coordinated imperial naval trade. Beyond isolation, you are absolutely without ties to any organization, you call all your own shots. This is a kind of freedom, but it’s not the freedom of control from earlier, it’s the freedom from control. The game does not give you an explicit goal or plot, just a play area, but it’s not much about exploration and wonder or questing, there’s simply not that much to see or do. Making money is the only motivation you get for leaving the starting area, a more useful and integrated Points system. But you don’t get paid a wage, you don’t even get paid on commission unless you become a bounty hunter… you simply don’t get paid. You guzzle profit right from the hose, with no overhead except your operating costs — not even taxes and tariffs. You play as an economic free agent, idealized beyond all real sense.

The main engine of gameplay is hyperspatial arbitrage. You buy goods from one market, transport them to another, and sell those same goods somewhere else, where ideally they sell for a higher price, enough to cover the price of fuel. The only thing you can do that resembles labor that produces things is asteroid mining. Home computers thus far have been useful for business, war, and games, and Elite brings them all together. It’s as though you’re playing a dot on the supply/demand curve from Economics 101, somewhere between a rent-seeking middleman and a speculator, the perfect subject of the 1980s neoliberalism that thrived on back-of-the-napkin approximations. This might seem a reasonable premise at first blush, but there’s very few real-world analogues to trucker micro-arbitrage for a reason. You’re not any kind of auctioneer or speculator, you’re comparison shopping in reverse. Imagine pulling up to Wal-Mart with a truckbed full of apples you bought at another Wal-Mart and asking what they would pay you to have them. Imagine an entire economy where this nonsense is its entire import/export distribution network for allocating goods, with no hint of an overarching bureaucracy. That’s what Elite has you imagine.

Even more absurd than this take-it-or-leave-it pawn shop economy with no haggling is this tiny stipulation: you roll up to the market, the space station that orbits every planet, and only then and no sooner do you find out what prices they’d offer you. This is because the prices are generated afresh when you arrive in a new system… but the manual doesn’t explain it in turn as an in-universe technical limitation, like they could have. No: In the universe of Elite, relaying price information is illegal. I remember when I worked at a gas station, I was told on the first day that if somebody called us and asked what the price of gas was, it was indeed illegal to tell them. If that wasn’t a lie, it’s an obviously insufficient and outdated anti-price-fixing trustbuster measure, because I can name like five trivial workarounds off the top of my head, including simply not getting caught. The concept of a universal ban on advertising prices is ludicrously unenforceable, it simply dissolves at a second’s scrutiny and one begins to imagine a whole network of black market info brokers. After all, fluctuations in prices are not blamed on anything so pedestrian as tariffs or supply shocks, but on speculators, and what else could they be speculating on but the prices? Or hell, any economic actor in this network is gonna be hauling around the most up-to-date prices available to them just by remembering it for later.

So despite Elite being capitalist, it is NOT a depiction of free-market ideology. The economy is so hyper-privatized it doesn’t seem like enough coordination is possible to create a bigger firm than a planet. Elite helpfully straight-up ranks the types of government that a planet can have, albeit by the safety it presents for the space trucker, but nevertheless it’s telling that it has nothing but praise for the “well-ordered” Corporate State, top-ranked, over Democracy. The planets are essentially city-states, one portside market under just one legal regime surrounded by a goods-producing economy. Where are the interplanetary businesses? Going asteroid mining is more like picking stones up off the beach, or maybe the Wild West fantasy of a lone gold miner striking it rich in legally-unclaimed lands, than any resemblance to the massive and infamously exploitative labor environment of real miners — which surely couldn’t have been far from the avowed Thatcherite developers’ minds in 1984, in the middle of a big coal miner’s union strike. There are pirates who might be in gangs, but they might also just be operating like sharks sensing blood in the ocean, which leaves a huge gap between “individual space trucker” and “planet.” The only other apparent organization is the Galactic Cooperative (or the NewSpeaky GalCop,) an empire-by-any-other-name spanning multiple galaxies who run the police that enforce the illegality of drug- and gun-running, price communication, and slave-trading.

Ah yes, the slave-trading. We’ve seen and noted blatantly immoral actions in video games before: wanton vehicular homicide, infanticide, and cold-blooded unjustified murder. All of these have not only been direct acts of base violence, but they been played off as deadpan, dark slapstick rooted in amorality — an implicit assertion that we’re all on the same page that these things are clearly wrong in real life, and that video games are not where anyone is or should be turning to enact nor judge morality. (The Grand Theft Auto III [2001] developers cited Elite as their touchstone for open-world design and not the more behaviorally-modern Ultima [1981] series.) Elite does have a mild sense of humor, planets where they eat art school students and whatnot, but slavery isn’t much of a laughing matter, nor is it played as one. It’s still played deadpan, it’s just… there, acting like any other good, dehumanized and measured in tonnage. Why put slavery in, especially when you don’t seem to have anything to say about it? The player can become a slave-trader with the gentle stroke of a key, and the in-fiction consequences are equal to dealing in “Arcturan Megaweed.”

That is, GalCop is an empire actively campaigning against slavery… but one that can not wipe it out like they can price communication. So if people aren’t enslaved by the hungry maw of empire, where does Elite imagine they fit in to society? A quick peek at the annotated source code shows that the price of slaves is most comparable to (totally legal) liquor and furs. That is, unlike firearms, enslaved people are accounted as an extremely volatile luxury good — a luxury good that you can’t sell in the “civilized” places that luxury goods usually fetch a high price at. Unless you get very lucky, the yield for hauling enslaved people must be abysmal: despite elsewhere claiming that illegal trade is a high-risk route to make astronomical profit, the manual shows the ROI on one ton of slaves being on-par with one kilogram of undifferentiated rocks. It explains this by pointing out that the slave stock is, quite strangely, largely drawn from the ranks of the old and the sick, not able laborers. All in all, you gotta say that slave trade in Elite is so unprofitable it’s a wonder it doesn’t simply abolish itself. Seemingly, the only thing keeping the institution standing is the sheer sadistic cruelty: they’re a luxury good, you own people as a status symbol. Maybe this is why they are in the game, for the player to be evil with.

Obviously… this is not just unrealistic, it’s a house of cards built out of sharp divergences from history and economic rationality, from the good-aligned imperialism that’s aghast at slavery dreamt up only a century after the Scramble For Africa, to the slaves who can’t labor. If I’m being charitable, and I assume that Ian Bell & David Braben are not pro-slavery or callously thoughtlessly replicating imperial nostalgia, it’s like Elite is trying to whisper its weak little case against slavery… but it simply doesn’t have the tools. Its capacity for expressing forcefully the moral case against slavery, the important one, can only find its voice in GalCop’s police… who can’t be taken as the voice of Elite, or as an authority on what is and isn’t morally right, since they prosecute human trafficking exactly as harshly as weed. Nor can Elite show or even consider the effects of slavery on the enslaved, rendered as mere cargo. Instead, it seems to also try to make a bloodless pure-economics case against slavery… but it can’t do that, either. The real bloodless pure-economics case against slavery requires that you step back and look at how it poisons the entire cycle of production, but both macro-economics and productive labor is inexpressible within Elite’s game engine. So to avoid the inexorable ugly conclusion that slavery was profitable to the slavers and to the, well, elite, which could turn the game into a less ambiguous pro-slavery human trafficking simulator for sickos, it has to ahistorically lie to your face about the micro-economics. Its myopic focus on profiteering is abruptly cut off at the junction where it begins to raise the question of where profit even comes from and what miseries mankind is willing to inflict to get it, leaving only an unsettling and open hint for the player to hopefully connect the dots. One that calls attention to itself just by existing, but that would have gone unnoticed if it had been sanitized out of the lasers and spaceships world of pulp sci-fi.

The worldbuilding flinches at every turn and just doesn’t add up. If I want it to work at all, I have to indulge in a little bit of speculative fiction myself. The license: we view Elite’s world not through a perfect window, but an imperfect mediated screen, like the set-up to the big twist in Ender’s Game [1985], where their ability to mislead about the nature of reality is leveraged for ideological indoctrination and manipulation of actors. You have no way of communicating, even in a rendezvous with a station, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for everyone else in the universe. The instrument cluster tells us about our fuel tanks and our shields and our immediate vicinity, but all its data points amounts to a kind of noise, one that keeps our attention within the boundaries of the screen. What can’t we see because we’re too close and it’s too big? What can’t we see because it’s above or below us?

Above you: Everywhere you can go, GalCop reigns, like the ocean a fish can’t conceptualize, or the spacetime we can’t. Why does every planet come with an identical space station market orbiting around it, even if they’re a Feudal government operating at Tech Level 1? It’s reasonable to speculate that GalCop must have installed them, enlisting whole planets into their trade network. You know, colonially. The prohibition on price communication isn’t to stymy monopolies, it must be to protect those agents big enough to work around it with their own internal spreadsheets, whether that’s GalCop itself operating above the law or its plausibly-deniable surrogates. It’s first-mover advantage in action, it exists to screw independent operators like yourself. So you don’t have a direct boss, but your livelihood depends on operating within the GalCop network, by GalCop’s rules, both implicit and explicit. The second you step out of line, the GalCop cops shoot to kill with no hesitation and no steps of escalation, scraping you off their boot like mud. And still they can’t wipe out slavery, drugs, or guns, only price communication… shows where their priorities are.

BUNS OF STEEL

Our perfect neoliberal subject has the potential to get very rich by their understanding of Elite’s rudimentary economics, and that’s the power fantasy everything has been bent to facilitate, but they’re trapped in a similar hustle to modern-day gig workers trying to make their fuel money in a closed network that won’t deign to even treat them like an employee — except even more precarious, unsupported in a market that’s been engineered to almost maximize risk of not just financial failure but death. The game is rigged. You’re the small fish in the big pond.

Below you: The completely featureless spheres marking planets. In the novella that comes with Elite, The Dark Wheel [1984] — which is a joy to read through an ironic lens — an experienced space trucker tells a rookie that the most you can hope for at the end of a life of space trucking is a modest retirement on an Earth-like planet. Except in the game, it’s impossible to ever achieve this: you can’t land on a planet. And the divide is mutually insurmountable, it stands to reason, because all spaceships’ total capacity number much fewer than the galactic by an astronomical factor. You always have your very own spaceship, no matter how down and out you might be financially. This puts you in a class of society above the terrestrial, where you can not even see the labor and extraction that produces your cargo. We know what happens to the old on many planets, and it’s not a pleasant retirement. Without your ship, your humanity is measured by the ton. Elite is not a game with a win condition, it’s one of those games that’s an endless cycle until you give up or die.

One thing I haven’t yet noted is that Elite is a very hard game. Famously, there’s the docking, although pro tip: it’s night-and-day easier if you play with both a joystick and a system (like the BBC Micro it was designed for and not the ZX Spectrum) that can accept gradation of input. Otherwise, you’ll have no choice between spinning too fast or not at all. Even once I mastered docking and internalized the control scheme which looks scary but is actually pretty intuitive… I have to confess, I couldn’t make it out of the opening system after hours of trying. I therefore don’t have anything intelligent to say about the gameplay, sadly. I’d blast off in some direction, but some pirate would start following me and firing at me, and either they’d just whittle me down to death or I’d have to slow down to turn around and fire at them, and then within like a minute I’d be hopelessly surrounded by like 6 to 8 killers. Difficulty curve like a brick wall, and frankly, I’m not good enough at video games to scale it.

Arcade games are also famously hard, but as a matter of their economics, they were being hard to pump you for quarters and kick you off the machine as fast as possible. 1980s computer games for the home did not have such an obvious value incentive for being difficult, but they were generally very difficult nevertheless. In The Dark Wheel, space truckers talk a lot about having an “Iron Ass.” (See? Delightful.) This is a spaceship that can withstand a lot of damage, in even more dangerous situations than the one I found myself stymied by. Similarly, the name Elite itself refers not to your social caste, but to an in-universe combat rank where to be “elite” means to have destroyed an absurd six thousand and four hundred other ships. Both are twinned aspirational states of masculine pride in the face of opposition — in The Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlords. That’s why have an instrument panel full of data, that’s why 6 enemies at once is so insurmountable in Elite and nothing in Galaga [1981]. Elite is a textbook specimen of how home computer games, with all that space to stretch out into, delighted in the obtuse.

Many games remain obtuse, but once the computer became ever-more common and easy for a lay-person to know, one can no longer imagine basic faculty with a computer marking them out as an elite of any stripe. The power fantasy of having the spaceship is the power fantasy of having a computer. Knowing how to wield this unwieldy thing, to navigate the rapids of abstract finance in increasing isolation, wholly aloof from labor and organization, is the key to the future of middle-class mobility. One day, if you survive and you hustle for every sweaty cent, you might get to retire comfortably despite a hostile world with no safety net. Talk about an out-there sci-fi power fantasy.


Thanks to Matilda “Dalm” Dow, Ivan “olopi” Anderegg, and everyone else who talked to me about Elite.

2 thoughts on “Elite [1984]

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