Premonition: The challenge ahead

Aug 31, 2016

Let’s be clear. I do like a challenge. 🙂

With my first Elite Dangerous book I set myself what I thought were some pretty lofty goals. The first of those was raising £4,500 for a licence. Kickstarting a kickstarter had never been done before. Numerous people told me I was ‘wrong’ and it wouldn’t work. It did. It was my very own ‘Kobayashi Maru’. 😉

With that out of the way there was the book itself. I had a year to get it together. I wanted it to be a book that anyone could read, fan of the franchise or not, but also be satisfying and ‘meaty’ for those that did. It had to pay appropriate homage to the previous games, without being overloaded with clichéd nostalgia or ‘Mary Sue’ characters – and it had to look forward to a new game which, at the time, didn’t yet exist and avoid being immediately ‘out of date’ as a result.

Naturally it had to be quality story, well written and presented. That should go without saying!

Looking back after four years, I think I can reasonably claim I achieved all of those goals with Reclamation.

Now I’m embarking on the new Elite Dangerous novel : Premonition and it’s an even bigger challenge. Everything above needs to be true of the new story (though perhaps with rather less looking back at the older games) but this time I need to circumvent some much bigger issues. I’ve identified 4 in particular.

Issue 1 : The Story

“How to plot a story” guides aren’t going to work here.

I am a ‘planner’, a writer who works out the detail in advance so I know precisely where I am and what I’m trying to write. I don’t generally like ‘writing by the seat of my pants’ as some do. There are pros and cons to this approach, but I find the pros dramatically outweigh the cons if your aim is a cohesive and compelling story.

Unfortunately for me, that doesn’t quite work here. Whilst Frontier Developments have shown me what they have planned to unfold in Elite Dangerous there are many points at which the story could diverge and go off in different directions. David Braben is very keen on the player narrative and quite right too – but how to write a book where you don’t know what the ending is going to be? It’s a tricky problem. There have been major parts of the Elite Dangerous story-line that have already been chucked into the ‘circular file’ because of player actions – the demise of the Emperor’s Dawn was one of them.

My solution to this is to have a framework to write against. A flexible backbone to the story and something which I’ve OK’d with Frontier. There are big elements that we do know about, the Federation and the Empire aren’t going to disappear overnight, so I’m safe there. I know what Frontier will add and (approximately) when, which allows me to write up those sections. I know the content I’ve been able to add to Elite Dangerous, so I can write that in too.

Thus I can write the book in part, and in sections, rather than my normal approach of ploughing through chronologically. That will put an extra strain on checking, as it will be harder to stop continuity errors creeping in.

What I don’t know is what players will do. It is possible they will inadvertently trash my ‘backbone’, I’ve done a lot of work to obviate this, but it’s no guarantee. If so, that’s cool, because the aim here is to be true to what they do. I have built in plenty of contingency to cater for such a scenario.

Player narrative is already part of the story and some player CMDRs are already guaranteed a place. Salomé’s odd disappearance and the recent discovery of the alien ship are just the start! I love the idea we can dramatise the antics of the players in this fashion. It’s great to see the ‘roving reporters’ of the universe submitting their own GalNet articles in response to what they’re seeing – keep at it!

Issue 2: The Scope

You cannot break the “Iron Triangle”

Those that have complained in the past that there ‘isn’t much content’ in Elite Dangerous have clearly not considered writing a book that might try to address all that content. In short, a single book cannot do justice to even a small fraction of what is there and it would be foolish to try.

In fact, it has been tried before, and in a space game you may be familiar with. EVE. And it didn’t work out too well. In short the author of ‘The Burning Life’ tried to write a tale that encompassed everything, with a minor character who met every significant individual or organisation in the game universe. It became a contrived tale, unsatisfying and unbelievable.

I won’t be making this mistake.

I’m going to be looking at events in Elite Dangerous through what I like to call a ‘double lens’. The first lens will be that of an historian, looking at the unfolding events dispassionately and cataloguing what has happened, noting the detail of times, places and those involved. The second lens is one of the dramatist. Some events lend themselves to story telling and some don’t. I will have to be very selective as to which events I choose to include and which I don’t.

Clearly, when a player bumps into an unidentified alien spaceship that’s going to be noteworthy! A series of players delivering propaganda leaflets on behalf of a Power Play character, less so.

There are levels here too, some events can be mentioned in passing, others discussed by characters, some can be fully fleshed out and explored in the book. There are lots of ways to include content without derailing a story and without making it a dull a list of ‘things I ought to include’.

The other trick is not to invest all your time in a single lead character. Elite Dangerous has never been about what the academics stuffily describe as ‘hero narratives’ (or more accessibly: the idea that everyone you write about is really significant or influential in some way). Those player CMDRs who feature are just going to be ordinary folks who just happened to be in the right place at the right time (substitute ‘wrong’ as necessary!)

Thus you need a number of (though not too many) characters to carry various threads of the story around. For example, I have an Alliance character involved which I can use to illuminate the story from their perspective. It’s not believable for a single character to be involved in everything that goes on, but they could be aware of events going on around them and have an opinion on them. That way you can push across different perspectives.

The Thargoids are a good example. GalNet has recently shown that many people consider them to be nothing more than a myth or rumour. Is the alien ship Thargoid in origin? This is great for character interaction as you can face off a sceptic against a believer and explore the background lore via their conversation without it being contrived or come across as an ‘info dump’.

Issue 3 : The Lore

Just love this one! 🙂 Lore matters, after all.

This is a particularly interesting point, particularly for those of us intimately familiar with the games that have gone before. I’ve previously mentioned that one of the biggest things the Elite Dangerous franchise has going for it (compared to other games in the genre) is that it has a massive amount of pre-history. When I discovered that the lore was going to be ‘revised’ I was, initially, rather alarmed.

I needn’t have worried. Frontier are very much aware of the cachet involved in having such an archive of information, but crucially, they aren’t going to be bound by the discrepancies and inconsistencies that have crept in as a result of having multiple games set in the universe over the last few decades.

In short, the previous games should be viewed as imperfect (or perhaps limited is a better word) views into the Elite Dangerous universe. Those games could not accurately represent the universe due to technical constraints. With Elite Dangerous, the vision can be realised. Rather than rationalise the resultant inconsistencies with contrived explanations, the approach is simpler. The lore is revised.

In practical terms, this means that the old lore; the previous game manuals, stories, in game missions, journals and so on cannot be relied upon to be accurate – the reason I took down my previous lore articles as these were based upon that material. Elite Dangerous is “inspired by what has gone before, but not bound by it.” In franchise terms you can think of it as a ‘soft reboot’, there will be a lot of familiar material, but if lore needs to be changed to suit the requirements of Elite Dangerous today, it will be changed. Elite Dangerous itself is not a static thing and is still being developed. David Braben has indicated that we can’t afford to be overly nostalgic.

This does leave us with, right now, with no definitive articles of lore and many of the events we have previously considered ‘canon’ may either not have happened, or not transpired in the way we imagine. When writing the previous book there were various “Writers’ Guides” available. Some of these remain accurate, but events in-game have overtaken many of them. Some of the Elite Dangerous books are a little unsteady too. I feared this might happen and deliberately left parts of my story vague in the detail. Elite: Reclamation has emerged unscathed! (Other than that pesky Imperial Courier 😉 )

Fortunately for me as I write Premonition, I have something of a ‘hot line to God’. I can ask the Frontier team for clarification if I have a conundrum with the story due to a lore issue. As a result of this sort of interaction, information will get clarified over time. You’ll have seen a few ‘historic’ GalNet articles coming out which clarify the lore. I’m making efforts to collate lore on behalf of the community as I know many want to have a comprehensive overview of the Elite Dangerous lore.

Today, such as thing does not exist, but we will get there. For the time being, unless it was written in an official book (with some caveats), happened in-game, or was written in GalNet, it’s not canon. Much of the content out there on youtube, wikis, twitch streams and podcasts is speculative and should be treated as such.

Issue 4: The Game

Elite Dangerous

Elite Dangerous is an interesting animal. From some perspectives it’s a simulation: 400 Billion star systems realised based on real science, no anti-gravity, planets that follow the rules of solar system evolution. On the other hand it’s utter fantasy: Visible lasers, sounds in space, instant teleportation upon death, limited top speed.

When developing the game, Frontier has been very clear that “Game-play trumps realism and lore”. It’s got to be ‘fun’. I understand this. I haven’t always agreed with their interpretation of it, but they are game-designers and I’m not, so it’s their call.

When writing a book you have to turn that around however. I would say “Character and plot trumps game-play”. A book has got to be ‘engaging’. For a book to be ‘good’ it has to have a lot of elements that a game cannot really afford. Frontier themselves identified them very clearly – nuance, detail and characterisation.

We could just write up what happens, but a dry documentary of in game activities would be little more than a tidied up GalNet archive, interesting perhaps, but not a book most would want to read and certainly not a novel.

A book needs a plot, drive, pacing and direction and characters you care about because you’re invested in them. A book is not a multi-player construct where events emerge out of the complexity of combined actions. A book is a crystalised incarnation of events, curated into a story and marked out from beginning to end.

Thus, when writing, I’ll be stepping beyond the game. Some things will not be covered. Do not expect to see a rationalisation of how your escape pod gets you to the nearest station when you’re killed. That’s a gameplay convenience, not a piece of lore. Ditto the instant fit out of components, repairs or the controversial ‘insta-teleport’ of ships. There will be things in the book that you can’t do in the game, because the game can never reach the heights of realism that we can imagine in our heads.

That’s the great thing about having both. A game you can play and enjoy, a book you can read and imagine.

In summary

It’s a challenge, but one I think I am capable of wrestling into a finished product you’re going to enjoy.

As with any project of mine, I take a long hard look at the risks and issues I think I’ll face. It’s by no means a guarantee, but I’ve always subscribed to the view that if you ‘fail to plan, plan to fail’.

I have no intention letting down the fans of my books and the players of Elite Dangerous, so be assured I will be making my very best efforts to ensure this is an absolutely definitive Elite Dangerous novel, packed with lore, excitement, adventure and highlighting the amazing exploits of the community of players.

Write on, Commanders!

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