You’re unique, just like everyone else

Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Progress Report

Yes, that’s original…

So, moving forwards again. First off can I say thanks to all of you who took the time to leave an encouraging word. It was extremely heartening and made a big difference.

Last week was a bit rough, I got stalled and mired in a bit of a rut. I had to make a decision to cull around 3,000 words from the story and re-write a scene entirely. That’s always pretty gut wrenching – the word count drops back and it feels like you’re going backwards. Unfortunately this is just ‘how it is’ sometimes. You’ve got to retrace your steps.

Without giving away the plot, the problem arose due to needing to manage an increase in tension which needs to be ratcheted up later in the story, but without giving away too much in the way of clues as to precisely what is happening right now. Basically, I’d given away too many clues. The writing was ok, but it blew the surprise. It had to go.

Apparently they look a bit like this…

However – that set back got me moving again. I’m inferring some of the stuff I was more direct about in the original draft, so the reader has to engage their brain to figure out what is happening behind the scenes – and a nasty plot-hole has been avoided.

You think black-holes are bad? Plot-holes are far worse. They can suck your will, credibility and fan base away, they can rip whole chunks of your manuscript up and chuck them into the circular file. You might never write a story again…

Anyway. Where are we this week? 45,230 words. Just ahead of the target of 44k for this week. Not too shabby. Next week should be reasonable, but I’ve got a week’s holiday after that, so I anticipate dropping a little behind target by the end of May. Nothing too serious at this point. I’ve also edited up chapters 5 and 6 after feedback was received, so those are much improved. We’re closing on the halfway point in the synopsis and this will be reached at the close of chapter 8 – a major cliffhanger. I expect this to be at around 55k words, so the draft is looking a touch longer than the original 100k target. Again, it’s all within tolerance for the overall plan.

So, what’s with the ‘unique’ title and the totally un-clichéd book cover?

I was musing on my thoughts on the conclave episode from Lave Radio. What is it that makes the Elite universe different from other sci-fi genres? And what does that mean for a fiction writer? And should I be starting sentences with a conjunction?

Let’s leave aside the fantastic fanbase community for the time being. That is remarkable in itself, but I’ll reserve for a future blog if that’s ok.

It’s not the technology. Lasers, guns, missiles, shields, engines, scanners. Yawn. That’s a well trodden path. There are variations on a theme, but the basic concepts have been used in sci-fi and space opera for decades. It’s very hard to write anything new. The pace of scientific progress makes a lot of it look very silly in a relatively short time too. Elite is pretty limiting here for a writer – you can’t improvise too far – Frontier has rules.

The original Elite ships.

The ships perhaps? There is a distinctiveness here. The original ships were mostly named after snakes: Cobra, Adder, Viper and so on. That was an interesting twist, but it got rather diluted in later iterations. It’s good to see that Elite:Dangerous will have quite distinct ship designs with nods to the original game and manufacturer ‘signatures’. But at the end of the day, it’s about spaceships and every sci-fi show or game has spaceships. So it’s not that.

The universe itself? Elite is set here, in our galaxy, in the future. Like Star Trek, Like Firefly and like so many other interpretations of the years to come. There’s a Federation. Seen that before. There’s an Empire. Ditto. There’s an Alliance and the Independents  Uhuh. You can rightly say they’ve not all appeared all at the same time, but you’d be hard pressed to say they were original. Ironically Galcop, the Galactic Cooperative of Worlds as featured in the original game, was rather different, but that’s long gone by the year 3300 AD. A shame in some ways as this was a unique political entity not seen in film or books as far as I’m aware.

The dogfighting? So far Elite:Dangerous looks rather similar to Star Wars (which I believe is a very good thing from a gameplay perspective). There’s a nod to newtonian physics, but we all know that is as dull as dishwater to play if realism is strung out too far. Star Wars had fighters, freighters and capital ships with flak to dodge and weave around. It’s fun, but it’s not unique.

Now that looks vaguely familiar…

The trading? Repeated by so many games that the list would be tedious to write down. Elite wasn’t even the first at this. Hardly original then and certainly not now. Many films and books, sci-fi and otherwise, use the ‘Tramp Steamer’ trading model keeping the plot moving. Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War books have a very ‘Elite’ like style to them in some places as a result.

So, what are we left with?

In my view, the big deal with Elite is simple. We were in that universe. We weren’t just watching or reading. We were there, at the sharp end.

It’s you against the universe. There is no plot, no particular route to take, nothing specific to do unless you decide to do it. There’s stuff happening out there, but it may or may not affect you. The choice to get involved is yours and yours alone. What you experience will alter the route you take and how you choose your next steps.

We wrote the story and everyone’s experience was unique, with a common grounding of terminology and technology.

Back to the novels then. I’m writing something very specific here, how do I capture that essence of freedom and adventure?

For me it’s taking characters who are locked in the mundane, shaking them up by chucking them into events far beyond their control and seeing whether they can survive. My characters aren’t super-humans, they’re flawed, average folks with aims, objectives, frustrations and hang-ups. They’re just trying to make their way in the world(s). Some have advantages from birth, others are self-made. Some are altruistic, others rather more selfish.

A combination of events forces them out of their comfort zones and into the wild. It just happens that ‘the wild’ is the context of the Elite universe. Ordinary people forced to be extraordinary to survive, coupled with a realisation that, abruptly, there is so much more than they previously thought there was.

As Gandalf might say, it’s the little things that keep the darkness at bay…

So folks, what is your take on what makes Elite unique? Do you agree with me, or have I missed something fundamental. Comments as always.

See you next week.

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  1. An interesting point of consideration… I very much agree that “openness” is the defining feature of the series. That sandbox feel has a whole new lease of life when it’s the galaxy we’re talking about. The choices are open, and they’re never presented as choices – it’s simply down to what you do. You don’t choose “bounty hunter” from a list of classes in the game, you just go hunt bounties, maybe do some trading on the way. Freedom, and the very real sensation of having a whole open frontier of star systems nearby, really define the sense of play in the games.

    I do think the cold war with independents and corporations thrown into the mix feeling of Frontier and First Encounters was pretty unique though. None are presented as good or evil, just different world views. Even the Thargoids have their own motives. Whilst this isn’t original it is very underused in sci-fi. I think it adds to the realism of the setting, which is something many sci-fi shows fail at. There are no heroes in Elite, just people choosing their own path, aligning with whatever powers most suit them.

  2. Actually, I don’t remember playing the old games that well. I’m certain I’ve never played the first Elite and I do remember the Box with the ringed planet on it (Elite Frontier II). So I probably played that one.

    I remember the 3D star chart and a profitable but illegal run to Fomalhaut. I also remember being astounded by all the real star names that were in there. So basically I guess it was the intrinsic reality that was in the game. I had the whole universe as my backyard and it was real!

    As I grew older I played a lot of games (both computer and analog) but never did the yearning for a new Elite wither while I couldn’t care less about a new Commander Keen or something like that. So my guess is that your right: somehow Elite had a taste of reality that not many other games have shown. I think it has to do with the free form play that is embedded into the game. YOU are the one who is generating the story. OK there were missions and other scripted stuff but you could ignore them if you wanted to and you could plot your own course. No galactic event or storyline that you kept coming back to or anything like that.

    So my guess is that it was Freedom: Freedom of reality…

  3. Ironically, what I’d say made Elite – specifically Frontier and Frontier: First Encounters unique was the choice to rely on Newtonian physics. Many other games let you fly ships like you would airplanes in atmo, but the Frontier games let you experience the real thing and taught you how space really works. Granted, the dogfighting was not as great, but the realism in everything else far compensated for that.

  4. I can certainly see that the sense of freedom to do what you wanted, in what felt like an uncaring or uninterested universe, was one of the distinguishing features of the game.

    For me the really unique thing is, I think, related to that sense of freedom, and in fact provides it. The game area was just BIG. Literally the whole galaxy. I have never come across anything that captured my imagination in such a way as that idea of being able to go anywhere – literally anywhere – you wanted and to do whatever you wanted.

    Explore the whole galaxy? Sure, if you had enough time.
    Look for mythical ships? They didn’t actually exist, but we didn’t know that. The mystery of not knowing kept me trying.
    Trying to acually fly from one star to another (no hyperspace just head away from the local star). That was in the end just too boring to keep at it. But I did try.

    Big enough to keep a hook in my imagination for almost 30 years. No other game has come close to doing that.

  5. Maybe I’ve become jaded, maybe not, but while the original Elite blew everything else in the 80’s out the vacuum in because of its open-endedness and huge playing area, and the later Frontier games were unique in forcing the player to deal with the physics of a more real universe, now at least one other game or franchise is doing what Elite does.

    Huge open-ended universe with sandbox gameplay? That will be the X-series and Even Online. Corporations grinding humanity into the ground for profit? That will be the Alien and Bladerunner universes. Newtonian physics? The forums suggest a movement away from that towards playability. In depth game history? Nearly every MMO has one of those these days.

    In the end, I’m not sure there is a single ingredient that will make Elite: Dangerous game unique, unless it’s possibly the peer-to-peer tech and player matching systems being set up behind the scenes. What will make Elite: Dangerous setting unique is the mix of all the above, and the care that’s going into the game. On the forums there are pictures of cargo cannisters. Yep, cargo cannisters. Drawn in exquisite detail. The care and attention going into this game is second to none.

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