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Entry updated 19 January 2017. Tagged: Game.


Videogame (1984). Designed by David Braben, Ian Bell. Platforms: BBCMicro, Electron (1984); AppleII, C64, Spectrum (1985); Amstrad (1986); DOS, MSX (1987); Amiga, AtariST (1988); NES (1991); rev vt ArcElite, Archimedes (1991); rev vt Elite Plus, DOS (1991).

Elite's gameplay is a perfect fusion of exploration, trading, mining and combat which created its own subtype of Space Sim; modern examples of the school include Space Rangers (2002) and the Massively Multiplayer Online Game EVE Online (2003). Real time three-dimensional graphics are used for the display, though technical limitations meant that only the outlines of shapes could be drawn before Elite Plus, which filled in the lines with solid colours. The player begins the game with their own starship, in a Space Opera universe much influenced by Traveller (1977) and Space Opera (see Role Playing Games). They are then free to wander through the galaxies, buying and selling goods, fighting pirates and (more rarely) Aliens, and carrying out occasional special missions. Elite has a strong Hard SF flavour, including such atmospheric details as the ability to scoop fuel from the outer fringes of a star and (in some versions) the occasional appearance of Generation Starships. Additional ambience is supplied by the detailed specifications provided for many different types of spacecraft – a touch that is particularly reminiscent of Traveller – and the Sociological and Xenobiological classifications of planetary systems. Nevertheless, Elite is not a flawless game. Partly as a result of technical restrictions, its universe is broad but shallow (see Worlds in Balance), leading to an eventual realization that its many different solar systems are, in fact, quite similar. Missions are rare, and the gameplay can become repetitive, with little sense of an ongoing narrative. Descendants such as The X Series (1999) and Freelancer (2003) have considerably improved on Elite in these areas while retaining the same basic gameplay. However, it can be argued that Elite is the best game of its kind that was achievable on the hardware platforms available, evoking a remarkable sense of openness and freedom in an unpredictable universe. It was highly popular in the UK, with considerable competition amongst players to reach the highest pilot rating, after which the game was named.

Frontier: Elite II (1993 Amiga, AtariST, CD32, DOS) designed by David Braben is a sequel with a broadly similar design, but much improved visuals and a fictional universe that is a smaller but deeper version of that seen in the first game. Unfortunately, this more detailed background lacks novelty; some players found it less intriguing than the personal visions which they could project on to the blanker canvas of the original. Frontier also made several major changes to the gameplay, adding the ability to land on planets and an accurate implementation of Newtonian Physics. These alterations met with mixed reviews; notably, the use of accurate Physics without a simulated flight computer meant that players had to fly their spacecraft manually in a Newtonian universe, which many found frustrating. Frontier: First Encounters (1995 Frontier Developments, DOS) designed by David Braben is a further sequel, which adds many more narrative elements to the basic design of Frontier. Notably, First Encounters includes journals reporting news from the game universe and specially designed missions which combine to form a linear plot, in contrast to its predecessors' purely environmental approach to story (see Interactive Narrative).

Related works: Elite included a novella by Robert Holdstock, The Dark Wheel (1984 chap), a well-crafted story of Young Adult adventure which was one of several such works sold with UK-developed Videogames in the 1980s. The Dark Wheel was not available with the revised Elite Plus, which instead incorporated a different work – "Imprint" (1991) by Andy Redman – in the game's manual. This literary association was continued in the sequels with the inclusion of Stories of Life on the Frontier (anth 1993 chap) and Further Stories of Life on the Frontier (anth 1995 chap), both edited by David Braben, in Frontier and First Encounters. The contents of these collections are mostly routine; Further Stories of Life on the Frontier includes a story previously published in the August 1992 issue of Interzone, Julian Flood's "Children of a Greater God". [NT]


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