I was up late playing the online space game Elite: Dangerous one night, having spent a couple of hours telling myself I’d quit right after this next thing, when I suddenly realized I’d made a terrible mistake — I’d run out of fuel. Without it, I would be stranded in space, doomed to wait until my ship’s oxygen reserves ticked down and I finally died, losing all of my progress.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered reading about the Fuel Rats, a collective in Elite whose sole purpose is to bring fuel to idiots like me. Could it really be that simple? Would someone really come rescue me at 2 AM, for free, in this video game?
Yes, as I found out over the next 20 minutes as a very nice British man from the Fuel Rats walked me though how to add him as a friend on Xbox, then how to add him to my wing in Elite, and then how to accept fuel. Then I accidentally flew into the sun and died, but that wasn’t his fault.
I ask Ruben Wickenhäuser, a Swedish-born science fiction author and Fuel Rat who goes by Uvelius Sång in Elite, if the rats get anything out of helping people. He shakes his head.
“No, nothing,” he tells me over Zoom. He has a swooping cowboy mustache and long hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a gray hoodie with series of patches and roundels on the sleeve, all awards he’s earned for rescues in the Rats.
“This pip means in my case that I have done over 100 rescues. This crest here means that you have done something especially outstanding for the Rats,” he says, pointing at a pair of golden laurels surrounding a very large drawing of a rat’s head. “They are not really relevant in-game, but you might display them in the forums or wherever. In-game there’s no benefit.”
Escape Into Space
Elite: Dangerous is the latest sequel to an extremely British game developed by two guys who met at Cambridge in the early 1980s. The first version came out in 1984, and was a phenomenon in England and Europe, where it’s considered one of the most classic games of all time. It let you trade commodities, fight space battles, and explore a procedurally generated universe in your wireframe 3D spaceship, all at a time when text adventure games and Pac-Man sequels were all the rage. It was also famous for what it didn’t have: any kind of scoring system. There wasn’t any particular way to win. So, from the start, people made their own ways to play.
Even today, Elite evinces a little of its European origins. The in-game time of day is always in GMT, no matter where you are in the world (and of course is also in 24-hour time). Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references are stuffed into the ranking system. There’s also a certain emphasis on hard work, fairness, and playing by the rules you don’t often find in American games. It’s very sincere.
This double remove, a space game obviously coming from a different value set, was exactly what I needed at a certain time in my life. In the nightmare days after the 2016 election, I very suddenly and very totally felt like I didn’t understand the world, and I wanted off. I didn’t really have energy for anything but staring at my mostly black TV screen, smoking pot, and playing games. The appeal of many video games (and movies and books) is escapism, but I’ve never in my life played anything that so fully felt like untethering myself from reality and floating off into the darkness like Elite did. It was exactly what I needed.
The Endless Void
Elite doesn’t have a plot. There are not main missions and side missions. There are not guild halls that give you progressively harder missions for progressively better loot. There is no sound but the hum and ping of your ship (the NPCs don’t talk, but send you little text threads). And while theoretically there are other real people playing while you are, you’re all playing in a truly deranged 1:1 model of the Milky Way galaxy with 400 billion star systems, making it very rare to run into another player.
Originally designed to be a VR game, everything in Elite is designed for you to be able to look around and see from the position of the eyes of your character, who is 99% of the time sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship. You access all the in-ship menus by physically making your character look left, right, up and down. You can look through the window over your shoulder and see something you just flew past. Something about spending the whole game sitting in the little cockpit of your ship, looking around, flipping switches, and trying to get back to a space station alive really does make you feel like you’re rattling around the galaxy inside your little shitbox.
You’re like a Cowboy Bebop character, covered in chip crumbs and mostly not paying attention to the deep black around you, until your alarm bells ping and you knock over your beer sitting up to see a fucking killer bearing down on you. And it’s genuinely scary, not so much because of the in-game stuff you lose (which of course you can get back), but at the thought of all the time that will have been wasted if you die. That’s real.
Time is one of the major currencies of Elite. You navigate around the galaxy by jumping between systems. Picking up a simple delivery or assassination mission at a space station might mean you need to do 10 or 12 jumps. Each jump takes time, and then your engines have to cool down and recharge. Just getting from your station to the location of your mission can easily be 15 or 20 minutes where you’re not doing anything but seeing the lightspeed animation, popping into a system in the absolute darkness, waiting for your engines to recharge, and jumping again. Then you do your mission and go back to where you started to get your reward. Easily an hour, and that’s a relatively simple trip.
If you’re someone who’s playing as an explorer, or just want to see another part of the galaxy you read about on Reddit, you might have to spend two full nights travelling. If you played for three hours without saving and died, which is easy to do, well, you’ve got to do that three hours all over again. Or just never play the game again.
It is what you make of it. It’s a sandbox in the truest sense. And for a long time, I wanted to be alone. Until, suddenly I needed someone, and it turned out there were lots of real people waiting around to help me.
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Fuel Rats to the Rescue
There are more than 14,000 Rats around the world, playing across all platforms. To date, they’ve completed almost 89,000 rescues (and 3,400 unsuccessful ones like mine), averaging about 66 per day. How it works, Uvelius tells me, is that any rats who are interested in participating on a given day hang out in an IRC chat. One rat is designed the dispatcher, wearing “the rat hat,” and coordinates sending everyone out on rescue missions. To become a member, there’s a test. To become a dispatcher, there’s a test. There are also periodic drills, just to make sure everyone remembers what they’re doing.
Unlike clans in a lot of online games, says Uvelius, the Rats are extremely casual. You don’t have to show up somewhere at a certain time to do a raid. No one’s keeping track of how often you’re there, and no one’s going to kick you out for missing anything.
“You just hop in, do your job whenever you want,” he tells me. “You are with us, and then you are logging off as a Rat. You continue playing but you are not actually a Rat, which is completely okay, but you are not a Rat if you are not rescuing. I must say it’s impressive how well this completely freelance-based system is.”
Of course, like most of the rest of Elite, a huge part of being a Fuel Rat is just hanging out and doing nothing. But when you’re a Rat, you do it with people you like.
“It’s just so funny when you are waiting, to hop in on Rat chat and just text chat with other Rats about anything, everything, ranting, joking around,” Uvelius notes. “There are a lot of Rat jokes, if you have seen my cartoons,” he adds, referring to a site he operates called The Fuel Rats Artist Collective’s Cave. “We have quite a solid base of humorous puns and stuff like that which are quite entertaining for these waiting times. It’s just a very nice very warm community.”
Of course, the Rats have had their problems. Players sometimes monitor the IRC chat to attack ships requesting help, or request the help of the Rats only to destroy them. But there’s such an “extremely negative response in the community” to things like this, says Uvelius, that’s it’s become pretty rare. I’d also add that it’s so incredibly time consuming to do, it seems pretty pointless.
Of course, time is a commodity in the real world, too. While at one time Uvelius was a dispatcher (an important Rat), he doesn’t play much anymore. “Real life caught me quite a bit,” he says. “I don’t have so much play time at the moment, almost none.”
This is more or less what happened to me. I didn’t get better, I didn’t have an epiphany. If anything, the game started seeming too much like real life. I had so many goals and responsibilities, and they all seemed so far away and like they’d take so much time to accomplish. So I set my ship down on a little asteroid somewhere out on the edge of the galaxy, and logged off. Just in writing this piece, I’ve started to think about going back. I haven’t returned to Elite yet, but it’s comforting to know that if and when I do, there will be people out there waiting to help me.