Since 2015, Elite Dangerous players have felt some kind of alien presence hovering on the periphery of their space trucking adventures. Recently, things came to a head, with players making direct contact with Thargoid ships on multiple occasions. Where is this all going? I spoke with senior designer Sandy Sammarco during E3 to find out.
After years of mystery-mongering, Elite’s alien-centric update “The Return” is coming later this year. Sammarco described the update as “full-on human versus Thargoid action,” but he added that there’ll be more to it than just lasers that are green instead of red.
“Our Thargoids are utterly alien,” Sammarco explained. “[Frontier CEO] David Braben is fond of saying that he doesn’t want aliens who are basically people. He doesn’t just want to give them weird noses and big ears.”
A large part of the update—as well as updates to come—will be understanding What The Heck Is Going On. Sammarco described the Thargoids as “more than just a bogeyman,” saying that they’re an extension of one of Frontier’s core goals: to root their fantastical universe in sound science.
“We’ve got a giant design bible in the office, and it describes in great detail their social structures, how they communicate, the environments they evolved in, and the technology they use,” he said. Elite’s years-long buildup to alien contact was part of that, he said, noting that if humans really did encounter aliens, it probably wouldn’t play out like Independence Day. “It would be this back-and-forth,” he said. “Maybe we’ll see things and not even comprehend what they are, and certainly not what they mean.”
In other words, Elite’s lack of aliens thus far means they disappeared for a good reason, and now they’re back for a good reason, too. They don’t indiscriminately hate people. People just screwed up, and they screwed up bad. “Something has made them very angry with us,” said Sammarco. Players will be able to try and learn more about the Thargoids’ motivations, but it won’t be easy: “Just because you don’t want to shoot a Thargoid ship doesn’t mean it won’t want to shoot you.”
And even if you do want to shoot one, it might not go well for you at first. Thargoids are using technology light years ahead of humans’, snatching players out of hyperspace like dim-witted flies.
Players’ current weapons won’t be much use, Sammarco explained. “Human technology is designed to take out humans,” he said. “Thargoids are completely alien, and we’re gonna find that the weapons we’ve got aren’t great against them, and our defenses aren’t as strong as we’d like them to be. So clearly, there’s gonna be a lot of investigation involved—maybe even an arms race.”
After all the hints and escalation, Elite’s aliens have a lot of expectations to live up to. Frontier is aware that this curveball could easily turn into an unsatisfying foul. Sammarco hopes to create payoff that justifies all the build-up.
“You only get to introduce an alien race once, right?” he said.