Elite Dangerous just flipped the table on a storyline that’s been building for years. Salvation, an alias used by a former biochemical executive, activated a giant anti-xeno superweapon called the Proteus Wave, intending to rid the galaxy of the Thargoids, the mysterious aliens that appeared in the massive space game almost five years ago. Salvation’s weapon backfired catastrophically, as players now see when they log in. The rules have changed, and Elite Dangerous’ developers tell us that the Thargoids are going to be scary again.
When they first appeared, the alien Thargoids were “Elite’s horror story.” They’re these massive, flower-shaped organic life forms that emerge from dimensional rifts in space. Over the years, however, players have gotten pretty used to them.
“The Thargoids have been in the game for so long, but they’ve always taken this passive interest in humanity, and only really gotten aggressive when they want something,” explains senior producer Samantha Marsh. “This change has such a massive impact and really starts to tweak the balance in the rules between the Thargoids and humanity.”
In the time since they first appeared, players have formed groups to hunt and kill them, or even participated in community bounty-taking on Thargoids. But even after five years, Marsh says the Thargoids can be still scary. Following the Proteus Wave event, the detonation of Salvation’s superweapon, the Thargoids are going to war.
Their first move was to overrun system HIP 22460, which is well-nigh impenetrable by human spacecraft now.
“It’s probably reasonable to describe that as Thargoid territory for now,” says Luke Betterton, lead game designer on Elite Dangerous. “Players are having a hard time getting in there and doing anything of value, to be honest.”
As usual, players have combed through the cinematic for clues about what’s to come. Some have suggested that the Thargoids that disappear after attacking a capital ship seem to be heading in the direction of Sol, our home system. Betterton is careful not to reveal anything, but says he’s looking forward to seeing how players react to the next phase of Elite Dangerous’ evolving narrative.
“We’re in the Aftermath,” he explains. “The Azimuth Saga, we’re ending that chapter of the game. But all of the things that started to highlight to players, the change in balance that Samantha was talking about, the change in how Thargoids are approaching humanity – there’s a lot to come beyond that, and without saying too much, I can’t wait to show it to players. It’s really cool.”
Marsh agrees that thrilling times are ahead for Elite Dangerous players.
“For me, I’m very excited because we’ll be escalating the Thargoid threat,” she says. “We laid the seeds of the threat with the Proteus Wave, and the Aftermath will just keep kicking that into higher gears. It’s really exciting – the galaxy definitely won’t be the same ever again.”
That change, Betterton hints cryptically, will eventually involve an overhaul to one of the core functions of Elite Dangerous, which will be rolling out some time in 2023. What that might be, he won’t say – at least not yet.
“The Aftermath is really the precursor to something, and that thing is not small,” he says, grinning. “Not by any stretch of the imagination.”
A more prosaic change coming with Aftermath is going to be how Elite: Dangerous’ players are divided into separate versions of the game. Currently, there are two separate code bases for the game: 3.8, which you’ll play if you own the base game and the Horizons expansion, and 4.0, which is the enhanced and updated version that has the features introduced in Elite Dangerous: Odyssey since its launch in 2021.
Players who don’t own Odyssey haven’t been able to access the 4.0 version of Elite: Dangerous up until now, but Frontier will add another branch, which will be selectable in the Elite: Dangerous launcher when it’s available. Version 4.0 (Horizons) will allow players who don’t own Odyssey to nevertheless use the version of the game that’s been regularly updated for Odyssey, and also includes a host of quality of life and technical enhancements.
It’ll also allow those players to participate in more of the ongoing narrative, Betterton explains. While you’ll still need to buy Odyssey if you want to roam around on foot, the 4.0 version will still let more players experience the components of Aftermath that take place in space.
It’s important to note that players using the 4.0 version of Horizons still will not be able to instance with players using the Odyssey 4.0 branch. To play together, players will need to be using the same branch of Elite Dangerous – but this way, players who don’t own Odyssey will still be able to experience many of the enhancements made in 4.0, as well as future narrative content.
Frontier will continue to maintain 3.8, but new content and new features are only going to be added to 4.0 going forward, as the studio explains in a recent post on the official site. The developers say they’re working on a way for console players to migrate their characters to the PC version of the game after announcing the cancellation of console development earlier this year.
Marsh says the team has watched more players fighting Thargoids in recent months, particularly in the lead-up to the Proteus Wave event. Players who’d previously ignored that element of the game were getting interested in the alien invasion and changing the way they played Elite Dangerous. That’s been intensely rewarding for the developers to see.
“What was really lovely was that we were seeing players who hadn’t really engaged with the anti-xeno combat before, they thought this is a good time to give it a try,” Marsh says. “For me, I personally find Thargoids to be one of the most immersive parts of the game – whenever you’re fighting one, you’re so in that moment. It’s been lovely to see the response, both from the veterans who are fighting and killing so many Thargoids, but also the newbies being taken along in a little wing by the veterans, and being taught how to engage with this part of the game.”
“It’s not a conventional dialogue, but we’re listening to what players are saying, we’re also watching what they’re doing,” Betterton says. “There’s an immediate payoff on the development side. Being able to communicate with players directly on a week-to-week basis is really fun. But then to also work towards something, to craft this story that we can then drop into players laps and say, this is what you’ve created. That payoff is awesome. That’s so good.”