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Source images: CCP Games via Katia Sae | Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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One player spent 10 years exploring every corner of Eve Online

The unlikely journey of Katia Sae and their sidekick, an AI named Allison

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Eve Online is unique among spacefaring games — not just for its complexity, but for its structure. The galaxy of New Eden is composed of nearly 8,000 star systems, each one placed into the virtual firmament by the hand of its creators at CCP Games. Some are easy to find, while others are hidden.

Few players have actually visited all of New Eden’s known star systems. Fewer still have visited the thousands more that are hidden from view. But only one has visited all of them without losing a single starship. The journey took 10 long years.

“At heart I consider myself an explorer,” the player told me by telephone. In-game, they’re known as Katia Sae and, given the high-stakes nature of Eve gameplay, they asked me to leave it at that. “I like to be where I’m not supposed to be. In other games I’d be a rogue or a ranger, the ones that like to hide in the shadows and sneak about. In Eve, that translates into being a cloaky explorer, pretty much.”

Sae tells me that they’ve been playing the game since it first came out, in 2003. Back then, Eve wasn’t all that beautiful. That changed with the Dominion expansion in 2009, which transformed the entire look and feel of New Eden practically overnight. Star systems were suddenly bursting with colorful nebulae, and planets had more definition than ever before. Sae said they had been toying with the idea of exploring the universe for a while, and the Dominion expansion helped push them over the edge.

The XQ-PXU gate, in orbit around the fourth planet in the M-YCDA star system.
Image: CCP Games via Katia Sae

In the six years after the game launched, Sae had heard of other players completing circumnavigations of Known Space. Most of them were speedrunners of a sort, trying to move as quickly as possible from point to point. But Sae had something even more ambitious in mind.

“Of course, I gotta be different,” Sae said, with the barest hint of a Southern drawl in their voice.

Connecting the dots

Looking at a map of Eve Online, someplace like Daily Sov Maps, you would think that the game is just a bunch of points on a map — thousands of dots connected by stargates. But that’s only one part of New Eden.

What you’re seeing on those star charts is referred to as Known Space. Sae explains that it’s a collection of 5,201 individual star systems, each one with an average of four to eight planetary bodies inside. The interior, referred to as “highsec space,” is patrolled by AI factions that tend to keep the peace. The exterior, referred to as “nullsec,” is a no-man’s-land controlled by warring factions of players. It’s the region that tends to make headlines with its massive battles and weird real-world intrigues.

Putting aside any military or political complications in Eve, navigation between all the systems in Known Space is easy enough. Just warp to the nearest stargate, click on it with your mouse, and jump out into a neighboring star system.

But in addition to Known Space, Eve has 2,604 star systems that don’t have fixed locations on any map. They float around in the background of the galaxy, unmoored to any physical location or even to each other. This massive, hidden region is known as Wormhole Space.

As Sae explains it, the only way to reach Wormhole Space is by sending out probes to scan for hidden connections from Known Space. Each system on the map has a few at any given time, and once you’ve discovered one, you can use it like any other stargate. Except you never quite know where you’re going.

A portrait of Katia Sae, noted Eve Online explorer. Executed by Eve player Mynxee, a former member of the player-elected Council of Stellar Management.
A portrait of Katia Sae, by Eve Online player Mynxee, a former member of the player-elected Council of Stellar Management.
Image: Mynxee

That’s because every connection from Known Space to Wormhole Space is random. Making things more complicated, the connections dissolve every 24 hours. Passing through a connection, players could be in any one of 2,604 systems. The only way back out into Known Space is to discover more hidden connections and jump through once again.

That could mean traveling through five or six different regions of Wormhole Space in order to break out. Once they do, players commonly find themselves somewhere completely on the other side of New Eden.

So, to be different, Sae set out in 2009 with the intention of visiting and photographing every single one of New Eden’s 5,201 Known Space star systems, and every one of the 2,604 star systems in Wormhole Space.

For Sae, it was the beginning of a wonderful period in their gaming life. Every day they would visit new and beautiful places, take amazing photographs, and then find their way home again before moving on to the next. Their gallery contains more than 50,000 in-game screenshots.

Some accommodations had to be made, of course.

“I did not visit all the planets in all the systems,” Sae explains, “because my time had to be spent scanning for connections. So I had to sacrifice that in order to have time to scan.

“People say, ya know, ‘Get a life,’ and ‘This is a waste of time,’” Sae continues. “They have to understand that I only did this for an hour and a half each day just to unwind after work. I wasn’t killing myself doing this.”

With few exceptions, the trip was fairly uneventful, Sae says. For about eight years or so, everything was going fine.

Until it wasn’t.

A moon orbiting the seventh planet in the V0DF-2 star system.
Image: CCP Games via Katia Sae

The final push

After visiting almost all of Known Space, Sae still had 600 Wormhole Space systems left to discover. Given the random nature of the connections, Sae worried that they might never actually complete their journey. So, they leaned on their in-game clan — called a corporation in Eve’s vernacular — to help them out.

Sae is part of a group of peaceful explorers called Signal Cartel. In a game populated by cutthroats and villains, Signal Cartel is in the business of saving lives. Members perform search and rescue operations for players stuck in Wormhole Space. One of the tasks they perform when not on an emergency call is seeding regions of Wormhole Space with the materials that stranded players need to get out again on their own. Called Eve-Scout Rescue Caches, Sae says they’re little bundles of probes and probe launchers that players can break open in case of emergency and use to get back to Known Space.

Signal Cartel’s 500 or so members are constantly bouncing from Known Space into Wormhole Space, checking in on the Rescue Caches and replacing them if necessary. That means they’re seeing far more of that mysterious region than any other factions in the game. So, Sae hatched a plan to use these explorers to help discover the last 600 systems in Wormhole Space that they needed to complete their journey.

Trouble is, Sae couldn’t tell them what was going on. Eve is a hardcore player-versus-player game. Even if Signal Cartel supported the journey, a spy inside the organization could leak it and set up an ambush for fun and profit. So Sae had to make sure everything happened in secret.

The key to their ruse was making use of a mod made exclusively for the members of Signal Cartel. It’s called Artificial Life Limited In Scope to On-board Navigation, or Allison for short. Once it’s loaded up alongside Eve, members use it to help navigate Wormhole Space and to monitor the status of the Rescue Caches they leave behind.

More data than they could ever hope for was being collected by Allison on a daily basis, so Sae and a few close collaborators — Igaze, Tamayo, and Captain Crinkle — secretly co-opted the software to help them along. Then, they sponsored an elaborate in-fiction role-play on the Signal Cartel message boards.

Every time a member of Signal Cartel who was participating in the role-play arrived in one of the systems that Sae was looking for, Allison would send out a notification just for them. Then the clock started ticking.

“We had to race there,” Sae says. “That was the key, right? Because time was of the essence. When a system was found we generally had less than 24 hours to get through the pass, and depending on how deep it was [in Wormhole Space], the more critical it was to get there fast.”

With Allison’s help, Sae spent most of a year running down the last 72 systems, some of which were buried five or six connections deep within Wormhole Space. Without Allison’s help, it might have taken Sae far longer. Miraculously, they did it all while regularly coming into contact with other players — many armed to the teeth — and getting away every time.

Once they found out about Sae’s achievement, the developers at CCP invited them into their own private server for a celebration. That’s where they were able to visit the Polaris system, where CCP’s own in-fiction corporation makes its home.

“They actually teleported me from my own station out there,” Sae says. “There must have been about 30 or so developers and staff, and they had their own fireworks display for me and congratulations and whatnot.

“And then CCP Falcon [Eve’s community manager], he took me on a tour of the system to let me take pictures like I would have in Known Space, had I actually visited there on my own.

“That was really cool,” Sae says, obvious emotion edging into their voice. “It was really awesome.”

The corpse collectors

Sae’s entire decadelong journey was conducted with absolute secrecy, save for the last leg, which they shared with just three other players. And Allison, of course.

Even then, the effort was entirely hidden from the bulk of Signal Cartel. Members never knew that by using Allison they were helping run down the clock on Sae’s epic journey. In a way, Sae says, they all contributed to the incredible achievement.

But keeping quiet helped Sae stay alive, and they want to keep it that way.

“In Eve if you get popped, you lose your ship and you’re in a pod,” Sae explains. “And then, if you lose your pod, it actually pops a corpse out. And there’s nuts out there — I call them nuts, because it’s morbid to me — but they collect corpses in game. I think it’s just morbid, but hey, it’s their gameplay, that’s cool, whatever they want to do.

“I’ve told my corporation that I’m never undocking again,” Sae continues, a wry laugh quickly fading into a more plaintive tone. “I don’t think they believe me, but I’m serious. I’ve really been struggling with giving someone the opportunity of getting her corpse. To me, to keep the achievement pure, I don’t know that I could ever undock her again.”

While their human player will spool up a new in-game character soon, that doesn’t mean Sae’s journey has ended. They still have work to do.

The second planet in the TDE-4 star system.
Image: CCP Games via Katia Sae

During the hunt for the last 600 systems in Wormhole Space, Sae and Allison began to notice that the missing systems kept cropping up in clusters of two or three at a time. While they’ll never fly a spaceship again, Sae will be subsumed into the deeper role-playing that happens on Signal Cartel’s own private message boards. Using the data gathered from their journey, Sae and Allison will go to work trying to tease out the mysteries of Wormhole Space.

Hopefully that project doesn’t take nearly as long as the first.