Faster Than Light' Appeals to Some Kind of Inherent Masochism in a Gamer

by G. Christopher Williams

27 September 2012

This is Oregon Trail if it were set in space with all the difficulty and challenges of resource management of that classic title but none of the dysentry. Oh, plus, it is actually fun.
cover art

Subset Games

(Subset Games)
US: 14 Sep 2012

After having played just a few games of FTL, I was immediately reminded of The Binding of Isaac. Like Isaac, FTL is a short form roguelike, a game in which, when you die, your’e dead. All of the character development you’ve accomplished by playing through the game is lost, no matter how much you have empowered your character (or, in the case of FTL, your ship and crew). But, again, it is a short form roguelike. A successful playthrough from beginning to end without dying probably only takes an hour or so. So, while death stings, you learn from it, and most frequently feel like starting again right away, knowing that this time you can “get it right.”

That being said, the actual mechanics of FTL and its aesthetics are nothing at all like Isaac. The graphics are simple and clean and really nothing to write home about. They are functional more than anything else, as most of the time, the player is looking over the layout of a starship, moving simple sprites that represent the crew and clicking on icons that represent the ship’s subsystems.

In terms of gameplay, this is Oregon Trail if it were set in space with all the difficulty and challenges of resource management of that classic title but none of the dysentry. Oh, plus, it is actually fun.

The premise of FTL is that you will be managing a space ship charged with taking some particularly vital data to a Federation fleet while keeping that data out of the hands of the Rebels. Doing so, will take you across several star systems of escalating difficulty and will require that you develop your ship’s systems (improving shields and sensor arrays, arming it with better weapons, and developing new systems like cloaking devices and systems that control drones) by collecting and managing scarce resources. Additionally, you will be taking the ship into combat with Rebels, pirates, and other intergalactic enemies, and learning how and when to route and re-route power from one system to the other is pretty critical to your success.

The allure of the game and its maddeningly addictive quality is the allure of any roguelike, getting it all right in galaxies that are randomized each time that you start a new game is hard—really hard. The game suggests that the player start out on Easy, a suggestion I ignored until I played one or two games on Normal and I was quickly schooled just one or two sectors into the game.

I’ve poured over 20 hours into the game already on Easy, and while I have made it to the final confrontation in the game, I still haven’t beaten it. But I want to. I want to real bad.

This genre seems critically to appeal to some kind of inherent masochism in a gamer like me, and indeed, if the masochist takes pleasure in punishment, I keep lining up for more because the game plays so well despite its seeming simplicity. Indeed, the game is often elegantly simple , that is, until it devolves into the chaos that means that I will be starting over again soon.

One becomes competent with the systems relatively quickly, and playing through early sectors and determining what to build and when becomes second nature, until you just happen to hit that Ion Storm that makes half of your energy unavailable for this fight and there is a squad of Mantis soldiers who just boarded your ship and you just lost sight of them because the room housing your sensors is now on fire. Moments like these are punishing, but when you begin to grow better at managing everything in such a crisis and then also manage to survive such an experience, the feeling you get is utterly elating.

And while I’ve lost a good many ships and a good many crews that I had carefully developed over a 30 or 45 minute play session, indie developer Subset Games is smart enough to provide a few permanent achievements and unlockables to make my failed playthroughs not feel completely fruitless. New craft with different starting systems and weapon arrays and manned by alien crews with differing attributes allow me to consider and reconsider new strategies in approaching the game.

The plot doesn’t matter, the graphics are minimal and functional, and you will lose a lot over and over again. However, the stories that emerge as a result of what you happened to stumble into and the clever way you figured out to make your way out of it (or very nearly out of it) are ones that you’ll want to tell even to folks that have no idea what you are talking about. And if you know someone who is also playing FTL (and I do), you’ll be swapping war stories and thoughts on strategy and tactics on a fairly regular basis. Because of the consequences of failure nearly every foray into the universe of FTL feels like it matters in a way that a longer game, an easier game, a prettier game very often never does.

If you’ve never played a roguelike, make this one your gateway into the genre. Its short form will not leave you crying over your losses, but merely eager to jump back in for just one more go, which, I promise, will likely lead to two or three more goes before you pack it in for evening. You’ll be back the next day once you’ve thought about it and figured out how to do it better next time.

If you have played a roguelike, you’ll want this one. The price is right. The play sessions are short (though, again, I warn you that one attempt will lead to two will lead to two more…). This is a very nicely designed example of the genre with just enough interesting choices to make it continually engaging, just enough tactical thinking and long term strategy to make it feel worthwhile, and just enough randomness to keep it fresh and to punish you for thinking that you had it all figured out this time.


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