‘FTL’ and the Failure of Text Narratives in Roguelikes

While it is possible for a roguelike to tell a story, textually based narratives are a burden to the genre.

The roguelike genre has a sort of inherent problem with narrative and plot, one that is similar to the problem of arcade games. The focus of Pac-Man or Donkey Kong is less on the story and more on the gameplay, and roguelikes are no different. The genre, which is characterized by randomly generated levels and many short, failed playthroughs at an often ruthless difficulty defies typical storytelling conventions. While there is always a beginning to a roguelike playthrough, its ending is usually just the point in which the player dies, not some narrative conclusion. There isn’t much room for catharsis in death, and therefore most roguelikes, like The Binding of Isaac, tend to be light on plot because if the games were plot heavy, the player would relive the same introductory chapters over and over again and become bored with them.

FTL doesn’t have a traditional story arc that follows its gameplay like Assassin’s Creed or most straightforward plot driven video games, but it does have a drastically different narrative than its roguelike counterparts. In FTL, the player is the captain of a federation spaceship that has just stolen the rebel’s new flagship’s schematics and therefore the key to defeating the rebels. The player jumps from system to system on the way to delivering the schematics to headquarters, all the while being chased by the rebel fleet. As the player explores the galaxy, they experience a host of “random encounters” in which they get into space battles, are faced with moral quandaries, and interact with different alien races. These encounters, like the rest of the game, are highly reminiscent of Star Trek’s narrative of exploration and work wonderfully on a thematic level.

In the first few playthroughs of FTL, these interactions can be incredibly engaging and fun. One of my fondest memories of gaming last year was playing FTL for the first time with my wife and best friend watching. As we soared through the cosmos, we were constantly put into decision making situations in which we had to choose whether or not to trust random alien ships that we encountered. Some decisions hardened us and showed us the brutality of the world. Others lifted our spirits and helped us on our journey. I can still remember my best friend John telling me to destroy the trapped pirate ship rather than save it, and the remorse that followed after I shot the pirates down.

The problem with these random encounters is not that they are poorly written, aren’t interesting, or create too much distance between space battles, which are the focus of the game. If the player only played one or two rounds of FTL and then was done, these interactions would be perfect. But because of the repetitive nature of roguelikes, these initially cheeky and fun interactions quickly become stale. Soon the player is facing the same situations and the same ships every playthrough and the player’s decisions are not made by weighing ethical pros and cons, but by remembering the script and choosing the proper, now well understood solution to the problem at hand.

Eventually the walls of text describing a situation are no longer read, as just reading the options available will be enough for the player to make the “correct” decision. Then those text based encounters become more of a hindrance to the player than an enjoyment, as the player is seeking, as most roguelike players do, to speed through the game as fast as possible for they know their time in this world is short.

This is because the roguelike formula and narratives such as this do not work together. I’m sure many gamers reading this have played a game in which they reached a particular plot point and struggled with the boss prior to reaching said plot point. Eventually rewatching cut scenes or reading the dialogue becomes an annoyance because the player is focused on the gameplay, not the plot that they have already seen enough times. In order to remedy this, many games allow the player to skip the narrative once they have viewed it once, but there is no real way to “skip” FTL’s narrative encounters. Therefore, they become a burden after playing so many hours.

Other roguelikes conquer this problem by providing symbol-based narratives that are unobtrusive on their gameplay. In The Binding of Isaac, the narrative is embedded int the aesthetic of the game, in the bosses characters, and the religious connotations of the item’s that are collected during a playthrough. The player can completely choose to ignore this and play the game, focusing solely on the gameplay, or they can seek to go deeper and explore the finer points that the game’s creators are getting at. Similarly, Dark Souls, while not a roguelike, but certainly a game filled with failure, has a strong narrative, but that narrative can only be found of the player seeks it out; it does not present itself to the player. Because these games use embedded, unobtrusive narrative, they stick out and are largely successful from a narrative perspective because the narrative never bogs down the focus of the game, which is the gameplay.

FTL works great as a roguelike. The gameplay is tight, fair, and difficult, but its narrative continuously intrudes on that gameplay and inhibits the player from fully enjoying the game once they have played enough to understand the vast majority of the game’s scripts. While FTL has certainly been a huge success for its creators, those hoping to emulate the game and its success should be wary of such heavy handed narratives, and instead seek to create memorable gameplay with a strong unobtrusive narrative. For the player has no ability to take the narrative out of gameplay or vice versa.