Fairness Is a Matter of Context

In Out There, the only enemy is the universe itself, and no one really expects the universe to be fair.

I like watching people play FTL, a roguelike space adventure in which we’re a lone ship fleeing a powerful rebel empire, but I don’t like playing it myself. The random nature of events that define a roguelike and that make it so much fun to watch also made for a frustrating and disheartening play experience. For me, at least.

FTL felt like less of a game and more like an elaborate slot machine. I could travel to multiple star systems and have the best of luck finding new crew members, resources, and improvements for my ship, but inevitably I would get into a fight that I simply couldn’t win. The enemy’s cannons were just too strong or their shields regenerated too fast or they would transport aboard my ship and kill my crew directly. I never stood a chance. This randomness seemed to remove all strategy from the game: My decisions of what to upgrade or salvage never actually mattered because my survival was based more on a roll of the dice than any sort of strategy. I wasn’t playing a game, I was just gambling.

Out There, an iOS roguelike set in deep space, is similarly brutal. You wake up from a cryogenic sleep to find yourself lost in space. You must hop from star system to star system, gathering resource like fuel and oxygen, while also learning an alien language, building better engine parts, and managing your limited cargo space. Like in FTL, the randomness can screw you over and ruin an otherwise amazing run of survival. If you hit a few planets in a row that offer scant fuel, you’re dead, and no amount of preparation can save you. Plan all you want, but all you can really do is hope for the best.

Yet Out There doesn’t frustrate me. It never feels unfair in its brutality. I play, I lose, over and over, but I’m never angered or disheartened by that loss like I am in FTL. I believe this contrast comes down to one important difference: There are no enemies in Out There.

In Out There, my only enemy is the universe itself, and no one really expects the universe to be fair. It’s a vast, overwhelming, uncaring thing. Of course, it’s going to screw you over. However, we do expect combat between similar opponents to be fair.

Combat in games is always driven by a set of rules that neither the player nor the computer can break. Within that kind of structure, there’s an assumption that the rules exist to create a balance between combatants. FTL is balanced, but it’s balanced against the player. That makes sense for its genre, the roguelike.I It’s meant to be punishing and difficult. It’s meant to be lost and replayed over and over until you finally hit that perfect mix of strategy and luck and win. Unlike many games, FTL is not made to be beaten. You’re not meant to get to the end. You’re just meant to play it and get as far as you can. However, when one thinks of balance, one naturally assumes equality. However, that’s not true for FTL. The game is not really “balanced” in the strict definition of the word, and in breaking from that assumption of equality, it comes to feel unfair. But only because I’m fighting an opponent that looks like my equal.

If balance implies that the two parties must be equal, putting me up against an overwhelming opponent means that I assume my fight will be unbalanced or rather that it will feel unbalanced — unfair. Surviving against the universe sounds like it should be impossible, surviving against a rebel empire does not.

Fairness isn’t so much a matter of actual balance, but of context.