That’s kind of true, but not quite. It’s neither deep nor broad enough to be a spaceship simulator.
Instead, it simulates a particular feeling, a particular moment – one you might be familiar with from sci-fi films and TV. Specifically, Star Trek. More specifically, the bit where Captain Kirk/Picard/Janeway is sat on the bridge, in their big comfy captain’s chair, as the crew buzzes around them desperately. More specifically, the bit where they shout “power down the shields, and put it all into the weapons” and the immortal response comes back: “Aye aye, captain”.
Its closest kin in that respect is Football Manager or Champ Man or whatever it is the kids are playing these days. Both games let you live out a fantasy – you’re the manager of a football team, you’re the captain of a spaceship – and then picks and chooses the necessary elements to help your imagination get there.
Despite all those moving parts, though, the result is something neatly simple. It doesn’t take long to learn how to control your three crew – just left-click to select, right-click to send them somewhere – or what the HUD means – typically eight or so different systems, from weapons to shields to oxygen, which you can put differing levels of power into, draining your reactor in the process. It’s all controlled from a top-down view of the ship, with each system getting its own room. Putting crew into rooms , and helps fix them if – when – they break down.
Frankly, FTL isn’t very sexy – like Football Manager, the graphics are barely there, and the pausable action always stays a step removed – but that’s not important. Like all the best games, it’s a token, a tool, a lightning rod. Something your imagination can grab onto and start telling stories with.
My favourite sci-fi TV series, predictably, is Firefly. More specifically, my favourite episode is Out of Gas – an episode split between flashbacks and a disastrous breakdown of the spaceship all the characters live on. More specifically, my favourite bit, my favourite moment, is the opening of that episode. The ship, floating adrift in space. Each of its room, stripped of their familiarity by the simple fact of being empty. Captain Malcolm Reynolds face down on the floor as the oxygen seeps out of the ship… Doomed.
I said FTL is a simulator of the Star Trek bridge moment, but it’s a simulation of that moment too. Of making a bad decision, and condemning your whole crew to a drawn-out death – or an extremely quick one, depending on the size of guns your baddies are packing. Of being the last one alive, whispering apologies, as the fires spread and you can’t fix everything at once, and holding on futilely until the crack in your hull sucks out that last 1% of oxygen.
FTL is mean, and that’s great.
One of the tips, which are meted out sparsely, one per playthrough, just tells you ‘Dying is part of the fun’. And it is. As in fellow roguelike-like Spelunky, death is where most of the stories come from. And just like Spelunky, there’s the sense of a Rube Goldberg device that leads, inevitably, to your death. This then this – why didn’t I buy those missiles at the last store? – plus this – where’d the lights go? who’s behind that door? – leads to this – why did I ever to help these poor, defenseless idiots? – and then you’re dead, a splat on the universe’s windscreen.
And you take a moment to mourn the good ship Crushinator – and AJ Hager, your Engi who saved everyone’s asses that time – then flip on the wipers, clean off the mess, and start again.
Or maybe you pull it back, praying you’ll make it to the next store and its valuable repair equipment, before you undergo another one of those misadventures. And you do, and suddenly your ship is all-powerful and it’s glorious, each new location handing you generous piles of scrap, the game’s currency, new weapons to bolt onto your hull, a new crew member of a species you’d never even encountered before…
But more likely, you land in an electrical storm, next to the baddest pirate ship in the known universe, and it puts in those final hits to your hull. And, after you spent so long repairing everything, and healing your crew, and Captain Elnubnub just levelled up his repair ability, your ship falls back into those pieces its cobbled together from.
That’s the nature of being randomised. Like the universe itself, it can be completely unfair.
It took a dozen or so playthroughs (read: deaths) before I started to get the hang of the game. And then, just as I did, I got hit, again and again, with the same scenario – battling a rebel ship too close to a small sun, with solar flares . I must have died close to a dozen times, more or less consecutively playing that same scenario. A different ship maybe, but always getting torn apart by solar flares. And so I thought, well this is it, this is how it beats you. But I haven’t seen that scenario since. It’s just the way the deck gets shuffled, I suppose.
Besides, if it all gets too much, you can switch over to Easy mode, which is more generous with scrap and combat’s a little more forgiving. It’s a good palette cleanser, but it’s not the real game, and before long, you’ll have to switch back to Normal and take your pastings.
But the most important thing is that it’s short. It’s that roguelike thing again – games can, and do, end suddenly and meaninglessly, but it only took 15 minutes to get to that point. The whole game’s less than an hour long, if you can beat it. If.
For that reason, FTL is perfect for a journey by bus or train, or the odd time on the tube where you can actually get a seat – anything where you’re moving but have no actual control over your destination. And it’s more than just a distraction, like the other commuters playing Angry Birds around you – it’s teleportation, transmogrification.
Your gum-ridden seat is transformed into that captain’s chair. Just you and a battered old laptop against the universe. Bring it on.