FTL describes itself as a ‘a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like’. 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. Just like all the best spaceships, FTL is cobbled together from disparate pieces. Its combat is a real-time strategy game with a very small canvas. Whenever it wants to give you something more complex, a moral decision or familiar sci-fi scenario, it becomes a simplified text adventure. Travelling between each point uses an interface taken straight from boardgames. From RPGs, it takes loot and an upgradeable, customisable ship. From roguelikes it nicks the randomised levels and heartbreaking perma-death. 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 […]
It’s a good thing this list wasn’t open to voting. If the internet has taught us anything (and God can only hope that it has), it’s that any time you give Browncoats the slightest opportunity, Serenity will win. That’s how I first met Serenity. It topped an end-of-year list on Jonathan Ross’ Film 2005. I was amazed. A sci-fi film I’d barely even heard of, so objectively, definitely best of the year? In a year with Batman Begins? Of course, that was before I knew anything about the world – the ‘verse – that Serenity inhabited. Both within and without, it’s a story of desperate loyalty, blind against-the-odds faith, and more than a little disappointment. The story of Serenity is that it grew out of the wreck of a dead TV show, fertilised by endless online petitioning. A single, final victory for the Browncoats. But I didn’t know that, really, when I first watched the film. The story that interested me was just what’s in the film: the single, desperate victory of Malcolm Reynolds and crew. It’s about salvaging what’s left – the ideals from a long-lost war, what life gives you now, and whoever’s still actually alive – and making the best from it. Which is all rather fitting, looking back. Serenity is proper sci-fi. It’s everything that immediately jumps to mind when the genre is mentioned: the swashbuckling adventures of the crew of a spaceship (Firefly class, aught-three model, designation ‘Serenity’). It scavenges from Star Wars, of course, but almost as heavily from The Matrix (in terms of plot shape, presentation and feel rather than world-building) but it’s a more plausible world than either: no aliens, no robots. (Well, almost no robots…) Appropriately, it’s a world that feels vastly human. And Serenity has to reintroduce everything Firefly managed in its too-short 14 episodes – the sci-fi Western setting, the growth of China as a superpower and of Mandarin as a language – but it does this beautifully. The first 15 minutes are a masterclass: it starts within a concertina of scenes-within-scenes, repeatedly pulling back to reveal ‘aha! no! that was just a dream! and the person dreaming it? it was all a video!’. It’s formalistic showiness for the sake of it, so obviously I love it dearly. But also it keeps things pacey, without too much creaky exposition (there’s one line – “and he threw away his promising career in medicine too!” – that creaks ever so slightly), and introduces the new threat. Who, fortunately for Serenity, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s the kind of man the words ‘screen presence’ were invented for, as he broods and does a bit of ever-so-slight nibbling on the scenery as The Operative. He’s a man of deep, terrifying conviction, cooing gently to a man he has impaled on a sword that, this is a good death, there is no shame in this. It’s all genuinely quite sinister and sets up a perfectly heavy, serious sci-fi film, especially when we then cut to a shot of the Serenity in space… And then the Primary Buffer Panel falls off. The camera goes inside the Serenity, and we’re surrounded by life, personality, and full-on Joss Whedon dialogue. “Define ‘interesting’.”/“‘Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die’?”. A single tracking shot, apparently one unbroken take, takes us through the innards of the ship and smoothly introduces each character. We’re on the boat. From there, it’s a beautiful ride of a movie, equal parts big action adventure, touching drama and wry comedy. Just like anything Whedon, or like life. The central adventure is self-contained, but rooted in enough dangling threads from the series that it doesn’t feel plucked from nowhere. …And there I go again, talking about the one thing I said I wouldn’t. I really do think the film is marginalised as the TV programme’s sickly brother. Does it bear marks of its difficult birth? If you’re looking for them, certainly. Is it, more or less, one big episode of Firefly? Yes. Its ambitions are appropriately bigger than any of the others, but it would probably fit right in as a season finale. The thing is – and that wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, Firefly being one of the best TV programmes we’re ever going to get – the thing is that if even that were the case, if it were just slotted in, then Serenity would be the best single episode it had to offer.