And so it begins. This is the first installment in our yearly countdown to the “celebration” of Christmas, a commemoration of our pagan belief in the Endless Bear, and the time he defeated Santa Claus by reducing his hit points to zero and then holding down E on his bright red nose.
But what could possibly be behind the first door? Let’s find out. It’s…
Alec: It’s not a game about spaceships. (It is a game about spaceships.) It’s a game about surviving a night alone in the woods. (It’s also a game about spaceships). It’s a game about hitching a lift home from the other side of the world (but with spaceships, yeah?). It’s a game about gambling and losing everything but saying ‘hey, at least I was looking good for a while there.’ Also it’s got spaceships in it, and spaceships are cool.
In any other year I’d probably have been arguing for FTL as the game of the year. But this is 2012, and 2012 has been a hell of a year. This is not to undermine how strong my memories are of those tense moments of exploring, fighting and escaping in a game with only the loosest possible narrative but the strongest possible story. That story, which I told a couple of dozen times with different stars, was mine and mine alone – a story of only having three fuel units, finding a better gun or accidentally leaving a friendly insect-man to burn to death. Each micro-drama more potent than the last, each utterly meaningless to anyone else.
My fuel units mean more to me than my own mother does.
I love the Engi crewing my weapons more than I’ve ever loved any woman.
My ship is me. If my ship dies, I die.
Then it all just vanishes. It’s over, usually in flames rather than victory, and it doesn’t matter anymore. It all seemed so important. But what was that Engi’s name? What did my ship look like?
And it was only bloody fuel, right? Until next time. Then it all matters more than anything in the world ever, all over again.
I probably couldn’t say anything very interesting about how FTL looks or sounds or how its interface works or whether it’s well-balanced. All I can say is that I existed in a sort of blissful state of extreme tension whenever I played it and I treasure it for that. Also, it has spaceships in it.
Adam: People are happy to die in the yawning gaps between distant planets, their lungs screaming inside them, shrivelled like deflated balloons, the fruits of technology burning like kindling as the troubling and random nature of existence is laid bare. Laid bare by lasers, attack drones and aggressive insectoid boarding parties.
They’re also happy to pay for the privilege. FTL, which is sort of like a roguelike-like in space, was a crowd-funded success story, delivered promptly and in sterling condition. It also managed to delight without mollycoddling. The entire game begins with death at the player’s heels, pursuing relentlessly, and the path ahead is populated with shops, danger and quite a lot more death. Death is the bread that makes up this particular space sandwich.
One of FTL’s most fascinating qualities is its ability to cater for the serious attempt at victory but also for the ramshackle plunge into chaotic destruction. The joy of watching a dwindling crew dashing around their burning vessel while an enemy unleashes a volley of missiles toward them is thrilling, but the thoughtful trek from node to node, carefully accumulating the correct equipment for a boss-shattering build is almost as pleasurable.
FTL is different to many of the roguelike tale-generation tools that I spend my evenings with. The alluring possibility of victory that dangles carrot-like on almost every run marks it as a more obviously tactical experience – a short-form ballad of sci-fi panic in which heroism is not only a possibility but almost a guarantee.
Subset recognise that some of the greatest heroics are performed while on fire and asphyxiated and for that I salute them.
Jim: I only picked up FTL because I was looking for something to test Steam out on my poncy Mac laptop. I played it night and day for a week, with it on my laptop and desktop at all times. It speaks to my love of peril like few other games. And this was a year of peril.
Perhaps what I loved most about it was seeing the roguelike model applied in an ingenious way. It proves, once again, that so much of great game design is implementing old or simple ideas in a new way. The success and popularity of FTL proves that what people want from a game is as diverse as what they look for in food or music. The old is new again, the new is strange yet familiar, the true reward of our hobby is evolution, not revolution.