Scotty Plays FTL: Faster than Light - Spaceships, Rogues and the Circle of Life (Death)

I always find it funny when a game has an acronym as its title then expands the acronym as the sub-title. Yahtzee Croshaw makes a point of poking fun at this whenever it crops up and I agree with him. Perhaps the marketing team has an aversion to brackets and DmC (Devil may Cry) doesn't look as good on the box cover? Maybe so, but calling your game FTL: Faster Than Light is just asking for people to call it "Faster Than Light: Faster Than Light."

Unless they'd always planned the Advanced Content and it actually means "F*** the Lanius: Faster Than Light."

I could believe that.



Tomfoolery aside, I actually really like this game. FTL is a roguelike about dying in space. There's a buried plot in there somewhere about a Federation, a Rebel Alliance and stumbling across awkward spaceship sex (I'm not even kidding - fly through the Engi sectors frequently enough) but it's not the focus. What FTL wants you to experience is unfiltered, unbiased, unrelenting suffering because much like space itself, the world of FTL is cold and uncaring.

As mentioned earlier, FTL is a "roguelike", which is an awkward term used by the game community for games that are, like, something like Rogue, like, whatever. It's clumsy but the term stuck. Generally speaking, roguelike games include some kind of permanent death system for when the player is defeated, forcing them to begin from scratch whenever this happens. In normal circumstances this would be an incredibly tedious feature, however the other central component of the roguelike is procedural generation. This means that whenever you accidentally asphyxiate your entire crew, pick a fight with the shopkeeper or kiss a cockatrice, that's it for that timeline. That story is told. The next one will be completely different; from the places you visit to the items you find to the people you meet (and promptly murder).

The term "roguelike" comes from the 1980's game Rogue, which involved players descending through procedurally generated levels of gradually increasing difficulty to collect the Amulet of Yendor. The point of the game isn't about actually getting the amulet though, it's about the journey (awwwww). Rogue is a difficult game that you're meant to fail most of the time. It's not the satisfaction of beating the game that keeps people playing; its the addictive nature of the core gameplay loop. Brace yourselves. We're about to go deeper.

FTL - Rogue Example.jpg

"Gameplay loops" refers to the little cycles of repetitive action that constitute the bulk of what players are actually doing in-game. This is where the majority of the 'fun' comes from. In Euchre it's every trick, in Settlers of Catan it's getting resources to build structures, in Xcom it alternates between missions and base management. Each loop has its own little payoff and contributes to larger loops, which in turn have larger, more satisfying rewards. Theoretically this just keeps scaling up until somebody wins the game. As a consequence, many games have loops that revolve around efficiency and net progress; expansions yield more resources to build bigger expansions, tech improvements are used to take down bigger aliens to get better tech etc. until you are the biggest and baddest mofo in the game at which point you win. Congratulations.

The thing about FTL, and many other roguelike games, is that the joy of playing comes from engaging in something called a "mastery loop." This loop is bigger than single encounters and interactions and usually spans several hours of gameplay. It's also responsible for why these games are so hard to put down, despite much of the player's time being spent on unsuccessful attempts. The loop consists of a simple flow between Challenge > Failure > Learning > Success, and so on and so forth.

FTL - Mastery Loop.png

It's pretty simple but damn is it effective. The player goes along on their journey until they encounter something they haven't dealt with before; a new enemy, a complex situation, a new ability unlock. Initial interaction results in failure. This can be as small as taking some damage or losing your momentum, or it can be as severe as losing the game entirely. It is left to the player to assess their performance and where they may have gone wrong. Was there anything they could have done differently? Was it a matter of timing or insufficient forward planning? Through their defeat, they learn and improve. It may take a couple of tries, it may take a whole week, but eventually they succeed. They master that challenge and return to exploring until they find the next one.

In FTL this loop manifests in ship encounters, ship design and risk assessment. Fighting enemy ships requires the player to learn the mechanics of combat and how best to respond to the tech their opponents are using. Ship design comes as a byproduct of combat experience. A player may be killed by enemy intruders and learn to upgrade their ship door subsystem in their next run. Through multiple playthroughs they start to get a feel for when they should be putting resources into shields and thrusters, and when they should be pushing for better weapon systems. The more experienced players pick up an eye for risk assessment from the sheer quantity of encounters they've processed. They learn which ones are predominantly beneficial and which ones should be avoided (in many cases through trail and error).

FTL - Shop.png

While you're still figuring all this out, much of it ends in your ship getting blown up. A frequent feature of roguelikes is high difficulty, as it emphasises the process of the mastery loop. When it takes several attempts to overcome a challenge, the emotional payoff of reaching that "I did it!" moment is all the more gratifying. That's what makes something like Dark Souls so satisfying. When that "You Defeated" text pops up after winning a boss fight you've been banging your head against for hours, it's elating. After all those runs in FTL that ended in death, that first time you beat the Rebel Flagship is something worth standing and yelling about. At that point you've achieved something great. The best part about having procedurally generated content is that all those little encounters, all those twists and turns and speed-bumps on the path to victory, are their own little loops to overcome and evolved from. To reach that final victory, the player has grown and mastered whatever the game can throw at them.

FTL - Boss Fight.png

The random generation of content helps keep things fresh while the player engages in the mastery loop. It makes each run unpredictable. Sometimes you get lucky and breeze through. Sometimes you rush shields only to have an encounter with a Rock Cruiser who hurls missiles at you like they were giving handouts at the ballistics factory. But that's all part of the fun. However, eventually the player will reach a point where they feel on top of things and the game's grip on them may start to slip. It is here that having a solid system for unlockable content comes into play.

FTL has a number of cleverly positioned triggers that naturally occur while playing the game. Each of these triggers have associated achievements and unlock more ships, which in turn have multiple layouts unlocked by playing the ships in diverse and interesting ways. These cascading rewards have a two-fold function; the first being the renewal of the mastery loop. Unlocking a new ship or layout for an existing one gives the player a fresh way of taking on the game. It's another challenge to master, another few hours of exciting new gameplay. The second function is to counter the negative feedback of repeated defeats. In a game where losing is commonplace, having a run where you unlocked a new ship, or earned a medal for an unorthodox playstyle can make the hours invested seem worthwhile. Something similar is seen in Risk of Rain, which counters its less varied level design by unlocking more items for the player to find based on their performance in past rounds. These, combined with a cast of discoverable characters, grant an abundance of different builds and strategies that turn a simple game with a 1-2 hour playtime into something you can easily sink 60-300 hours into.

By providing so much variety in how they can approach the game, players have room to explore, find their playstyle and get comfortable (and skilled) enough to eventually beat the game.

By providing so much variety in how they can approach the game, players have room to explore, find their playstyle and get comfortable (and skilled) enough to eventually beat the game.

The mastery loop is possibly my favourite kind of engagement when it comes to gaming. Whatever inferiority complex that drives me to select the hardest setting also makes these kind of loops incredibly satisfying. As a person I need to feel like I'm achieving things, making progress or in some way bettering myself, even in my leisure time. It's one of the reasons I maintain this blog, otherwise I'd still be playing DOTA 2 (that, and I'm also garbage at it). Now I know this wasn't actually all that much about FTL and for that I apologize, but at least it explains how Papa Brebner can put over 1000 hours into teaching Slugs that having access doors to your life support systems is always a good idea. Anyway, peace out.