In the decades that I’ve been a gamer, I’ve experienced many emotional highs, many in-game moments that delivered many personal exultations and reminded me why I’m a gamer. There have been perfect multi-player matches and beautiful executed single-player experiences. There have been well-prepared strategies that went exactly according to plan, and others which were complete failures that demand immediate and thrilling twitch-reactions to resolve. The total number of joys offered by video-games are too numerous to identify, but to date I have felt no greater joy over a video-game than the moment this happened.
Beating FLT: Faster than Light was more than just reaching its conclusion. More so than any other game I’ve played, it felt like an achievement (as much as can ever be achieved by playing a video-game). This was acknowledgement, recognition that I had put in the work and developed the skills remanded of me, and was duly rewarded.
FTL: Faster Than Light is, you see, a very difficult game that demands a lot of the player, and as such failure will be a fairly common conclusion to most early playthroughs. Being a rogue-like game, death in FTL means the end of a campaign. There are no do-overs or second chances. When you die (and you will die) you go back to the start of the game to try again.
In addition, luck is an enormous factor in any campaign. As most encounters and outcomes are randomly generated, there’s little the player can do to be truly prepared for the average FTL campaign. As a result, the game’s difficulty may sometimes seem cheap or artificial, as success or failure occasion depends more on a dice role rather than player agency or level of skill. And yet, playing FTL was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had as a life-long gamer.
The first and most obvious reason for this is that even in failure, FTL finds a way to reward the player. Even in an unsuccessful playthrough, the player can complete certain actions that unlock certain resources, such as better equipped ships, for the next attempt. This has the effect of creating a sense of progress even during a failed campaign. More importantly, however, is that when the player makes an error of judgement that brings a campaign to a screeching, flaming end, they will usually know what that mistake was.
By way of example, one of my more embarrassing failures came when I transported two crew-members (my best hand-to-hand fighters, as it happens) onto an unmanned drone to disable its equipment. Seasoned FTL players probably already see my mistake. My transporter’s cooldown period lasted longer than it took for the two poor souls to suffocate on the oxygen-free drone, and that’s how I learned to beam away-teams on to enemy crafts only when they housed oxygen generators. Much like the Dark Souls games, death in FLT is not just the result of poor gameplay. It’s part of the learning curve. Sure, sometimes the random nature of the game’s encounters and events can seem unfair, but the challenge is learning how to prepare for and adapt to those events.
FTL’s difficulty steams from it top-down, grid-based design and dice-role mechanics. In truth, it’s more of a single-player board game than a video game. Though encounters and moment-to-moment gameplay often depends on luck rather than player agency, the challenge for the player is to use the resources available to them to be prepared for any situation they might happen upon. Those familiar with the typical tabletop gaming experiences (especially those who’ve played Galaxy Trucker) will feel right at home here. And though the game plays out in real-time rather than the turn-based nature of board games, its generous pause function gives the player plenty of breathing room to take stock of their situations and carefully consider their strategies.
In short, FTL is the right kind of hard. It pushes because it wants the player to succeed, not to bully them. And though the difficulty might sometimes seem unfair or obtuse, in truth it rarely is. FTL can always be beaten. It’s just that it wants you to know that you’ve earned it when you do.
Overwhelmingly Justified: hair-tuggingly yes.