There are many things about computer games that are superfluous. A game doesn’t need to shade ten million polygons every second, or render picture-perfect facial expressions (although both of these things are very impressive). There are many games that have been released over the past few years that have focused rather exclusively on polygon counts and less on the fundamental underpinning of a game: fun.
Enter FTL: Faster Than Light; a simple game that puts you in charge of a solitary spacecraft trying to get critical information to your Federation buddies before the rebel fleet catches up with you and converts your starship into stardust. Graphics-wise it wouldn’t look out of place on the screen of a game boy colour or pre-touchscreen phone: everything is 2D and all narrative encounters are text-based. You jump from beacon to beacon as you traverse the galaxy, trying to survive attacks by pirates and rebel scouts, keeping fuel in the tank and distance between you and the encroaching shadow of the rebel fleet sweeping inexorably across the screen. The whole game is randomly generated every time you play so you never flee across the same universe twice, and every encounter you have is equally random and often has a variety of outcomes. It’s effectively a storytelling game in which every story, while based on the same premise, is different.
It’s also oddly engrossing and it’s all down to the decision making. You decide what crew to assign, what ship systems to power, and what course of action to take in each of the many random encounters your ship will experience. Do you take the man stranded in isolation for a decade on to your ship as a crew member, or is he mentally unstable and likely to try and blow a hole in your ship? Do you assist the civilians being raided by pirates for the scrap and parts you could obtain, or do you sneak by, conserving your ammunition and fragile hull? I found myself limping along in a crippled ship more than once, trying desperately to stay ahead of the fleet while looking for somewhere to repair my savaged systems, outgunned and out-manned. I hid in nebulae, fooling Rebel sensors but risking being raided by the unsavoury types that lurked in the clouds. I darted back to a fuel outpost to top up before jumping out of the sector moments ahead of the pursuing fleet. Despite the elegantly retro graphics and the simple gameplay it is a surprisingly involved experience, featuring a range of crew that gain experience as you go and a ship that you upgrade using the scrap left behind by your rivals. Ultimately, I think it works because it triggers the imagination and that’s a rare thing in today’s games.
The only problem with it is that there are insufficient random encounters – after a few playthroughs (I have yet to succeed in my mission, and kudos to the game for not making that overly frustrating) I am beginning to see a few familiar scenarios. Adding more in would make for a more replayable experience. FTL is also an ideal fit for tablet/phone gaming – easy controls and retro graphics would make it an easy port for a widespread audience. It’s good fun, good value and another example of good work that comes out of nowhere.
Give it a go. It’s currently £6.40 or something on Gog.com,* DRM free, or you can get it on Steam.
*also may I say that Gog.com is definitely a step in the right direction as far as games distribution is concerned. DRM free, cheap, and easy to use. It’s mainly old games at present that have been tinkered with to allow them to work on modern systems (think Deus Ex or Beyond Good & Evil) but there are a few new ones creeping in now (the Witcher 2, for example).