Life Is a Cruel Game, and Other Lessons of FTL

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I don’t mind a tough game now and then. I’ve played action games on Hard and sworn at the screen after some mob of “goddamn fuckers fucked me again, FUCK.” I’ve tried to win difficult races and wailed like a heartbroken tween at missing the mark by just a few milliseconds. I still go back now and then to snag another medal or beat a friend’s record in games like Geometry Wars or Trials. I have literally spent hours trying to land one particular trick on my imaginary skateboard.

The point being, I can take hard. I can face down a challenge that takes a lot of attempts to get through, believing that I will at some point overcome that challenge and emerge victorious. Fulfilled. Done.

FTL: Faster Than Light may be the first game (and hopefully the last) to break my spirit, convince me that in fact I cannot overcome any challenge thrown my way, and force me to face the bleak reality that the world is a cruel place governed by chance where in most cases there is no winning, that fate is not on my side, and that success is a rare combination of lucky breaks and timing which my individual skills and intellect have very little to do with.

Allow me to explain.

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Getting boarded sets off instant panic. Weapons can’t help you now.

FTL came out a few years ago for PC/Mac/Linux but only recently for iPad as part of the Advanced Edition update (where I decided to finally give it a try). In it, you guide a spaceship from planet to planet, sector to sector. You face off against pirates, rebels, or hostile alien races by controlling which weapons to use, which systems get more power and when (More shields or more evasion? All weapons ready or power up defense drones?), and which stations your crew members man or repair. Along the way there are stores where the spoils of war can be put toward system upgrades, better weapons, more crew, etc. Plus there’s a pause-anytime button so it’s not totally overwhelming to juggle all these things at once. It’s a fun balance of resource management and tactical battle planning that’s immediately gripping and gratifying.

The game also has the rogue-like element of random generation. A fairly successful play-through to the final boss battle may take around 90 minutes or less (much less if you lose a battle sooner, but we’ll get to that in a minute). But for each session the star maps are always different. The encounters are randomized, as are the resources you’ll find and the available inventory at the stores you’ll spend them in.

Which means you could need nothing more than a second Burst Laser to have the perfect, unstoppable arsenal, but not find one until the 6th sector. Unfortunately, without that laser you’re not able to take down a pirate quickly enough in a previous fight in sector 5. So when you finally reach the store with that item you’ve been looking for, instead of getting that one thing you’ve been waiting for, you have to spend that money on repairing your ship from all the damage the harsh world has dealt you on your way here. No laser for you. Maybe next time. Onward without it. Your needs are never quite filled.

For some, this will give the game complexity, replayability, and that glorious sensation of real challenge. Making due with what you have, maximizing every spacebuck and improvising to deal with any scenario can be a whole lot of fun when it feels like you’re making progress — getting better, learning new strategies, finding new ways to overcome the random obstacles thrown your way. At first, I fell into this camp. I played this game every night for a few weeks. I thought about it when I wasn’t playing, excited to take another crack at it the next time I sat down with my iPad.

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Ashes to ashes; space-junk to space-junk.

Then I noticed something deeper going on. Once I was competent at the game, I had narrowed down to two basic fail states: I was either breezing through the first 7 levels and losing to the giant final flagship, not having enough of the right weapons or defenses needed to even make a dent. Or, I would have a random encounter early in the game where I had to deal with an enemy I wasn’t properly equipped for yet, and die suddenly, horribly, and helplessly.

One reaction to this might be to keep trying, optimizing, and adapting. Try, try again. But to what purpose? If true success depends on if and when randomly appearing goods are available, and whether or not I happen to be wealthy enough to buy them at the instant they become so, how is this different than pulling a slot machine and hoping for the best? There are more buttons to press along the way, a few minor victories to make me feel good (“cha-ching, cha-ching”), but winning ultimately depends on the right symbols lining up in the right order. A stroke of luck.

Or to get deep for a second: isn’t this a sad metaphor for life? Challenges are thrown at all of us. We can prepare ourselves with the right skills and by saving and spending wisely, but in the end it all comes down to a lot of luck and timing. The right opportunities at the right moments make the difference between success or misfortune. In my real life, I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had to struggle (too much), and things have gone my way (mostly). But here is a game where over and over I live these stressful little mini-lives that make me face how rare those stars align. Another out of control fire. Another band of assholes destroying my stuff. Losing friends in random accidents. Not having enough money for that one investment that could turn it all around. Flailing desperately in the face of it all, knowing that in most cases I have no real chance at achieving my goals, trying to be brave and pressing on through the anxiety, then dying anyway. No fanfare, nothing to show for my struggle, just pieces drifting off into the ether.

Am I a weak person for not wanting to put myself through that countless more times until I finally win? Is my reaction to this game a symptom of my middle-class privilege, my easy life, where real hardship is terrifying and foreign? Is the sweat I break into as I reach the endgame a sign of the tenuous grip I have on things and how subconsciously I know it could all go south at any moment, ending in disaster? I’d like to think I’m a smart, courageous, adaptable guy capable of dealing with hardship and coming out the other side stronger, but I can’t take the stress of this game any more. I had to force myself to stop playing because of the way it made me feel. And I’ve never even played this game above the Easy setting.

FTL is a fantastic, well-designed game. You should really give it a try. Maybe you can handle it. Or if not, maybe it’ll at least teach you something about yourself. May the odds be ever in your favor.

FTL: Faster Than Light (Advanced Edition) is available for your computer on Steam or for your tablet in the App Store. You can get either for $9.99 as of this posting. You may need a drink afterwards (Not included).

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