Games of 2012: FTL: Faster Than Light

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

FTL: Faster Than Light

It’s hard to think of a bigger source of both hope and anguish for the gaming community this year than Kickstarter. The success of some high-profile crowdsourcing campaigns brought on a massive flood of projects, many of them with lofty aspirations and promises that seemed too good to be true.

I’ve been told by a few friends that I have a “Kickstarter problem”, as I’ve now backed 34 projects. 19 of these have been for video games. FTL: Faster Than Light was the fourth game I backed, and the first one to actually ship. (None of the three I backed before it have shipped yet.) With just one play, the game reenforced my faith in the power of the funding model. If even a handful of games this enjoyable could come out thanks to Kickstarter or IndieGogo, it’s worth the risk.

I have never had a great relationship with space games. I have tried time and time again, but whether it’s a dogfighter ala Wing Commander or 4X games like Masters of Orion, there’s something about them that makes a game clicking with me much more difficult.

FTL avoids falling into that trap because it’s not rooted to the way space games normally flow. The pitch from the developers told me it was going to be different:

FTL is a spaceship simulation roguelike-like. Its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of running a spaceship exploring the galaxy (like Firefly/Star Trek/BSG etc.) In any given episode of those classic shows, the captain is always yelling “Reroute power to shields!” or giving commands to the engineer now that their Warp Core is on fire. We wanted that experience, as opposed to the “dog fighting in space” that most videogames focus on. We wanted a game where we had to manage the crew, fix the engines, reroute power to shields, target the enemy life support, and then figure out how to repel the boarders that just transported over!

The roguelike elements are (as is the case with most roguelikes) both fun and frustrating. There’s a variety of randomness in the systems you explore, but there’s nothing worse than wandering into a battle that wipes out a carefully upgraded ship you’ve spent hours with.

The combat is fulfilling in ways that dogfighting is not. It’s tactical rather than reactive, less about looping circles behind ships and more about running your crew around to boost and repair the systems you need to win the fight. A wide array of upgrades and components mean you can customize the tactics to your taste. Maybe you want to use energy weapons to spare yourself having to stock missiles, or load up on drones, or use a teleporter to beam your crew over to the enemy ship and take it down from the inside. The flexibility helps convey that feeling that you’re commanding the ship.

There’s also pressure driving you forward, which is rare in space games. You’re being chased by rebels across the map, which keeps pushing you forward. While you get some time to explore, sticking around for too long will lead to your inevitable death. There’s no market system to pump your resources with buying low and selling high – you have to acquire money and parts largely through combat or interactions with other ships.

It really is a wonderful and unique experience, and one that provides a shining example for what Kickstarter can do for the gaming industry. Of course, out of the remaining 18 projects, 14 still haven’t shipped – so it’s a little discouraging to have so many projects sending me constant text updates but not having games in hand. Hopefully by this time next year, I’ll have more examples than just FTL.

FTL is available for OS X and Windows.


Games of 2011: Portal 2

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2011 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. Instead of my usual end-of-year game recommendations, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2011 posts.

WARNING: This post is going to be spoiler-filled.

More than puzzles, rogue AIs, cake, lemons, or potatoes, I consider the Portal series – and especially this year’s Portal 2 – to be about space.

Consider the original game: you wake up in a confined cell, and are only released after a timer counts you down. As you progress through the stark white test chambers, they gradually open up in size. You begin to find cracks in the system, holes in walls that lead to clues that there’s something much larger going on around you. Then the much promised twist comes, and as you flee, you start to see how large this world might be. The game ends with you in the outside world, collapsed on the pavement, with the sun shining down on you.

It’s been over half a year since I played through Portal 2, but the bits that have stuck with me all relate to the use of space. In particular:

Waking up at the start of the game in a small, obviously fake hotel room. As the room is forced to move, the walls begin to fall apart and you take in rows upon rows of shipping containers – all presumably holding rooms similar to yours. Yes, it’s a set piece. Yes, there’s minimal interactivity. But it sets the stage, letting the player know that this world goes far beyond their view.

Throughout the game, while you may be on narrow platforms and ramps, the game areas typically have unbelievably high ceilings, with tubes and machines stacked as far as you can see.

The intermediary caverns, used to traverse between the major areas of the game, are huge. I actually disliked these parts – they were an exercise in zooming in to a distant platform, praying you might find a surface to open a portal on. Flawed as they were, they did convey a sense of distance and expansiveness to the world.

Portal 2 expanded on the idea that the test chambers were configurable, and often does so right before you, walls shifting mechanically to define the space. Sometimes this happens slowly — rooms that aren’t ready when you enter them. Other times it’s done as part of a chase sequence, forcing you to re-evaluate your options on the fly. You never lose sight of the fact that beyond the walls of the chamber you’re in, there’s a giant world.

Consider GLaDOS herself as well. Originally just a person, her mind is transferred to a computer, and suddenly she is omnipresent within the walls of Aperture. In the middle of Portal 2, she is transferred to a potato battery — clearly a space too small, as she constantly shorts out — and forced to ride shotgun with you. Your main mission becomes to restore her as she was, as the alternative you’re faced with may be much worse.

And of course, there are the two big moments right at the end of the game: the roof caving in during the final boss fight, where you must use space quite literally; and your eventual departure from Aperture Science, left to your own devices in an endless field of wheat.

Portal 2 is better in practically every way over the original. The new mechanics, the writing, the music, the voice work, and the co-op options are all top notch. But it’s the sense of scale and space that made it transcend the first game for me.

As a postscript, I also want to cite Erik Wolpaw’s wonderful offhand comment about Chell’s fate in an interview he did with PC Gamer shortly after release:

> She does get a happy ending, there’s no point in being negative about it, I just can’t let go of the fact that we know where she gets that happy ending, and there could be some danger out there. I’m an adult, terrible shit happens to me all the time. I want happy endings for everyone, the kind I’m not gonna get in real life – I mean, we’re all gonna die, let’s face it.

Portal 2 is available for Windows and OS X on Steam, the Playstation 3, and the Xbox 360.