Scenes from FTL: Space and the Opera
I hired Scoops onto one of my cruisers, a ship run by two telepathic Slugmen, on the run from the racist rebels. The vessel specialized in beaming crewmembers aboard the other ship and tearing their crew’s faces off. Scoops, with the claws inherent to a Mantis, was a master at this. He invaded with another Slugman, Lagardi, who was tasked, invariably, with making sure the job got done, but it was Scoops, man, who did the deed, his Slugman handler unable to match his sheer, overwhelming violence.
Eventually the Slugmen expanded their crew. They recruited from the galaxy’s other races—the obligatory Humans, the robotic Engi, the as their name suggests Rockmen—and put together a robust crew. Lagardi retired to man the shield generator and was replaced by another Mantis, a smaller one named Breckon. Scoops was left in charge of the invasions, and he performed them with gusto.
A few months ago, I fell in love with Kerbal Space Program, a game about designing—then destroying—massive spaceships. It filled a great need in my life: the space opera game. Sure, Kerbal Space Program is as much a space opera as Apollo 13, but its emergent stories about the likes of Bill Kerban, brave astronaut whose rocket skimmed across the surface of the planet Kerbal until it exploded fifty three miles from the launchpad riveted me.
FTL’s stories, meanwhile, are less Kerbal’s and more Firefly. A few brave men, the crew of a cruiser, careening across the galaxy, one step ahead of a racist rebellion with designs on crushing the noble Federation. It’s a game of desperate assaults, intense ship battles, and reckless exploration, like the Starship Enterprise in the role of Princess Leia’s Cordellian cruiser, on the run from Darth Vader’s Empire.
The exploration reminds me of a roguelike, or more accurately the classic Strange Adventures in Infinite Space or its follower, the whimsical Flotilla. It’s more epic in scale than that genre tends, however: FTL sends you jet-setting across star systems, against pirates and conniving, almost exclusively aggressive alien types. In effect, it strings together ten or so games of one of those classic space exploration titles into one long opera. Jump from place to place on a spider webbed map, consolidate your power, and battle dozens of enemy ships.
The combat is startling in its simplicity: you aim your weapons at components of the opponent’s ship. They target your components, neatly represented by rooms, many of which have to be manned by your crew members. Lasers will ricochet off your shields, missiles will cut through your network of drone defenses, and your ship will almost certainly catch fire.
Maybe someone will board your ship. Maybe you’ll teleport your crew onto their ship, engaging in an intense murder spree while you frantically try to space their invaders before they can cause any serious damage. It’s a perfectly safe strategy, until your door controls explode and your life support systems, inside the spaced half of your vessel, get hit by a missile, sparking a mad rush to repair them before your crew suffocates.
Things will go wrong.
It was somewhere around the Mantis Homeworlds, on the run from the rebellion, when it went wrong. It was six shy of his fiftieth confirmed kill.
Nothing about this encounter screamed difficulty, but that’s why they fight the battles. A rebel cruiser, four life signs confirmed by the Slugmen, sputtering about the ship. They followed standard procedure: launch an anti-ship drone, which would spin about and fire at the enemy ship automatically; fire missiles at their weapon systems, taking them offline and sparing us any harm; nail their med bay with lasers, to keep them from healing; and teleport over Scoops and Breckon, to take out any crew. If things went south, they would beam over medical supplies, re-energizing the Mantises and ensuring death to our enemies.
Breckon, still, wasn’t much of a fighter. He could tear the generic rebel goon apart, sure, but he lacked Scoops’ penchant for bloodshed, his skill at handling gangs of opponents. He wasn’t much better a fighter than Lagardi, who had the experience but not the in-bred lust for destruction.
Things went sound quickly. The missiles took out the weapons, but the lasers couldn’t snag the med bay. Worse, there were five rebels on-board. Still, Scoops and Breckon fought the four humans. The rebels, racist and malicious, no doubt hated them, these aliens disrupting their sanctuary floating in space. Medical supplies beamed in in the nick of time, but the fight continued: the med bay was still up, and the rebels could shift out their fighters.
Breckon, weak from fighting, pulled out as they waited for our medical supplies to recharge. Finally, a missile took out the med bay, took out the nearly dead rebel in the bay. Things were looking up: Scoops on three rebels. In retrospect, this was the time to teleport out, to evacuate. The crew proposed, and the captains ignored. They’d get the medicine there, nick of time, like every other time.
Breckon rejoined the fight, and medical supplies were launched over.
Then—a gasp—a noise from the firefight, above the others: Scoops had fallen. Only one Mantis returned on the teleporter, covered in the blood of his enemies, his dead mentor in his arms.
The thing about FTL is that you’ll build it, and, when it falls apart, your mistakes will tear it down. Your crewmembers will get better. You’ll swap out weaksauce weapons for better ones. You’ll do everything you can to ensure that nobody dies. And then they do, because you didn’t predict something, and the whole ship begins to fall apart. What’s come together now falls apart, without so much as a dramatic musical flourish. It just happens.
FTL, in short, taps into the idea that’s given Minecraft and board games so much traction: you get to build something. Your ship, while a template design, gets endlessly customized by weapons, drones, and even whole rooms you’ll purchase or strip from ships en route to the Federation Headquarters.
You’ll fall in love with crew members, named by the game’s Kickstarter backers (Sean O’Regan, you have always been a funny Rockman I invariably dismiss; I apologize), and you’ll watch them die in horrible places, bordering supernovaing suns, suffocating while repairing hull breaches.
It’s all quite comical, and it’s all quite tragic. FTL deserves its roguelike moniker, and you’re going to die a dozen times, even on easy, before you get to the end. FTL is a season of Star Trek where, abruptly, the Enterprise lights on fire, gets boarded by Rockmen, and slaughtered before the mid season break, to be replaced by Borderlands 2 or some such.
In the battles that came, Lagardi resumed his role, teleporting over to enemy cruisers, this time with Breckon. It wasn’t the same: the boarders weren’t quite as potent, quite as terrifying. Eventually, another Mantis joined the crew—the tastefully named Emma—and the slug-helmed ship reached the Federation base. Here, they faced their greatest challenge: launching a frontal assault against the rebel’s flagship.
Breckon and Emma acquitted themselves well, teleporting onto the opposing vessel, murdering dozens of rebels, single-handedly taking their cloaking device offline, giving the human gunner the chance to light their shields up. By all accounts, it was an easy victory, but the flagship jumped away.
They pursued, and fought another, desperate battle. This time, the invaders were less successful, remaining on the cruiser to fight off boarding robots shot over in missiles. In the end, though, while the flagship escaped again, things hadn’t gone too badly: the slug ship was damaged, but still chugging. There was a problem, though: no missiles remained. Without missiles, there was no way to heal the Mantises, and no way to breach the enemy shields without men on the deck. Regardless, they pursued the flagship a final time: the flagship couldn’t take much more.
The final battle began with two attack teams—Emma and Breckon, Lagardi and a barely capable Rockman—beamed over into the flagship’s weapon compartments, neutralizing the ship’s combat abilities. They beamed back, but there was no way, they realized, to actually take down the flagship: its shields were too strong. Someone would have to jaunt over and take out the shields. With a damaged teleporter, though, it would be a tight fit. If they waited long enough to repair the teleporter, the enemy superweapon, still functional, could wreck the ship. If they jumped now, the invaders might not make it back.
A decision was made; Breckon and Lagardi jumped over. They did it for old times, because it was the sort of thing Scoops would have wanted. They slaughtered the one crewmember remaining and tore the shields apart. Lasers rocked the ship around them. On the cruiser, they jammed the teleport button, praying for it to return.
As the rebel ship exploded, the teleport room filled, once again, with the familiar shapes: the Mantis and the Slugman.
In the end, FTL is about the stories. It’s about the poor Rockman who wasn’t fast enough to escape the crushing void of space, or the repair whiz who burned to death in the back of the hull, or the missile that killed your gunnery chief and the story of the grotesque alien who replaced him on weapons. More than a roguelike, FTL is a story about Scoops, and Breckon, and all the other ridiculously named aliens who will pepper your crew over dozens of playthroughs. This is their story.