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The flames shred through my vessel, eventually overtaking the populated rooms, but it didn't matter. My men would burn, but there are worse ways to go than ablaze with the virtue of dedication. Of course I couldn't give up. Not when good men and women spent their last moments proudly showing me the honor of what it means to serve a ship. It wasn't something I understood before FTL: Faster Than Light, the spaceship roguelike by Subset Games where you command your own ship and its crew under a space exploration mission.
This is the appeal of FTL: it provides you with the tools and context to tell compelling stories. Not in the way we might pat ourselves on the back for the authorship of awesome situations in open world games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim, but in a way that eludes the control of both player and creator. What happens in FTL is not wholly because of you, and not wholly because of the designer either thanks to levels and situations created on the fly.
Games have strict rules as to how they function and there's only so much you can mess with that, but there are too many variables and randomness in a roguelike to be able to easily account for all the fantastical things that might happen. There are only general rules of how things should work in the procedurally generated 'levels', but nothing is created in a specific way. And we have no indication of what the best course of action is in a given situation, or even how a lot of things function in the game. That's a staple to the roguelike genre, the need to demystify just about every aspect of a game as you play.
And so every game I've had in FTL was different, not just in how I might decide to play, but in what I find when I explore thanks to procedural generation. Maybe it's pirates this time. Maybe it's a distress signal. Maybe it's rebels. Maybe it's nothing at all. Maybe I have a certain upgrade or weapon, and maybe I don't. What do all these weapons and upgrades do, anyway? There are few guarantees in what to expect while playing, there's only the assurance of having more obstacles to overcome.
The roguelike's refusal to let you master it, refusal to let you fully know its secrets, is as utterly maddening as it is compelling. FTL, then, exists on possibility. What could happen out in space is a question that has captured our imagination for generations. Is this not the most appropriate thing for a game about space to embody? It's a marriage made in the cosmos, and I say this as seemingly the only nerd on earth that doesn't get a boner over space.
Nonetheless there's one commonality between all of the game's tales. Stories often end in tragedy, since FTL is a roguelike with a grueling difficulty that drives home the idea of space as an endless, inhospitable place where where we either die spectacular deaths worth recounting, or die sad, lonely deaths worth mourning. Nothing that gets in the way of a new game of FTL though. You'll have to get right back into the command center regularly. That's part of the fun.
You're not playing to win, not entirely. You're playing to experiencing something new, to see what might happen this time, to learn something more about the system governing the game. If we ever figure out reincarnation, I suspect we'd approach life much in the same way as we do roguelikes: finite experiences meant to teach us how to live life a little better next time around. Intangibility of how life works be damned, as it's no match for the good old human stubbornness to try and try again.
FTL reflects what draws us into space in the first place. Ambition. In the game, it manifests itself in the desire to see more of what's out there, to take risks and chances for supplies and resources, to overcome the odds the game puts you against. It's a good complement to reality, where there's a race to lay claim to hunks of space rock, where we want to know that our cunning engineering can let us tame the extreme conditions in space, and that though there's something bigger than all of us out there, it is nonetheless all within the realm of our understanding.
The writer Joan Didion once said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I'd like to add to that and say we live to try to make an imprint on the world, to be remembered, to defy the idea that our lives are insignificant. Whenever you hear about FTL, that's what you'll hear: stories. Maybe we can't game our mortality, both in FTL and in real life. But stories? Stories defy everything and live on.