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FTL: Roguelikes & Freedom vs. Choice
by Eric Schwarz on 09/21/12 01:25:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


FTL: Faster Than Light released just a few days ago after one of the earlier successful Kickstarter campaigns, and after winning several awards at various independent game festivals.  As a space-simulation roguelike, the ideas that it explores are not entirely original - however, its stripped-down presentation sets it apart from other space-themed games, with full 3D simulation and empire colonization removed in favour of intense ship-to-ship combat and crew management as the player evades the ever-encroaching dominion of the rebel fleet.

FTL is an excellent game, though I think that goes without saying given that it's received so much positive feedback.  But the more I've played it, the more I've got to wondering why exactly why that is the case.  There are bigger, prettier, more complicated games out there, and ones with much more content.  Somehow, FTL just "works" and manages to remain fun game after game.

The more I turned the idea over, the more I realized that FTL's success stems from limitations, not ambition.  It's not that it provides freedom, but the right kind of freedom.  It's not that it has complex gameplay, but rather that the gameplay demands that I make decisions rather than reactions.  And, perhaps more than any other title I have played in some time, it is truly a videogame.  After having gone through some of the mainstream game industry's biggest titles this year, as well as one particularly massive RPG, this is extremely refreshing.

Star Trek: The Roguelike

Roguelikes are not exactly a new or even a particularly obscure genre anymore.  After successes over the last few years like Dwarf Fortress, Dungeons of Dredmor, Minecraft, Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, roguelikes have been introduced to, relatively speaking, more mainstream gamers than in the past.  What's more, the traditional roguelike model of literally being Rogue-like has also given way to a whole new genre of games which take roguelike concepts such as permanent death and randomly-generated content, and combine them with other styles of gameplay.

Why do roguelikes work so well?  One particular reason that players are so drawn to them is the immense challenge most of them present.  By presenting gameplay which can appear, at times, nearly insurmountable, the difficulty is not so much in enduring a lengthy campaign or completing difficult scenarios, but rather mastering the raw mechanics of the gameplay itself.  What starts out as impenetrable becomes more and more predictable and tame as players continue to play over and over again - basic learning gives way to tactical and strategic decisions, which continue to become more and more complicated as the game is replayed over and over and more nuance becomes apparent.

Roguelikes: the ultimate example of gameplay over graphics.

At the core of a roguelike is choice.  In fact, that's pretty much all roguelikes are built upon.  Do I drink the potion and see what happens, or sell it for some gold?  Do I fight these enemies and take their treasure, or are they too powerful for me?  Do I go left or right?  Do I skip backtracking to get supplies or press onward?  The actual gameplay of a roguelike has less to do with reflexes and skills, and much more to do with making the right decisions.  Success in a roguelike is typically a matter both of good planning and good immediate decision-making - mechanics like limited food, currency, etc. ensure that players constantly have to make trade-offs between the short and long term.

This central choice element is what sets rougelikes apart and what gives them their staying power.  Even if the player has mastered every single mechanic that a roguelike has to offer, knows all the random components, knows what all the items and monsters are capable of, the randomness of the configuration of all these individual elements means that the player is never, ever relieved of the need to make a decision.  Whereas many games become automatic over time through rote memory work or the simple lack of expression the player has within the game systems, roguelikes positively excel in this respect.

In Space, There Are No Corridors

We tend to criticize a lot of titles, usually action-oriented ones, shooters, and so on, for not providing players with freedom in gameplay.  Often we place the blame on level design: the corridor is the symbol of a lack of freedom, and we tend to assume that the problems in many titles boil down to a lack of openness in the level design.  Conversely, we tend to praise games which provide us with lots of freedom, and currently open-ended, limitless titles are the ones which tend to get the highest Metacritic scores and often sell millions upon millions of copies.

Of course, this is a fallacy.  Gears of War would not necessarily be made a better game if the level design changed and the corridors were dispensed with.  Dead Space's primary gameplay hook, tense action in dimly-lit corridors, may not be to everyone's taste, but suddenly transforming the game into an open-ended affair would not improve things.  More broadly, this critique speaks to linearity in games, wherein certain objectives are predefined and must be completed in a particular order.  Similarly, linearity, as we tend to understand it, is not really a problem in game design either.  Not having the option to pick which story objective to go after does not make for a worse game.

What should be put under the magnifying glass more often is freedom with respect to the systems the player operates within.  A game like Gears features a hundred different guns and the action is fast and intense - the player is rarely standing still and has to make split-second reactions.  Except, these are not really choices.  While superficially the player has the option of either ducking behind cover or aiming and shooting, the systems that regulate this behaviour are nearly binary: do you have health?  If no, hide.  If yes, shoot.  Do you have ammo?  If no, reload.  If yes, shoot.  In almost every instance there is only one correct response, and this response has a lot less to do with the player's ability to devise strategies and think critically as it does with the ability to recognize patterns and provide the correct response.  This is the real problem with the pervasive lack of freedom in many modern titles, not the linearity in story and level design in and of itself.

FTL is nothing but corridors and menus, and aside from cosmetic backgrounds the game screen never changes.  Yet I feel I have more interesting and significant decisions to make in this environment than many bigger, more expansive games.

This is where FTL really shines and gets its staying power.  The game revolves around a central conflict - the player must balance the short-term needs of personnel and resources in combat, medium-term needs like upgrades and repairs, and long-term needs like the ability to beat tough enemies much later on.  Planning is essential, but adaptability is also crucial, and success depends upon making a combination of the right decisions at the right times.  The random element to gameplay (scenarios visited on a minute-by-minute basis, supplies and missions available, etc.) constantly forces players to reconsider and revise decisions, and all of these elements themselves tend to have interesting choices contained with.  Do you board a derelict vessel to search for supplies, knowing there may be pirates ready to ambush you aboard?  Do you help a civilian ship in hopes of reward, or take a bribe from the brutes harassing it to look the other way?  And more broadly, decisions on where to travel are augmented both by the available destinations and by the ever-creeping time limit.

Like the roguelikes discussed above, FTL is predicated on choice.  The game mechanics interact with each other in enough ways that decisions are both constant and constantly interesting.  There is never one "right" decision to make, only shades of grey with different upsides and downsides as the rest of the gameplay situation changes.  When a fire breaks out on-board the player's ship, is it a better idea to send crew to deal with it, abandoning their stations, or does it make sense to open the outer doors and suck the fire out of the ship, but also deprive the area of oxygen for a time?  As the game goes on, the player gains more and more ways to augment the decisions being made.  With the Blast Doors upgrade, fire aboard the ship is incapable of spreading far, which means that the player can make other decisions differently.  There is immense freedom in navigating the gameplay FTL offers, even though the game never actually leaves the corridors of the player's own vessel.

Yet it's equally important that this freedom is not too great.  Some titles offer huge open worlds to explore and such as wealth of content and gameplay at the player's disposal that it can be downright paralyzing.  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim gives the player an endless theme park to explore every nook and cranny of, yet this freedom to do anything, any time comes at the expense of compelling decision-making, because every decision is ultimately the same: since the game never pushes back at the player, the answer to the player's questions is always "yes."  I recently played through Inquisitor, a similarly massive RPG - but even then, its "freedom" largely amounted to the order in which I completed a set of objectives, not how I did it.  Without any chance of failure, any barriers to overcome, any risk of denial, there can be no struggle, no rules to follow, no victory - no gameplay.

Closing Thoughts

This is why FTL, for me, has been such a refreshing experience.  After playing so many titles which discourage experimentation and which simply treat the player as a passive observer to the mayhem and majesty playing out, it gives me an opportunity to inhabit tightly-controlled systems and do my best to regulate them.  Without the binary win/lose mechanics of so many other titles, FTL has been a crucial reminder that the most compelling games are those which are built upon the choices players make, and construct their goals, scenarios and rules not to limit what the player can do, but to provide more of those choices within the systems.

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