A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
The Dice of FTL
April 14, 2014Posted by on
Like a lot of people this past week or so, I’ve taken the release of the free patch for FTL: Faster Than Light as a barely-needed excuse to make the jump back in, racking up another few dozen hours’ play and sorting out some unfinished business.
When my attention to the basic game waned back at the start of 2013, drifting off to orbit some shiny new pretender, I had, at around80 hours playtime on the clock, all but one of the playable ships unlocked, and all but two alternate floorplans unlocked for the rest. This was despite only having beaten the game’s boss twice in total, in Easy mode, no less. Once to unlock the Alliance Cruiser, and once again to.. prove it wasn’t just a fluke? I’ve still not managed a third.
Some of this I can blame on my dogged pursuit of achievements to unlock the alternate floorplans, some on how I get excited and barf money at shopkeepers whenever a new weapon or ship system appears which I haven’t used before. I also have a terrible habit of forgetting to switch the oxygen back on. Or sometimes I’ll get a message from someone on Facebook and when I look back at the game, an airlock will be open and someone important will have died along with the invaders I was trying to flush. Occasionally it’ll feel like the game’s screwed me, like a type of ship’s shown up that I’m particularly ill-prepared to fight, or the randomly-stocked shops and encounters haven’t provided me with sufficient weaponry to spend my mounting piles of scrap metal on; but the more I play, and the better I get at efficiently visiting as many stars in a sector as possible, broadening my choices, the less this seems to occur.
Dice are frequently rolled in FTL, and life will feel considerably easier when they fall in your favour, but across the eight sectors and dozens of encounters it almost feels like they tumble in slow motion. You have time to prod and poke them between bounces, watching their trajectories and adjusting them as they fall. You won’t be able to unlock everything until you’ve had the good fortune (or persistence) to stumble across certain random encounters, and often you’ll realise around sector six or seven that there’s no way in hell you’re gonna be able to take the flagship in the state that you’re in, but it always feels like you have control. Except that.. you don’t, really, I guess.
It didn’t occur to me until one of the folks on the latest Daft Souls podcast pointed it out, but you can’t really pick a strategy from the outset in FTL. You choose your starting ship and a floor layout, which broadly points you in a particular direction, and you can pick which shipboard systems you upgrade first, but besides that the rest gets handed to you. Wanna play a drone-heavy game? Well, start with a ship that has a drone controller from the outset, upgrade it early, and make sure you always have scrap spare to buy more drone parts from the stores.. but beyond that point you could be playing with just anything. You can choose what to keep from the items you’re given, so it’d be a mistake to pass on that big-ass Ion Cannon (which will keep their shields down and let your drones go to town on the hull more easily), but often you’ll have no choice but to your change plans and adapt. If you want to maximise your chances of success, at least.
Say you’re in sector three or four and still haven’t found any decent combat drones. Enemy ships are becoming too heavily armed and shielded for your Ion strategy, and they’re only getting stronger. Are you gonna carry on in hopes that the next sector will yield something so impressive that it’ll turn things around, or are you gonna have a strategic rethink? How desperate were you to play that drone game anyway? The further behind the power curve you fall, the more reliant you’re gonna be on lady luck’s favours.
One of my friends recently pointed out that I have a problem with random chance in games, which at the time I failed to deny, but altogether resented, because I knew it wasn’t entirely true. FTL, with the Advanced patch in particular, has helped me work out why. It’s to do with risk, and agency.
When I’m playing Hearthstone and I return two cards in my starting hand to my deck because they’re copies of one another and are too expensive to play, and then draw two more cards which are just as expensive again, it frustrates me endlessly. Likewise in Magic, when I have a deck fine-tuned to run on a certain number of mana-producing Land cards, and during a critical game only two show up in the first seven turns.
In both cases I can have built my decks to maximise the odds of getting the cards I wanted and still remained absolutely powerless. If I don’t find something in the remaining cards that’ll level the scales (and it’s always a good idea to pack something for worst-case scenarios) I’ll lose because my deck has stalled in such a way that no amount of strategic genius or skilled play could avoid. I didn’t make a reckless call, I didn’t decide to trust my luck on a long shot, I didn’t make a big stupid mistake. Or even a string of little stupid mistakes, for that matter. I had no agency, and that makes me rage. FTL is not like this.
I think I’ve been enjoying Hearthstone more than Magic because the speed and agility of the games means that it is easier to avoid, or at least power through the snares of bad luck. The state of the board changes so much more quickly, and snowballs of power rarely grow too big to halt. The game can suddenly swing against you just as easily as it can suddenly swing in your favour, for sure, but if you play carefully in anticipation of those sudden changes in tempo, you can minimise their impact and have a recovery strategy in mind. Don’t overcommit when you’re already winning, keep a trick or two up your sleeve for if you fall behind. Sound advice when playing Magic too, but much harder to follow when the game begins to drag, the odds mount against you, and any of those four cards you packed that would help are taking their sweet time to show up and save your ass. In Hearthstone there are half as many cards in your deck, and you have a third more life points.
But yes, FTL..
Always check nearby sectors for shops before spending scrap on upgrades after a fight. If you don’t, you’re not picking from the full range of options open to you and might miss something important. This is just one example of how you, the player, are responsible to some extent for your own luck.
In FTL, and all good roguelikes for that matter, you are never entirely at the mercy of fate. There are few to no blind draws, binary coin flips, or instant dice rolls at predetermined odds, and what few they are have little enough individual impact to make a game unrecoverable. When you fail, it’ll be a death by a thousand scorchmarks on your hull. A thousand chances to nudge the dice in a different direction. At every point in the game you always, always have options; choices of what to upgrade, what to invest in, what to forego, what to save for, what to splash on, what to sacrifice, what to trade away, what to cling to.. And the more you play, the more experience you personally gain, the more of them you will, see branching off into the starry skies and nebulae. My issue with the original FTL was always being under-equipped in combat due to unlucky shops. Only since playing Advanced has it really occurred to me that if I don’t find any decent weapons early on I can always just stack out my shields and evasion to maximise my odds of survival until I do. Even within combat, which is a skill to be improved and mastered in itself, you have to judge which angles of attack presents you with the best odds of survival. Guns first? Shields? Drones? Take the high-risk route of hitting their oxygen supplies to avoid damaging the ship and then hope the bonus scrap pays to repair the extra damage you took?
I only have problems with luck in games when there are no ways to play around it. No ways to weigh risk and reward and take responsibility for the dice rolls. Ludo, Game of Life, Talisman, and other board games which hang entirely upon rolling the highest numbers to get somewhere first and win, are unsatisfying at best and fatally frustrating at worst. Fun to play? As social lubricant, maybe, giving everyone something to chat over and groan about whilst drinking. But not as challenging, competitive games. You could put a shit film on and laugh together at how bad it is and it’d be largely the same experience.
In FTL you live and die based on the quality of the choices you make, and I love that. You can see the dice falling, and your ability to adapt to the circumstances you’re placed in makes so much more of a difference than whether the odds simply work out in your favour. The extra content in Advanced Edition only expands upon these choices further, giving you even more ways to try and tip the scales. Do you take a Clone Bay to ensure that you’ll never suffer the crippling loss of a crewmember, allowing you to gamble more on random encounters’ riskiest options? Or stick with the Med Bay which’ll pay off better during invasions and other circumstances? I couldn’t tell you which is generally better, because that’ll depend on the rest of the game you’re playing. I’ve learned not to ardently stick to one course of another when I could be constantly adjusting.
If you do take the Clone Bay, though, don’t pass up on any Heal Bombs you find, unless you’re really short on space. When a crew member dies and you his skills are wiped, you’ll wish you had them. I wouldn’t want to take that risk.
Not entirely sure where this was going where it started, but here it has ended up. I really need to go back and insert some images into these. ^^;