The engines are failing. Pirates are firing on your ship and half your crew are running out of air. Asteroids are bearing down on you and your meagre shields. If you can just fix the sensor array, maybe you can see the enemy’s weakest point and get the hell out of here.
But it’s a big maybe.
FTL: Faster Than Light does an excellent job of using mechanics and management to tell a personal story. Any recounting of a session with the game is inevitably coloured by the person’s emotional involvement with their ship and crew; it’s one of the title’s greatest strengths. Yet these involved moments are frequently juxtaposed with FTL‘s more traditional storytelling methods. Text boxes often appear asking the player to make a decision based on a short explanation of the scene, then you return to what one might consider the game proper. It’s far from a ruination, but it is jarring and somewhat clumsy for a title that otherwise runs an extremely tight ship.
I can tell you with near enough to absolute certainty that I am sitting in my living room right now. It’s modestly sized, with high ceilings and white walls that I wish I could be bothered to paint. I know it’s my living room because all my stuff is here; there’s an L.A. Noire poster on the wall behind me, Adventure Time figurines on the shelves and an empty chocolate wrapper on the desk. I can also judge where I am based on where I was, which is my bathroom; spatial awareness.
None of this makes you feel as if you’re in the room as well. It’s just a literal description of my environment, and even if I dressed it up as a narrative and squeezed in a few emotive or sensual phrases you’re still going to feel mostly detached from the experience.
That FTL presents its few, simple narrative elements this way isn’t a problem in and of itself. Text adventures were a successful genre—and hold up well over time—because they managed to weave interactivity into the passive medium of the written word. However, simple tricks used by text adventures work because they run parallel to the medium they borrow from. They refer to the player and reader personally, for example, in order to make participants forget they’re actually just sitting in front of a screen reading text. In contrast, FTL‘s bite-sized story-making snippets are completely at odds with the strategic management that makes up the bulk of the game. They are a welcome addition, but one that comes at the cost of immersion—unfortunate considering their purpose is the opposite.
I’d like to veer wildly to the left, crash my spaceship onto the nearest planet’s surface, find an old truck and go for a quiet drive. Kentucky Route Zero is worlds away from the frantic galactic combat of FTL, and yet they share a similar interest in the storytelling abilities of prose. While KRZ is a point & click adventure, the beautiful visuals are but broad strokes on a complex canvas. Details generally play out in text boxes, which represent either dialogue or description.
The difference is in the presentation. Kentucky‘s text is integrated into the environment, often originating as a speech bubble from the central character. This anchors the player in the world, even though they’re still just looking at text. Additionally, the interfaces for interaction, exploration and communication are virtually identical; there is no disconnect between playing and reading. The mechanics at play in FTL are, of course, considerably more complex than this, making it a challenge to create a similarly cohesive presentation.
Narrative sequences in FTL are at least partially a time and effort minimisation technique. Creating elaborate staged sequences involving various locations and characters is arguably too much of a distraction from the vital aspects of gameplay. But the existing set-up appears lazy in comparison, with choices requiring little engagement from the player, and consequences often rely more on random coin flips than any sort of persistent universe rules. The randomisation is a product of the game’s rougelike designs, but, just as a missile should do a somewhat predictable amount of damage to a Mantis warship’s shield, there should be some rhyme or reason to what FTL considers a plot point.
One spot where the existing system actually feels cohesive is when ships communicate mid-battle. If you’re exacting particularly effective revenge upon an enemy, they may hail you and ask for mercy–sometimes even offering a free slave to secure their own safety. Framed as part of combat, these moments connect to the action by proximity and immediate consequence and are infinitely more memorable as a result.
There are also external factors limiting the player experience. FTL‘s soundtrack, while a shining example of the clever and talented composers working in independent development, doesn’t miss a beat during text sequences. The effect is isolating, leaving these sections with an odd feeling of last-minute addition.
Looking back at Kentucky Route Zero once more, each encounter with an otherwise static block of text—dialogue sometimes excepted—is punctuated by atmospheric music or sound effects. When Conway stops in at a bait shop along the curious highways of who-knows-where, we never see the shop itself. Instead, we hear the door and the curious silence inside, and we listen to the curiously ominous humming of the nondescript fish tanks in the corner which definitely do not contain fish. Players are still just reading, but they’re also in the scene.
Descriptive scenes in KRZ are littered with choices as well. Most are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but meaningful in a character sense. In the moment, they matter. And it matters that you made a choice, not that you picked the best result. Best of all, such subtle and localised choices require little effort on behalf of the creator—a little more writing, perhaps.
FTL‘s blunt style of narrative construction is perfunctory. It serves a purpose, and the game would certainly be poorer without it, but it stands apart from the rest of the game in a mechanical and atmospheric sense.
Maybe all it would take to mitigate such feelings is some tweaks to the sound design, or speech boxes to replace the ever-so dry windows of text. There’s a lot of recently buried gold in ancient forms of interactivity like text adventures, provided developers don’t simply follow the dotted lines.