Losing is fun. This adage has achieved memetic status in the gaming community as of late. The small but devoted fanbase of Dwarf Fortress, the original fantasy mining simulator, coined the philosophy. In Dwarf Fortress, there is no win state. Regardless of the player’s strategic savvy, their fortress will inevitably fall to dragon fire or subterranean invasion. The fun, as any Dwarf Fortress player will tell you, comes from seeing what chaotic force hammers the last nail in your coffin.
It may seem a morose game design philosophy, but it’s one that’s enjoying boundless popularity. Two of the best selling PC games of the past year, Minecraft and Diablo 3, have both included a hardcore mode. Die once, lose everything, start again. A quick Youtube search will yield dozens of hardcore playthroughs of games, even ones that don’t innately support this mode. Perhaps in a post World of Warcraft world we’ve grown tired of the constant hand-holding, tutorials, and coddling that has become status quo. Players yearn for the days of 8-bit graphics where a game over screen meant starting over from scratch – no save point, no password, no pat on the head.
Faster Than Light epitomizes this ethic. The game can best be described as a space travel simulator. You are thrust into the role of captain of a federation ship charged with delivering a message to the far end of the galaxy. If you fail, the insidious rebels will take over the galaxy. With the rebel fleet hot on your tail, you must journey through hostile sectors to deliver your crucial missive.
Hostile being the key word. Galactic dogfights are standard fare for most sectors, and each skirmish has killing potential. There’s actually a surprising amount of depth to the space combat in Fast Than Light considering it has the veneer of a floppy disk game. Choosing the appropriate upgrades is crucial. Did you pump all your money into shields? That won’t help you against a mantis raiding party. Think you can pour everything into your thrusters and outrun your foes? Too bad they just fire bombed your engine room. You’ll probably quit the game in rage the first time you lose your ship in a scenario like this, but it’s all part of the learning curve. Every weapon and tactic your opponent uses can be used by you, and there’s a certain sinister satisfaction in turning these strategies against your enemies.
As I’ve touched on, the graphics are nothing to write home about. They’re bare bones and follow the recurring trend of indie developers banking on cost effective retro visuals. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and the style suits the game well, but there’s no specific kudos I can throw at Subset Games in this category. The music is similarly forgettable although I have to file a complaint against the main background theme. The tinny beeps and boops of this track, while matching the retro visuals, wear a bit thin during extended play.
And believe me, you’ll be playing this game a lot. It took me a solid twenty attempts before I was able to survive the onslaught of dogfights, meteor showers, and mantis attacks and progress to the final stage. Even now I’ve yet to concoct a strategy against the final boss that doesn’t result in my ship being blown into intergalactic confetti. The game stays fresh through each subsequent attempt and failure due to it being almost entirely randomly generated. Each time you play, you’ll be provided different choices of paths to follow, different obstacles to avoid, different merchants with different inventories to buy from, and different enemy encounters to lose against.
The random nature of the game means you can never commit to a single strategy from the get-go. You can’t be an explorer if fuel is scarce. Likewise, you can’t turn your vessel into a warship if none of the merchants are offering weapon upgrades. A key vector of success is appraising your situation, managing what you spend scrap on, and making hard choices. Sometimes you’ll have to ignore a distress call to conserve fuel. Sometimes you’ll have to surrender a crew member into slavery to avoid a pirate attack. The cards the game deals you can often seem unfair and lopsided, but pulling through when the deck is stacked against you is a euphoric feeling. Even when you’re dealt a losing hand, the game rewards you with new ships, crew members, and other unlockable perks to soften the blow.
Faster Than Light is the most addictive game I’ve played in ages. The randomly generated nature of the game gives it unbeatable replay value, and the slew of unlockable goodies available serve as an apt carrot-on-a-stick to keep me trying to save the federation again and again after each catastrophic failure. Although the music and visuals are nothing to write home about, the bones of the game are rock solid. Losing is fun, and there’s few other games I’d rather be losing at.