Captain Falcon has finally been executed for his crimes.
Two years after the Internet collectively decided that Subset Games’ excellent space-sim roguelike was one of 2012’s must-play indie titles, I put down the Rebel Flagship once and for all. I had finally killed my white whale. I “beat” FTL: Faster Than Light.
If you want to know exactly how I did it: Zoltan ship layout ‘A’, Halberd Beam, Leto Missile, Flak I, Ion Stunner, one bar in Hacking, Combat II, and Defense II. No cloaking. Full shields.
That probably sounds like impenetrable gibberish, but the idea of jargon within a game is exactly what I want to focus on here. Because I will never truly complete FTL; the other two difficulties will remain forever untouched, there are more ships to unlock, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have the patience to go for all the achievements. When I say I “beat” FTL, I mean that in multiple ways.
Yes, I finally took down the game’s ridiculous final boss. And it felt like quite the achievement! But somewhere along the way, I felt like I finally understood FTL. I stopped fighting the game, instead trying to bring it down from within, using its own rules against it.
For one thing, I stopped taking risks. Gambling quickly became a thing of the past, as I realized a sure thing was always the right call. When I had a ship offering to surrender, I started taking quarter. It was easy materials, and drawn-out battle could result in some major hull damage. That meant skipping costly repairs, and saving my scrap for upgrades or new weapons.
I also began to understand how roguelikes work, and the player’s relationship with death. In a roguelike, once you die, that’s it. You have to start back from the beginning, with any potential upgrades or new abilities lost to that unsuccessful run. Success in FTL does revolve heavily around luck, but knowing when a run is shot is very important. It’s arguably the #1 rule of FTL.
Once your ship is torn apart by missiles, fire, or giant rock monsters, it’s hard to not feel like throwing your laptop (or tablet) across the room. FTL slices you with a thousand tiny cuts until that last cut tears down everything you’ve worked so hard to build. Or you get to the last boss, which is less a ‘tiny cut’ and more ‘gaping wound’. Sometimes, however, an early foe just gets in one too many good hits, and it’ll take longer than is advisable to get back into shape.
This may seem like a blindingly obvious revelation to people who play Spelunky or Binding of Isaac on the regular, but now I know that FTL — and roguelikes in general — are not about winning. They’re about coming to terms with your inevitable failure and trying to get something meaningful from the journey. I’m not going to cram in some platitude about how roguelikes are a big metaphor for the magical journey of life or some nonsense.
Rather, I see roguelikes not as a tool for helping people deal with failure. If that’s what you get out of FTL or Spelunky, hey, more power to you! But whenever I finish an FTL run, I feel relieved and almost exhausted. In the 30-45 minutes it takes for me to lose, I’ve experienced a wide range of emotions: from raw pride to utter dejection. Maybe it says a lot about how much I appreciate routine that I found complacency in endless virtual self-flagellation.
So, what happens now? Finish my ship collection? Maybe try a few Normal runs? I don’t know. Now that I’ve made peace with FTL, not even the inescapable shadow of the Grim Reaper can stop me.