How Games Tell Stories - FTL

Hello

My name is Zach and I'm finishing up my degree in Media and Communication Studies. In this program, I have focused on the different ways in which video games communicate story, narrative and information to the player. Since games are an inherently interactive medium, there is an extra dimension of narrative which can be told; the player can affect the game's world, and the game can change to react to the player. This adds the potential for deeper, more immersive storytelling, and a stronger connection with the story being told. In this series of posts, I want to look at how games tell stories, looking at all aspects of a games design and development to see how each game creates its own unique world and communicates it with the player.

FTL: Faster Than Light

Its a strange feeeling being stranded. Your ship is out of fuel and you must turn on the distres beacon and wait. Praying that those who find you are friendly and willing to offer up some precious fuel as the rebel fleet is quickly catching up to you. Maybe pirates will happen across you first. Maybe they'll be slavers seeking to capture your crew. Your ship is damaged and in desperate need of repair, and all you can do is wait in the middle of a hostile sector. You have grown close to your crew, but you know that your next encounter might be your last. This is the life of the captain.

FTL is an indie rogue-like where you act as the captain of a ship on dangerous assignment. You must navigate your ship to the rebel flagship and defeat it, while upgrading your ship and buying new weapons and augmentations along the way. It is a terribly difficult mission, and it requires a great deal of preparation.

Emergent Narrative

Each sector you travel through is procedurally generated, and each sector has a faction affiliation and typically controlled by a single species. When exploring the different sectors you will have a random chance to encounter certain side-quests along the way. These are not listed or written down anywhere in the game's UI, so you must keep track of the details and change your course to the appropriate planet. These missions can extend through several sectors, and you can even discover and unlock new ships and crews to play.

Throughout your journey you will find new crew to man your systems and fight off any invaders, and these crew will have different abilities and opportunities. When you encounter one of the many randomized events, the different species advantages will help you deal with the event in creative and perhaps unforeseen ways. Rockmen have a natural resistance to fire, logical for a species entirely made of rock, so when you encounter another federation ship completely ablaze, you can send in your rock crew to rescue their crew without taking any damage. Engi are a species with a natural proclivity for, you guessed it, engineering. When you encounter a ship in dire need of repairs, your Engi crew can usually do so quickly and efficiently. In this way, it pays to have a diverse crew Not only do you get to use their natural advantages for your own ship, but it gives you more options and opportunities when these randomized encounters occur.

Rogue-like games have a natural disadvantage when it comes to story, as you will be encountering the same basic story every time you play. This system breaks up the monotony by giving you different options and experiences with different crew, making the same encounters play out differently and possibly expanding the stories these events by giving you a different perspective.

High Difficulty Level

At its core, FTL is a rogue-like with a fairly high difficulty level. This means that you will play through the game many, many times, and complete your main objective very infrequently. Similar to other tough-as-nails games (see Dark Souls or even Getting Over It), this repetitive game play loop has a purpose. You aren't learning to pull off incredibly timed combos, or climbing an incredibly high heap of garbage using only a sledgehammer, in FTL your role is that of the ship's captain. You are entrusted to assign the crew to different roles around the ship, target your ships weapons, redirect your ships power to the many systems, and decide where and when to upgrade your ship with stronger systems or a new weapon or two. You will die, over and over. You will lose crew, and have your ship destroyed. All you can do is learn from your mistakes and become better at being the ships captain.

As you play through this game (and fail) many, many times, being captain of this ship becomes second nature. You learn to be hyper aware of the ships needs, and what your crew can handle in certain situations. You get trained on the job, and by the first time you make it to the final boss, you are already well-versed in being a ships captain, and you have gone through potentially hundreds of encounters with other ships already. You have the skills and experience needed to command your crew, but will it be enough to defeat the Rebel Flagship?

Immersive Sound Design

One of the most common tropes of the sci-fi genre, especially those centered around space, is the beep-boopy sound effects for literally every button press that happens aboard the ship.

FTL's soundtrack (which can be heard in its entirety here) contains 29 completely distinct tracks as composed by Ben Prunty, split up into two sections; exploration and battle tunes. These offer a subtle, unobtrusive background songs which amplify the experience by making it all sound quite space-y. That isn't what I want to focus on though. What I want to look at is the subtle sound-effects that punctuate every action you take as the captain.

As a missile rockets through your sheilds and penetrates your ships hull, you hear a satisfying explosion, followed by the sounds of breached metal with oxygen seeping out into the vacuum of space. As you power down your weapons in order to free up reactor to power an added layer of sheilds, you can hear the mechanical exhale associated with the drain of energy, as well as a low whoosh of an added sheild layer being projected. If a fire breaks out and starts tearing apart your ships systems, you can hear the crackling intensity of the fire, as well as the frantic scurrying of your crew trying to put out the devastating flames. It is these sounds which draw you in and captivate you. It fosters the connection you have with your crew, and with the mission at hand.

Conclusion

FTL offers the player a full experience of being a ships captain, having to make difficult decisions in the face of a seemingly suicidal mission. The player gets drawn in by the diverse cast of cultures and factions all vying for suprmacy in a hostile world, and must navigate such a world in a final stand for the federation. Immersed by the ethereal soundtrack, punctuating sound design, and the semi-randomized stories encountered along the way, FTL offers a space-opera experience akin to Akira Kurasawa's Seven Samurai; an elite team on an impossible mission where they will more than likely die fighting for an important cause.

Check out my previous analysis on Sunless Seas here