The game FTL (Faster Than Light) developed by an indie studio by the name of Subset Games is an exploration of every nerd’s dream to be the captain of their own spaceship on a desperate suicide mission. The player is the last hope for the Federation, hopelessly outrunning a vast and relentless rebel fleet, making tough and irreversible decisions all along the way. One of the major reasons the narrative structure of this game is so interesting is the way it is presented. Most of the story being told is entirely dependant on the player interaction, the game provides narrative context but the bulk of the story is about the player themselves and the story they create. FTL is a great example of the roguelike genre which are some of the purest forms of game, where the focus is on the player’s decision. There is no story without interaction. FTL also makes great use of both traditional narrative elements such as focalization and normalization, along with elements unique to a game, specifically game mechanics. With these tools, FTL is a great example of a compelling unique story told through the game medium.
The goal of FTL is clearly the fulfillment of the starship captain fantasy, but the focus is very specific. The game designers themselves have said they wanted the game to have somewhere close to a 10% rate of winning. There are several elements of the narrative presented to the player that are essential to focus on in order to fully understand the theme and intent of the game. The player is on a mission alone and destined for failure, every decision they make must be weighed between the risk and reward of the action. There is a constant creeping threat of the Rebel Fleet, but the player is also forced to scavenge for scarce resources as they stay one step ahead. Each of these choices is permanent, and so are the consequences, death means failure. There are no checkpoints, and there will be no outside help.
The clearest element of the narrative would be the masterplot that FTL plays too, the overarching story presented is without a doubt an homage to nerd culture classics such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly. Anyone who grew up surrounded by these films has a secret dream to be Picard yelling orders from the bridge of the enterprise. By using this masterplot the game is able to provide very little in terms of story and narrative context, anyone playing a game about spaceships is able to fill in the gaps with their own imagination and story. Henry Jenkins talks about this in his article Game Design as Narrative Architecture,
“virtual playspaces have helped to compensate for the declining place of the traditional backyard in contemporary boy culture, and that the core narratives behind many games center around the struggle to explore, map, and master contested spaces.”
Instead of a sandbox to play spaceship in, there is FTL where anyone can have a spaceship and universe to explore built for them. Not only built for them, but built for them over and over again. There is no scrolling Star Wars esque into to explain everything to the player, just a simple text box, “The data you carry is vital to the remaining Federation fleet… get to the exit before the pursuing Rebel fleet can catch up”, along with some gameplay tips. The story is up to the player and their choices. Another interesting thing to note is how the game plays against the masterplot a bit, the player is never told if they are the good guys or the bad guys, leaving even more to imagination. There is also slight play against the traditional masterplot, in many space fantasies the rebels are show as the good side, like Star Wars or Firefly but in FTL they are the antagonist.
Another very obvious and traditional element of the narrative is the extremely heavy normalization of the world and experiences. Nothing feels out of the ordinary in the game world, from the straight to the point way the story is told to the art style and music that is more unique to the game medium. Jenkins asked in his paper, “How often, for example, has science fiction been criticized for being preoccupied with world-making at the expense of character psychology or plot development?” While not everyone would agree this is a pitfall, FTL avoids this issue entirely. The world simply exists and the player learns about it as they play, but they are treated as if they truly are a captain of a star ship, one who would know what an Engi is or how to power their weapons. Part of this draws from masterplots like alien races in traditional sci-fi, and also from game-unique narrative elements, like gameplay tips and a tutorial. This is a distinct aspect games experience, the player is directly part of the narrative and can learn as a part of the game.
The player as part of the narrative brings up the unique way that games, including FTL, can be focalized. The player in FTL looks down on their ship as they order their crew around, and updates about the world are brought to them as if text popping up on a terminal. This enforces the feeling of the ship captain theme. More importantly is the way that the focalization can be manipulated as a part of the game. Similar perhaps to the way a director as tight control over their camera, but in a completely new way. As the player looks down upon their ship, various events in the game alters the way that the player perceives the world. The player can choose to purchase upgrades which allow them to see into enemy ships, or attempt to lose the Rebel fleet in nebulas which restrict vision of the player’s own ship. FTL is an excellent example of focalization as a game element, another extremely interesting one would be horror games like Silent Hill restricting vision to build suspense. The effect is similar in FTL, enforcing the narrative elements that drive home the overall theme. The captain yelling order from the brig, but also the risk and reward of each decision and the permanence of the effects. Buying better vision with resources that could’ve been better elsewhere, or flying into a nebula could spell the end of the mission.
A natural jumping off point of focalization would be a narrative element that is a more distinct to games, the art style plays a big part in how the story is conveyed. This is harder to tackle with traditional narrative terminology and thought, although modes like cartoon or anime would be an interesting place to look. As such this section will be rather brief, one of biggest way the artstyle of FTL would contribute to the theme is the normalizing effect it has, the pixel art style draws on many of the early styles utilized in games. It gives the player a familiar anchor, something to expect along with the natural vagueness the style represents. Less clearly defined are the sprites than the modern millions of pixels per object. This allows for more freedom of imagination on the part of the player, in many ways a parallel to the way the narrative framework is presented. Enough to spark the imagination, but not so much to overpower it. It would also be a mistake not to mention that it simply looks good and matches the feel in a less quantifiable way, much the way Borderlands wouldn’t be the same without its trademark pseudo cel-shaded style.
The suspense in FTL is approached in a very intriguing way. There is absolutely no time pressure on the player as in traditional games. The gameplay can be paused at any moment in order for the player to decide the best course of action. Things literally only happen when the player makes decisions, almost Superhot esque. This is worthy of attention for two reasons, first it makes it clear how aware the game designers were of the way the mechanics interact with player. Which links to the second reason, choosing to allow the player unlimited time to think means every decision they make matter even more, and harshen the ramifications. They do not sacrifice any of the suspense they intended, the constant threat of the Rebel Fleet and the risk versus reward of each decision, but instead increase the weight of the player impact. With the precision of Hitchcock controlling what the audience sees, not just the themes, but all of what makes FTL unique is enforced.
The effect that the player has on the story in FTL is one of it’s best qualities. Grant Tavinor defines interactivity in his paper, Videogames, Interactivity and Art, a great quote on why games are strongly interactive can be found there.
“Games are “strongly interactive” because their users’ inputs help determine the subsequent state of play.”
He also states that chess as a great example of a strongly interactive medium, rules are supplied and the rest is up to the player or players. FTL and by extension other roguelikes are excellent examples of video games that embrace this. There are rules, but the story itself is interactive. A possible counter argument would be (pic of option things) pointing out the similarities between the choices in FTL and a choose your own adventure book, the interactivity of which is questionable .
While the similarity is undoubtedly there, the choices presented in this fashion should not be mistaken as the bulk of the interactivity of the story in FTL. A player doesn’t remember if they helped some planet being attacked by pirates, or left it be. The player remembers the decisions they made that one them or lost them the game, using the right crew or buying the right upgrade versus staying too long in a sector and getting caught. These decisions are what matter to the story, and there can be no doubt about the interactivity of these choices. This interaction from the player is what FTL defines itself around, pushing home the feeling of truly being in the captain’s chair.
Now the two most important deviations from traditional narrative elements are the distance the game is experienced at, and the lack of many constitute events. It is also easiest to handle them together as they are so entwined with what makes up the game FTL. The player as a part of the game has an effect that is essential to games, and even more so FTL. There is a weight added behind decisions, in a film the viewer cares about what happens because the director makes them interested or sympathize with the characters. In a game, the player cares what happens because they caused the events to unfold, and the events are happening too them. This is one of the most amazing and unrepeatable elements of games as a mode of narrative discourse. FTL and by extension other roguelikes utilize this with the weight they put on the decisions the player makes. The distance along with the permadeath, the unrepeatability of situations, along with the mechanics unique to each game. Together they make the decisions the player, often supplementary events, feel more important than any other types of games. In games like Metal Gear Solid, constitute events make up a bulk of the story. FTL, in contrast, makes every supplementary event feel as important as a cutscene in MGS. Roguelikes approach Espen Aarseth’s definition of pure game in his paper, A Narrative Theory of Games, although the concept is a bit flawed. By removing “kernels” or constitute events which are so essential in many forms of narrative, what makes games so special is approached. Tetris does not suffer for its lack of a story, instead in thrives, as FTL does through its hybridization of the two ideas. Although an interesting question to ask is perhaps these qualities are what makes games like Pong or Tetris so timeless. Other mediums simply cannot recreate fully the distance a game is presented at, even films like Hardcore Henry don’t match being in the driver’s seat. Together, the distance the story is presented with the focus on supplementary events make the player truly feel they are in the same chair as Picard or Malcolm Reynolds.
In conclusion and in abstract, many of the narrative elements FTL uses have been laid out, but there are still some aspects left unaddressed. I have attempted to explore the narrative makeup of the game FTL in this essay in a formal and narratological way. Along with highlighting what are, in my opinion, some of the best aspects of games as modes of narrative discourse. While I believe this goal to be largely complete, I also believe that some of what is important to the narrative makeup of the game did not make it into my final product, due to either time and length requirements, or simply a lack of tools. I believe firmly that game mechanics are a form of narrative element, but avoided such a statement in the bulk of my essay as the essay was also intended to be comparable to a similar attempt at a piece of literature or film. However If I were to write more or make another attempt at a similar project, I would like to be able to more actively explore game mechanics, like the scarcity of resources in FTL, in a narratological way, instead of shoehorning them into established narrative elements.