In the promotional material for many game1s, there is often a heavy emphasis on the “little things” that complement the primary narrative or focus of the game and make the world more tangible. Usually, these are tied to skill trees which affect the way we play or the relationships we as players make with the various NPC’s we encounter. After reading or watching these promotional pieces/interviews, I get inspired. I read these articles and always feel that “this game is going to be the one where there are an infinite number of possibilities and my decisions truly affect the game world around me.” I get excited and mark the game’s release date on my calendar, waiting for the day it gets released so that I can experience the wonderfully crafted world that the developers worked so hard to create.
However, despite the hype, I really haven’t been impressed by most of these promises of deep, meaningful choices (and have recently been very disappointed by many AAA titles that offered them). I find that my character’s “morality” (an often used system for these “deep choices”) is usually nothing more than a slight change to my character’s appearance and some restrictions on what weapons I can use based on how I act in game. I also find that all the time I spent wooing an NPC usually only leads to a slightly different cut-scene and lacks major story implications. My decisions feel meaningless and I’m left disappointed until the next game comes along and promises me “truly deep interactions” and side-stories that will immerse me in a world I can’t even imagine.
After playing many of these games, I started wondering what it would take to make experiences like the ones promised. Is there a way to make a game with meaningful side-stories and narratives that bring the world the game exists in to life and avoid the shallow, cosmetic changes that many games only seem to offer? What would those require?
Frustrated with AAA games, I began looking at indie games in an attempt to find something that would satisfy my craving for a game with genuine consequences and side stories that enhanced the world around the primary narrative. It was around that time I discovered and got really into FTL: Faster Than Light.
If you haven’t played it, FTL: Faster Than Light is a space combat game that came out in 2012. In it, the player takes the role of a captain of a Federation space vessel who is carrying vital information that will save the Federation from the Rebels (which was a very pleasant juxtaposition of the common sci-fi story in my opinion). Your ship jumps through randomly generated sectors, avoiding the pursuing Rebel fleet while interacting with pirates, slavers, merchants and scores of other types of intergalactic beings. Your goal is to get to the Federation base and defeat the Rebel flagship.
FTL is very difficult, to say the least. There are many things to manage on your ship as you fly through uncharted nebulas and sectors of space controlled by hostile aliens. You can upgrade your ship, giving you stronger shields, more room for weapons, better doors to stop fire and intruders, and so many other things that it’s difficult to remember them all. Upgrade the wrong ship part, and you’ll quickly fall to one of the many hazards of deep space and have to start over, due to the game utilizing the perma-death system.
However, ship upgrades aren’t the only thing you can spend your scrap (the game’s currency) on. You can visit shops you find along the way and use your money on new weapons, crew members, ship systems (like a cloaking device which will give you a better chance of dodging enemy attacks for a short time) or augmentations (which give your ship passive bonuses like finding extra money after battles). Every ship is different and your strategy has to change depending on what you’re able to buy as you flee towards your goal.
Spending scrap is only the beginning of the decisions you’ll have to make as ship captain though. Throughout the game, you’ll encounter asteroid fields, electrical storms, solar flares, space-robberies in progress, alien scientists who need test subjects, bounty hunters and all sorts of events where you need to make a choice that will dramatically affect your journey.
Choice is a recurring theme In FTL.Will you be a hero and battle every pirate and other evil-doer you come across, or will you be selfish, believing in the old adage of “Live and Let Live”? With risk comes potential for reward, and after battle, you may find a life-saving piece of equipment, or your damaged ship may transform into a fiery ball of explosion. As I played, every decision I made weighed heavily on me as I struggled to make it to my Federation comrades. I felt genuine guilt when I had to sacrifice a crew member to a slaver because my ship was heavily damaged from a particularly nasty battle with an automated rebel scout and I knew that if I attempted to fight the slaver, I would be destroyed almost instantly. This guilt was eased slightly when I was able to use my ship’s on-board laser to cut a trapped civilian ship out of the wreckage of a research station and had one of their crew come aboard my ship out of gratitude. I felt empowered and became immersed in the universe of the game, a force trying to do good as I sped from sector to sector. My choices had consequences, and when I made bad ones, I paid a very steep price for it. There were no save points, no do-overs, and no way for me to avoid the responsibility I had as the ship’s captain. It was refreshing.
This stark reality kept me coming back for more, even after I failed miserably time and time again. I can’t remember the last AAA game that captured my attention like that, even though many of them had far more advanced graphics, mechanics and scripted stories than FTL. After each failure, I learned and applied what I had learned to my next attempt, avoiding some old pitfalls while running headfirst into new ones.
As I played, I began to discover unwritten stories and experiences that the game offered to me. At first, I didn’t notice them, since they relied on me to be created, but they were there. These little unwritten stories quickly became my focus as I played the game.
The most meaningful of these unwritten stories were the imagined histories of the ships I destroyed in the furious flurry of FTL’s combat. Thanks to a sensor upgrade on your ship, you are able to see the crew members of the ships you are fighting as you and your enemy trade shots in an attempt to destroy each other. During battles, I watched humans and aliens alike run frantically from room to room, trying to put out the fires caused by my missile barrages, repair the hull breaches inflicted by my lasers and repair the systems of their ship that my boarding party destroyed in a fast paced battle of laser blasts and melee combat, as I brooded over of my own feelings of fear and frustration during previous runs where I was powerless to save myself from the same things and eventually succumbed to the cold space around my ship.
Every time I defeated a ship and saw the explosion animation, I imagined how those crew members felt, what their last thoughts were before being destroyed. I wondered where they had come from (was it one of the many planets in the background behind my ship?), I wondered why they were there. I wished that I knew what drove some of them to piracy, or made others join the rebellion. Was the Federation I was a part of truly the “good guys”? I was invested in the universe of the game, and every time I left the smoking wreckage of another ship in my wake, I felt sad. However, the game never gave me time to mourn or think about my actions since the Rebel fleet was hot on my trail and I needed to keep moving forward. Sometimes, I was lucky and I could avoid a battle through negotiation, but most of the time, I had no choice but to fight. I was a desperate space captain who couldn’t afford to let anything stop me from getting to my goal.
Through the game’s mechanics (not a scripted series of events), I became part of a larger story and world that the official “plot” of the game offered. I saw the consequences of my actions, made difficult choices, and experienced a bevy of emotions that all belonged to me, not ones that were handed to me by ham-fisted developers who tried to tell me that I should feel a certain way during a part of their game. That was what I had been looking for.
I believe it’s these little, unplanned, user-generated stories and experiences that truly provide a unique and deep game. Instead of focusing on making systems that modify the character and have clear results on gameplay based on player action though skill trees or some sort of arbitrary “morality” scale, game developers should focus on allowing players to become a part of their worlds by keeping game systems simple and making decisions matter by keeping consequences high. Players want to invest themselves into their games, and will create a meaningful experience for themselves if given the chance.
Following my time with FTL, I now believe that a developer’s job to facilitate player investment through the creation of interesting worlds and NPCs instead of attempting to create a main character that the player tries to become. There is a reason that many of the greatest game protagonists of all time are silent. We as gamers want to imagine that it’s us who is having these adventures, or experiencing these stories, and it’s hard to do that if the character has their own voice.
Personally, I’m looking for other games like FTL where I can make add to a game’s story for myself and am not as interested in the latest and greatest from AAA studios.