Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Is FTL really like Rogue?

The developers of the terrific little space ship game FTL:Faster than light  call it "roguelike" and better gaming minds than mine agree with them. Yet as a rule I don't like rogue games but I love FTL. How can this be?

My experience with rogue games started with Rogue itself played in glorious ASCII on college computers back in the 1980's. I wasted many hours on it  when I should have been studying but I never came close to finishing a game and ultimately I found it a frustrating experience and got bored.  I have dallied with various descendants of Rogue over the years, the most recent being the highly regarded Dungeons of Dredmor but my experience is always the same. The games suck me in quickly and are quite compelling at first but soon I get tired and frustrated with the repetitive game-play. However cleverly they name things and however challenging the monsters are  I quickly come to feel that I am playing a more challenging version of   Progress Quest:
Explore, Kill, loot so you can
Explore further, Kill tougher monsters and get better loot
and so on util you die
and then start again. 

Yet I love FTL.

The core framework of FTL is undoubtedly rogue-like: You travel from one procedurally generated sector (room) to the next and must overcome procedurally generated challenges along the way. You must gather loot and upgrade your character intelligently in order to survive with a multitude of non trivial upgrade choices to be made. The game has a roguelike's uncompromising difficulty level with perma-death and the ever present possibility of the dice coming down against you resulting in an untimely death despite your best efforts.

So why do I like it?

The space setting is undoubtedly a big plus for me. I am a child of the 1960's and space will forever be my favourite setting. There is more than that though. FTL is more interactive than a typical rogue game. Instead of a single character you have a space ship. You have multiple systems and subsystems to control and you have a crew to manage. Combat is very far from simple as you need to juggle energy and weapons and subsystems all the while frantically trying to use your crew to hold you own ship together under fire.

This interactivity has a much greater stickiness for me than a traditional single character rogue-like.  Ultimately your fate is still in the lap of the Gods and a single unfortunate encounter will scupper the best laid plans but you feel more in control. The options available to you are varied and subtle and it is possible to learn the game and get better. This is what keeps me interested in FTL.

There is an interesting article in Gama-Sutra  where they suggest that this ability to master seemingly impossible challenges by learning to play better is a feature of all rogue-likes. Perhaps it is but I don't remember ever getting that far in a more traditional Rogue-like. I think the more obvious interactivity of FTL also makes the learning curve more obvious. New players may focus on weapons and shields for example  but they will notice that the ship has other functions such as life support, door controls and sensors.  Succumbing to asphyxiation or fire or boarding parties will eventually get them thinking about these systems and how they might be able to use them next time around.


Wilhelm Arcturus said...

I was obsessed with Net Hack, a rogue-like, during the 1990s. I just found a printed and bound copy of somebody's detailed guide to the game... over a hundred full size pages in length... deep in my office closet when I was cleaning it out the other day.

When I first ran into it, I was impressed by the complexity of the game, the depth, and the persistence, at least in the form of running into your own ghosts and scrawlings during return trips.

Eventually, the run in, make progress, die, start over aspect of things wore thin. I haven't touched Net Hack in probably 8 years now.

So the term rogue-like brings out both enthusiasm and dismay. I am still staring at FTL wondering if I ought to get it or not. Maybe at the Steam Summer sale.

mbp said...

Hi Wilhelm. It may help to know that a typical game of FTL is much shorter than a game of Nethack. Of course that doesn't mean you won't spend hours starting over and over again. It is possible to play in short bites though. Even though it has perma death you can save and quit.

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