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Games of 2012: FTL: Faster Than Light

Captain's slog.

Attempt LXVII: Not A Lot Of Hope

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won another victory against the virtuous Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans pointing to the location of the Empire's last hope, ALEC MEER, invisible commander of a tiny spaceship with enough power to survive until lunchtime. Maybe.

Pursued by the Rebels' sinister agents, Meer's hapless crew race home aboard their starship, custodian of the plans that can warn their people and restore firm-but-fair rule to the galaxy....

Attempt LXVII at 'beating' FTL, the spaceship roguelike that both proved Kickstarter projects can make good on their claims and that new concepts will sell, went about as well as attempts I-LXVI. Which is to say, everyone died and I left a spaceship that briefly had meant as much to me as my own cat floating as so many scorched bits in deep space.

I can count at least six different probable causes of death in this screenshot. What about you?

What is FTL? FTL is Star Trek if Kirk was returning from his five-year mission only to discover that utter bastards had taken over the galaxy in his absence, and every desperate jump on the long road home would be characterised by fights, dwindling supplies and the gradual loss of his beloved crew. No time for sexing up green ladies or preaching tolerance to lumpy-headed tribes here: instead, FTL is a mobile siege that you will very probably lose.

There isn't much to FTL, and indeed you can likely expect to see comments below peppered with 'I saw it all too soon' gripes, but it's the heavy consequences to each superficially minor decision about whether to spend fuel, what to upgrade and, always, always, always fight or flight that secures it a prominent place in my 'By Jove This Is A Gosh-Darned Important Video Game, What?' dossier.

Tiny dramas scorched onto my memory forever, or at least until the next tiny drama comes along. Despite the knowledge that FTL is, even in the most triumphant or most fraught playthrough, a short game, despite the knowledge that starting again wasn't any kind of hardship, I spent almost as much time frozen over my keyboard, locked in terror about the choice I had to make. Attacking that Rebel drone ship might win the fuel or scrap I desperately needed, or it might dole out that fatal blow. That speculative diversion into the far north of this sector might, might, please dear sweet baby Jesus might, lead to a store, a precious source of fuel, repairs and missile ammo, or it might just mean several new horrible ways to die. It's probably going to mean hull-trashing solar flares, though. It usually does.

The drone-centric Engi ship remains my favourite of the assorted unlockable craft.

It all works so well - and so harrowingly - because FTL is so damned careful about what it stamps any exposition or description onto. It is the near-blank slate of the toybox, and I am the child who constructs any number of stories and adventures from the fact that my He-Man figure has a bent thumb or Optimus Prime keeps falling over. No one else - no possible onlooker and certainly not the coldly silent enemy ships I face - takes anything from the fact that my ship's fuel is down to three units or that the random discovery of a new lasergun changes everything, and the game won't comment on it any way. It's for me to realise, for me to analyse, for me to add to mental diary of FTL anecdotes and for me to come up with a response to. That said response happens in an approximate 4:1 ratio of 'oh lord nonononononono' and 'hallelujah! I'm saved' is crucial to FTL. It is a game about doom, ultimate and unforgiving doom, but it is so very deft at offering glimmers of hope. Damn its cruel eyes.

It can be beaten, of course it can. A rare brew of luck with weapon, fuel and crew drops, careful learning of the many tactics hidden beneath FTL's simple surface. and willingness to compromise sometimes gets me to that final enemy, the preposterously well-armed rebel mothership. A few times I even took the mother down. It's strange how sad that felt too. Even in victory, my journey, the vague but magnetic tale of my small crew of humans, robots, telepathic slugs, rockmen and insect-people, ground to a halt before I felt ready to say goodbye. I had so much more to do! Geoff the Engi hadn't yet become the best damn engine-fixer in the galaxy! I hadn't been able to equip that new hull beam! My new crew teleporter had barely been warmed up! Tough life, eh?

There are no faces to be seen in FTL, so I find myself projecting a lot of personality onto the blank hulls of spaceships.

I went back again and again to FTL this year, as I did with the Binding of Isaac last year. It's not just the quickness of those games - the certainty that I can have an adventure that is, one way or another, complete within a limited space of time. It's also that sense that I'm very slowly training a muscle every time I play, that even despite the enormous, monstrous element of chance, and even though the gain in ability and understanding each time I play is miniscule, I'm inching closer to mastery of the unmasterable.

And, for all the terrible disasters and the regular loss of crew members I've diligently named after friends, family, dead pets and X-Men, each failure feels heroic. Yeah, we died again, and probably in some pitiful way such as running out of fuel or not noticing that our oxygen supply was on fire. But we died trying to save the universe from whatever it is the Rebels want to do to it. I forget - why are they baddies again?