What Could Have Been: Thoughts on the Narrative Potential of FTL

Some games developers dream of seeing their work transition from the original product into a different medium, such as film or television. Over the years, this has led to movies, based on games, that have ranged from terrible to serviceable. The Mortal Kombat series of films, the Tomb Raider films, and most recently the World of Warcraft movie have all attempted to take what was popular about the games and translate it to the silver screen.

The majority of these attempts are at best passable but rarely groundbreaking. They’re fun, enjoyable affairs, but these films typically reinforce the idea that game-based films rarely need to exist. On the other hand, some games are so thrilling, or present such interesting base material, that it’s disappointing when nothing else is done with the property. Such is the case with FTL: Faster Than Light, by indie developer Subset Games.

FTL Ship
The starting vessel in your war against the Rebellion.

It should be noted that half of what makes FTL such an enticing property is that the base game is so scant with regard to narrative. FTL introduces a lot of interesting pieces, but leaves most of the game’s world to the imagination of the players. At its core, the game is about the post-war condition of the Galactic Federation, a former government of planets that was brought down by the Rebellion. With the Rebels’ impressive fleets being coordinated by a central Rebel Flagship, these destructive forces continued on to wipe out all remnants of the Federation’s fleets and territories.

All, that is, except for your ship. Deployed with the secrets to bringing down the Flagship and throwing the rebel fleets into disarray, you control the crew of a small vessel as it charts its way across the galaxy. Should you reach your destination, you engage in one final battle to beat back the Rebels, which can only be accomplished by destroying their command center in the form of the Flagship.

FTL Federation Mantis
A Federation Cruiser battling against Mantis raiders.

FTL continues to elicit enthusiasm years later, partly because of its gameplay but also because of its diverse world. The player is introduced to several races, all differing in some respect. Humans make up the majority of both the Rebellion and the Federation, but there are hints that many of the races were better off when the Federation was in power. The Engi, for example, were once closely allied with the Federation and wish for its return. Described as emotionless, robotic creatures composed of trillions of nanomachines, the Engi are skilled in mechanical repairs and can interact easily with technology.

Meanwhile, a thoughtful race of energy-based creatures, the Zoltan, are relatively benign but also ambivalent toward the Galactic Federation. These energy based beings can power ships simply by manning various control stations. In contrast to the relatively peaceful Engi and Zoltan are the Rockmen, Slug, and Mantis races. The incredibly durable Rockmen, with their amazing durability and resistance to fire, have had a long brewing conflict with the Mantis, large insectoid-like beings whose attacking ability is unsurpassed. The Slug people, meanwhile, come across as traders, scammers, and pirates who are primarily interested in money.

The diversity of races present in the game lends itself to an extensive amount of storytelling. Why are the introspective Zoltan so indifferent to the fate of the Federation? What began the feud between the Rockmen and Mantis? Areas you come across during your journey through these peoples’ territories also bring new questions. What is the true nature of the Great Eye, a nebula in Zoltan space where a mysterious Zoltan elder exists as the sole inhabitant of a rogue planet? How do Engi, exactly, enjoy their free time when they’re not working aboard their ships? What are the great space dwelling beasts that travel between the stars, whose carcasses litter space and where traders make homes in their bellies? Why did the Rebellion want to overthrow the Federation in the first place, and how did that war unfold?

FTL The Rebel Flagship
A victorious mission to destroy the Rebel Flagship.

The truth is that FTL places hints of society, culture, and mystery before the player without answering any of the questions it generates. From a gaming perspective, this is fine, since FTL’s rogue like nature isn’t conducive to lengthy explorations of the world’s lore. However, the very fact that it leaves these questions open sparks the imagination. It’s the nature of a viewer or reader to want to know the why behind a mystery, to better understand why a thing is or why certain events occurred. In our discussion of Five Nights at Freddy’s and Battlestar Galactica, we discussed how leaving open mysteries can spark discussion and fan engagement long after a game or show has concluded.

That’s the case with FTL, a game that presented a diverse number of races and a sufficiently complex world that was already lived-in. By the time the game occurs, the different races already have existing histories with one another and the galaxy as a whole has already shuddered under the drums of war. The player is dropped into the action in the same way moviegoers were dropped into the rebellion during the opening moments of Star Wars. The difference is that Star Wars aimed to explore its world, while FTL primarily existed to be a game. An amazingly good game, it should be noted, but one whose intriguing world was never fully explored. Even a novelization of this universe would have been a welcome gift for fans who found themselves intrigued by the diverse setting FTL takes place in.

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