Monday, June 2, 2014


Oooh, baby, you hurt me so good.

Though I tend to rhapsodize about the bad old days when games were more honest, less exploitative, more intellectual, blah-blah, when I was your age get off my lawn kids, etc. I am well aware of the many improvements brought to computer games over the past couple of decades. I would not want to go back to the days of text adventures or Doom's pixellated nightmare of "wait is that an eye or a gun?"

Also, Rogue was in fact a bit before my time (literally) so I have had no truck in general with roguelikes. It behooves the savvy customer to remain quite wary of any game which adheres to outdated "old-timey" aesthetics in order to bank on a certain market segment's unanalyzed nostalgia.
The perfect example would be DotA2 which copycats DotA's gameplay twitch for twitch, ignoring the fact that most of DotA's basic gameplay mechanics were heavily compromised by the necessity of development as a modification within Warcraft 3's RTS basics. DotA2 is a cold-blooded exploitation of the expanding but inexperienced third-world market which simply has no basis for comparison.
Adventure game developers also tend to pander to the definition of an adventure game which includes their restricted audience's hipster expectation of a deliberately "retro" low-res pixelated look and other restrictions like two-dimensionality or mouse-hovering.
Better game developers like those of Planescape:Torment have been brave enough to go against their customers' expectations and state publicly that the reliance on chat interaction, the game's most celebrated feature, really only reflected budget and time restrictions and that given a chance they would not have limited their creativity in such a manner.

So though I'd heard good things about FasterThanLight and downloaded it sight-unseen from GoG, I instantly turned skeptical when the menu screen loaded. I will say that the game seems unnecessarily restricted in visuals, audio and layout to appease the hipster "retro" demand. Other low-budget games working within olden-days genres like The Cat Lady or Trine have shown how valuable it can be to drop this conceit. Nonetheless, FTL's basic functionality is solid and though I'm sure every player has endless suggestions for how it should be expanded upon, the range of encounters is just large enough to warrant its price.

In the larger scheme of things, it's FTL's difficulty and relative popularity which make it an interesting phenomenon. Today's game industry as a whole religiously adheres to the dogma of accessibility. Developers to some extent but especially publishers wont even hear of challenging players and instead trip over each other to give their customers as many undeserved accolades as possible, to constantly bombard players with praise for the most simplistic, mindless repetition.

FTL, on the other hand, is brutal. Even on the normal setting I am having trouble completing the game with the various ship setups, and that's as a veteran of various strategy genres. Some fault may be found in this, as the randomness, the unpredictability of the system is just slightly too high. Luck plays too large a factor, as when you're broke but armed to the teeth and rarin' to fight for some scrap before getting to the next sector but you keep landing in empty systems, or when you're loaded with scrap but your hull's cored through and you can't find a repair shop to save your life... no, really. In terms of "taming the randomizer" as the catchphrase goes, FTL could have leashed it just a bit more closely. However, preparing for the unforeseen and minimizing the various types of attrition is the game's core challenge and a welcome one after being exposed to so much hand-holding theme-park modern game culture.

Surprisingly, I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Word-of-mouth about this thing is startlingly prevalent and I'm finding players in the oddest places talking FTL up precisely for its difficulty. Even the otherwise stupid (no, really, even leet-kiddies and twitch-gamer idiots) are finding that though they can't conceive, much less verbalize why, FTL is "awesome" and they can't wait to unlock the next ship layout.

Just as with "slow games" and sandboxes the game industry's doctrines about what customers prefer prove to be little more than an attempt to limit the scope of products on the market so as to control it. Turns out that a large proportion of the players who try FTL's punishing brand of "betcha can't do this" end up liking it. Imagine that.

FTL is not a great game. It is fairly limited both for necessary and unnecessary self-imposed reasons. It is neither immersive enough nor wide enough in its scope to hold my interest over more grandiose genres. I don't like the finite "kill the boss" precept. Still it is a good game and its success is, overarchingly, a good bit of news for this brand of entertainment.

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