If one was faced with describing FTL: Faster Than Light concisely, the words "sparse," "evocative" and "random" could easily spring to mind. What's interesting about those terms is their non-sequitur nature. Subset Games fits the disparate puzzle pieces together, and the result is more than meets the eye.
FTL is a game that simulates the rigors of starship command through Rogue-like random encounters. For those who are unfamiliar with the gameplay style, FTL plays like a choose-your-own-adventure novel reads. Subset Games chooses to render the game in simple sprites and convey the story through text alone. The only real setup you get (and need): a starship is faced with warning its home fleet of an impending and massive attack. To do so, it must navigate many star systems with the enemy in hot pursuit. (Radios have clearly not survived this unforgiving future.)
The World is All Gates, All Opportunities
The player advances the ship one nav-point per turn on a map of stars. At each stop, a decision awaits. Some of these present nothing, and others give out freebies. Most decisions turn on whether or not to engage in combat, but sometimes prickly moral issues are raised without a clear, correct answer. In one such case, a pirate ship offered a slave (and thus a hugely valuable crew member) in exchange for letting the pirate ship continue on its way. The text made sure to remind that the destruction of the pirate ship would translate to the death of innocent lives. The gray area of the decision was vast and more compelling than the morality meters of better financed and, by virtue, supposedly more ambitious games.
Combat, though very different from navigating the ship, serves the same central purpose of thrusting the player into difficult, draining and potently dramatic situations. Combat turns on managing the dual resources of limited ship power and crew members. Situations must be handled in terms of whether to fully power ship systems such as its shields, weapons, engines and more, while crew members are utilized to speed up these systems. Each crew member becomes more proficient at their station over time. Also, crew members have names (and are re-nameable). Players will care about these sprites in ways they do not anticipate, especially if you name your crew after people you know, à la Oregon Trail.
Because of the constant push and pull of limited resources, combat in FTL is stressful in the most rewarding way. When fighting a powerful enemy, should the captain power the shields and weapons to overcome the foe? Or should the captain power the engines and shields and try to escape with as little damage as possible? Enemies can be wily as well, employing weapons that sabotage oxygen-producing systems, setting fires aboard ship, and teleporting over to murder your crew regardless of all of their naval efforts. Managing these threats and conquering them is difficult, and thus rewarding.
Strings of Tension Waiting To Be Struck
However, FTL's greatest success isn't its gameplay systems. Mechanically sound as it is, FTL becomes exponentially better for a player with a vivid imagination. Nearly every situation in which the player is thrust is dramatic by nature. That combines with the game's sparse presentation to open up a huge narrative space for the player to fill. Crewmembers have names, but never speak. The enemies are vague, but menacing. The mission itself provides so little context that self-inserted exposition becomes nearly inevitable. This potential in (narrative) space is quite literally limitless.
Once the player sinks into FTL, that narrative space will fill up naturally. There will be a heartstring tugged when, in the third sector of an hour-plus playthrough, Mike in Weapons is engulfed in flames. The battle rages, Clair in Shields could help him, but could the hull withstand the extra blasts it would take when she leaves her post? The call is made, she leaves her post. She saves Mike just as a laser rakes the ship, cracking the hull and ending the game. Feel free to contemplate your missteps. Feel free to begin again. Here is FTL at its best. Without a license or a fancy graphics engine, the game has suddenly deposited the player in the big shoes of Jean-Luc Picard. That sort of fantasy fulfillment is why such a simple game has such emotional range.
The largely blank page FTL gives the player is more exciting than the rock-solid-if-familiar mechanics FTL operates on. In an interesting parable, one resource that must be managed in navigation is fuel. The ship can run out of space gas and be left drifting while the enemy fleet encroaches. One of the random prompts for these moments announces: "You contemplate the vast emptiness of space." The plain white text against a starry background struck me. I did what I was told and contemplated the vast emptiness of space, but I contemplated what it could be filled with.