I spent – no, wait, invested – a chunk of yesterday morning hooking up my laptop to my TV so I could play FTL on the big screen. I am increasingly sad about how my gaming life is ergonomically identical to my working life, where by ‘ergonomically’ I mean ‘ergonomically catastrophic’. Getting to adjust the angle of my neck up 8 degrees feels like stepping out of cave.
I’m not, at this point, going to tell you about how good FTL is. It’s terrifically good. You know that. The thing about having it on a big screen, though, is that it immediately becomes a two-player game. Whoever else is in the room is suddenly your second-in-command. Someone whose eyes can be where yours aren’t, who can help you stave off panic and stay strategic. There are no ABCs of FTL, but there is an ABP: always be pausing. It’s just that in the heat of battle – four rooms on fire, medbay out of power, auto-doors burnt out, two Mantis teleporting into your sensor room, enemy cruiser going cloaked, engines ion disabled, O2 at 34% – it’s easy to forget in your frozen, fascinated horror that pausing is a thing you can do, unless you have someone yelling ‘PAUSE!’ at you.
It’s taken the crown away from Borderlands 2 as my favourite co-op experience of the year. I like co-op games where the other player gets a beer, not a second controller, but can still be utterly pivotal to the outcome of a game. FTL, whose pause function lets it tick-tock between everything happening at once, and an eerily huge possibility space, is remarkably well geared for collaborative play.
Unpaused, you’re equals, sharing duties of observing, monitoring, gauging. How effectively is the enemy ship evading? Will we ever land enough Ion blasts to get the shields down low enough to make the Halberd effective? If we can suppress his drone control will it drop the rate of incoming damage enough that our shields can recharge fast enough to absorb, even if we send our shield-room crew member to run sensor repairs?
Paused, you’re equals: now it’s time to discuss what you learned. Is momentum moving in our favour? Is it time to cut and run? What’s the Hail Mary we’re not seeing? What if we forgot the Ions and respecced for a double Halberd attack? Sure, we’d need to shut off oxygen, but just maybe….
It’s an experience that delivers every ounce of the satisfying, social interaction that we love in real world games. Face-to-face negotiation. Trust building. In-joke coining. Mistakes and miracles. I’ve never been very persuaded of the vision of single-player videogames as the antisocial, weirdo-loner opposite of wholesome, well-adjusted multi-player games. I’ve always loved singleplayer games and I’ve always loved the social structures they sit within. The spectators, the pad-passers, the morning-after-note-comparers.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t just play FTL yesterday morning. I played it while I ate lunch. I played it while we watched a perfectly good episode of Parks and Recreation. I played it in bed, half awake and half aware. I’m playing it right now. Not on a laptop. In my head.
FTL is a magnificently compact bit of game design. Compelling, unpredictable drama and rich strategic possibility unfold from a single static screen. A drawing of a spaceship and some numbers. Every now and again a little person blob toddles from one room to the next and a red line appears to represent some laser damage. It’s not a paucity of visual design – it’s a masterclass in UI and atmospherics – it’s restraint.
Those visuals, so simple, start to live behind your eyelids. I could draw The Adjudicator right now, from memory. Hang on. Man that was harder than I thought.
But the possibility remains. I can close my eyes and posit FTL. The human brain is bad at random, but FTL is a game where emergent outcomes are just unpredictable enough that you end up in interesting places even if your brain started out in old familiar patterns. Close your eyes, hear the noise as you come out of jump and…it’s slavers! What to do? Easy. Fight. Always fight. OK. Let’s see they have 2 shield. Let’s say one drone. Missiles and beam. OK. And we’re off. Should be an easy win. Power down Medbay. Power up Leto. Wait, still short on power. Dammit, forgot one Zoltan still in Sensors. Oh god missile hit oxygen on fire. What to do. Reroute helmsman? Halberd alone isn’t getting past their shields. Fire spreading. Zoltan back in Weapons. Leto charging. Open doors? Yeah, open doors. Evade is 27%. Should leave helmsman where he is. Oxygen gone. First Leto misses. De-target Halberd. Just wasting it. Our shields gone. 3 hull damage. Run? But these guys should be *easy* and I should land one new crew. Fire in doors. Oh shit fire in doors. Weapons room hit – orange. Leto offline again.
And you know what? Now you’re screaming ‘PAUSE!’ at me, which means that not only am I playing a videogame in my head, I’m playing a singleplayer videogame in my head, and now you’re playing asynchronous co-op with me *in my head* and I don’t even know who you are. How do you like them next-gen apples, PS4?