Mind games

by dominicjan
by dominicjan

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.

My effort.


For reference.
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?

15 thoughts on “Mind games”

  1. I’m totally with you on the social aspects of single player games – one of my favourite gaming memories is playing Final Fantasy X the day it came out, in a tent, in my friend’s garden.

    We ran an extension lead out to the tent for the TV and the PS2, and 6 of us stayed up all night getting wired on way too much cola and crisps and missioning FFX. No multiplayer mode, no Facebook integration, no leaderboards – still probably the most fun I’ve had playing a game with people.

  2. I remember doing this same thing with Starflight when I was in grade school, though not on a TV obviously. Before my parents bought a computer, I would go over to my friend’s who did have one, and we would play the game together. It did not quite have the imperative pressure that FTL has, but it definitely had that same sort of collaboration when it came to deciding how to approach the aliens you contacted, how to explore planets, and figuring out the various clues and riddles scattered throughout the game.

  3. You should try the Captain’s Edition mod. It’s the de-facto canon-friendly overhaul, and it features tons of new features, like actual space stations (and battles with them!), tons of enw weapons and drones with gorgeous unique designs, a trade system, much more varied sector names, tons of new and modified events, and if you choose so, initial ship lauouts with altered weapons and augmentations to kep them up with the rebalance.

    I also use an addon for CE, the sM Polish Kit. It further inmproves on CE’s graphics and balance (and its Vortex loadout is crazy fun: you won’t need oxygen where you’re going).

    Of course, I don’t need to mention Better Planets and backgrounds. It’s just awe-inspiring.

  4. Last summer my brother in law visited and taught me the basics of FTL. After that, he spent an entire month over my shoulder (27″ monitor) giving advice and sucking in air sharply every time a missile hit my ship.

    I forgot what it was like to have such an experience – Doom, the first Driver with a steering wheel, staying up all night playing drunk NFS, trying to beat each others’ records…

    Ah, good times.

  5. Ow. I know this feel. It happens several times for me.

    One was with a couple of friends for our last day together in the same house. Last day we drunk, so we would like to see a movie. But which one ? Meanwhile, I was playing the cheesy story mode of the last Mortal Kombat. (reaaaaally cheesy)
    10?minutes later, I realized there is no more discussion. When I looked, everyone was sitting one the sofa around me with popcorn and stuff. “Finally, this will be a good movie in a way”.

    Was one of the best evening of this week ^^

    and in my actual residence, every time someone play, there another one which gonna sit down to look, cheers, mock the player ^^

    Video games connecting peoples :p

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