I got a variety of reactions growing up when I would tell people that I was named after a certain light saber bearing pop culture icon. But most of these grade school conversations went as follows:
“Luke, I am your father,” the kids would joke, their hand covered over the top of their mouth. ”So is your sister’s name Leia?”
“No,” I would respond. ”But my parents did name me after Luke Skywalker.”
Their eyes would widen for a moment as they gasped in disbelief.
It’s true that my 17-year old mother definitely did see the original Star Wars multiple times in theaters. However, my mother and father would eventually gravitate much more strongly toward a different, equally famous sci-fi universe: Star Trek. As long as I can remember, we have always watched the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and the courageous crew that commanded it.
I never liked it. The Enterprise drifted through space for very little reason other than to be interrupted by the plot devices of each episode’s writers. Each had its own little story, which resolved in its own, predictable way. It all seemed so inconsequential to me. Characters were static. Narrative didn’t flow across episodes.
You could say the same thing about FTL.
FTL is a starship simulator – a game about traversing a randomly-generated galaxy where “save slots” don’t exist. Each time I’d start up the game, I’d see the grayed out “Continue” menu option, just wishing I could start where I left off last time. I wanted my little crew to have a good, long life. I wanted my ship to see the end of its mission with all its ship upgrades, weapons, and crew intact. I wanted a tally of how many Rebel ships I’d destroyed and how far into the galaxy I’d gotten. I wanted a story. Instead, time after time my ship would get unexpectedly caught up in a battle that neither my ship nor crew was ready for and I would watch as my hull collapsed and pieces of my ship drifted into space.
“One last explosion marks your fate as your ship is torn apart,” the in-game text informs me.
FTL is an easy game to give up on if you don’t have the patience. The universe of FTL is dangerous and dark. Around every celestial corner lies another vagrant Rebel fighter, just waiting for me to stumble across their turf. I’m not sure what I’ve done to be hunted down the way I am. Maybe I’m part of an evil empire. All I know is that each event location had the potential to offer up a battle or the very unfortunate death of a crew-member. After playing just a few times, I was ready to hang up my towel. ”Not for me,” I thought.
After all, I had always preferred the grand adventures of Luke Skywalker, who took on an entire Empire with his band of friends. Or later on, Battlestar Galactica, a television series built on a long-arc narrative about the survival of humanity and the lives of the crew charged with that responsibility. Long stories with character development and epic mission statements — these were the kind of space odysseys that really captured my interest. Pure escapist fantasy to temporarily remove myself from the mundane nature of ordinary life. No wasted moments. No time for idle talk.
FTL presented me with a series of episodic narratives, each completely removed from one another. But what kept me coming back to the game was the fleeting sense of hope that each escapade through the galaxy brought with it, even after my ship had been destroyed my Rebel ships twenty-some-odd times. Any particular play-through could be my big break – the one where I finally unlock that new ship, or even enter into a previously unknown part of the story.
I’ve been playing the game for about a week and a half and have finally gotten a decent handle on it. I know what upgrades i need and how to quickly take down enemies. However, this current game doesn’t seem particularly hopeful. Early on, the hull of my ship is severely damaged from solar flares after getting stuck in a battle too close to a star early on in the game. I almost just restart right then, but decide to press on just to see what would happen.
I spend all my money repairing half of my hull at a nearby space vendor and get stuck in yet another battle I wasn’t ready for. The Rebel fighter ship is decked out. Two missile launchers and two different kinds of lasers, all pointing at my poor ship and its unassuming crew. In addition to my two human crew-members I’ve got one Mantis and one Rock-looking guy (think The Thing from Fantastic Four) on board. Missiles hit the room that produces oxygen and my weapons systems. Red lights start blinking and I’m a sitting duck with my weapons now powered down and the air growing thin throughout the ship.
I race two of my alien crew over to the weapons system to start repairing and one of the humans to the oxygen chamber. Attacks crash into the hull of my ship, which is now well under 50% as the oxygen levels continue to plummet. Things aren’t looking good, but after pummeling some enemies who boarded and putting out the fires, I manage to limp away from the battle alive. My hull is at 5% and I have one crewman left.
The result of this particular episode seems familiar: life feels static, repetitive, inconsequential. Independent events often read more like an absurd, disjointed webcomic and less like the chapters of a meaningful book. That’s probably why my parents like Star Trek and why I find myself hesitantly drawn to FTL.
“One last explosion marks your fate as your ship is torn apart.”
After that fight with the Rebel fighter, I went on to do great things. I destroyed enemies, answered distress signals — even made friends with alien species. I didn’t beat the game, but it was the furthest I’d ever gotten. Still, one explosion and I’m sent back to the hangar. The same vague mission statement flashes across the screen. The theme music starts again. The voyage begins.
I don’t hit “Start” because I believe in the mission. I do it because, for some reason, I remain hopeful.