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Blind choice and blind luck: the magic of FTL’s superlative decisions

Choice is everything in FTL: Faster Than Light, a game I’ve returned to recently and would now quite happily swear to never leave again. FTL is, above all, a game about deciding what to do. Where to travel, when to buy, what to shoot – even where your little crewmember stands, if you’re lucky enough to have one spare. You can drill down to the most micro of micromanagements or the broadest, most profound of overarching concepts in FTL and it will always, always come back to it. Choice, choice, choice. But where its choices really stand out – and where FTL itself stands out, even all these years after release – is when it asks you to make those choices blind.

Blind choices are, I find, often pretty awful. The big, clunkily jammed-in blind narrative choice with a side of disappointing consequence is all the rage amongst open-world blockbusters. More often than not it feels put there because core demographics respond well to the buzzwords, and more often than not it’s the worst thing about the game it’s in. Working your way through forty, fifty, eighty-odd hours of a game to find you got the bad ending by killing the wrong Named Enemy when you left the tutorial area – probably six months ago, by my rate of playing – is not, in my humblest of opinions, fun. You return from war, triumphant, to find your home town burned down because you said something mean to some guy (who was a douche and totally deserved it), and he went on a rampage while you were away. Or you can’t, I don’t know, play a good ten hours more of a game you’re loving because you didn’t feed the giant fish a peach three times and hop on one leg (this sounds like Sekiro but that gets a pass because it’s ridiculous enough to be good, actually, so ignore that one). You get the point. I’m acutely aware it might just be me that struggles with blind choice and consequences, and I’m aware that entire studios (BioWare) built a reputation on them, but still. Not a fan.

But FTL! Of course FTL, the perfect video game, gets this right. For some reason I find blind choice in FTL the absolute opposite to blind choice everywhere else, refusing to look up the chances of success or the possible outcomes when, in just about every other game, I’d rather spoil the entire thing for the sake of getting the decisions right. I think part of it is just not being as invested in those stories – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is wonderful, for instance, but I play it for all the frolicking about on Mykonos and Spartan-punting people off ledges, not for the sporadic choice-based melodrama – whereas in FTL the consequence is the gameplay, and the gameplay is the story. You lose Dustin the Engi to giant alien spiders, and you’re also losing your ship’s best engineer and a level two weapons expert you’ve been training up for the entire run. You lose that guy and it matters, so you actually feel it, so you actually care about maintaining the surprise and the veil of ignorance around what decision most often leads to what. Inadvertently ruining Kassandra’s story by stabbing some dude who it really seemed like you ought to stab is just a bit of a bummer.

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