So, you can call it a management game, a space game, an indie roguelike. Whatever the case, these days it isn't too often you'll find a game that revels in its own difficulty. For all the self-flagellation that comes with playing a roguelike, FTL: Faster Than Light adopts the best aspects of a bygone era of gaming.
Often you'll hear gamers lament about the death of tough games, and the over-abundance of the maternal hand-holder, the tutorial-laden nurturer that babies the player through every step of its multi-hour-long title. I don't normally mope over this trend — hell, I'm happy to see games evolve into something that is accessible enough to drive itself into the hearts of the mainstream.
But I do love the past, and my heart will always skip a beat for reminders of gaming's history. FTL references the ethics of arcade game design as much as it does the Rogue-like titles that came before it. Indie outfit Subset Games made something that was based, at least in part, on tabletop board games. But the undoubted grand-daddy of FTL is the hard-as-nails, Frustrating-with-a-capital-F roguelike, and, I would argue, the design philosophy that drove arcade game design years ago.
FTL has an uncanny ability of hitting that compulsive sweet spot in a player's mind that keeps them coming back
This mentality that pits the developer himself against the player in an all-or-nothing battle of no mercy. It forces the player to better themselves or, well, die. FTL is shameless about its use of permadeath — I would even call it a feature of the game. You control the crew of a spacecraft that holds critical information that you're asked to deliver to allies off in some obscure sector of Space, with a rebel fleet on your tale throughout. You manage your ship, fight off enemies, upgrade what you have, lose fleetmates, and ultimately risk losing your ship. And when that happens? You're forced to start again from scratch.
Once upon a time things like these were done to entice gamers to keep feeding pocket change into old arcade cabinets — pocket change isn't so relevant an incentive to design a game like this these days, of course. The designers of FTL know this. They also know that simply forcing the player to replay the game entirely isn't a good enough incentive to keep them hooked.
Instead, FTL encourages players to obsess over the game by perfectly balancing giving and then taking away. FTL is a game about getting close enough to the finish line that you can touch it and the feeling of utter heart-crushing loss when you don't quite make it to the end. The game is high on our list because it makes you care. It makes you feel a sense of pride when you build yourself up, and it makes you feel the weight of loss when you lose everything in the end. And still it burrows into your brain like a chigger — FTL has an uncanny ability of hitting that compulsive sweet spot in a player's mind that keeps them coming back — and makes you get up and try again after all is lost. And again. And again.