As the FTL engines rev down, my sensors indicate that there’s a ship parked not far from this beacon. I cautiously order the crew to go to yellow alert, uncertain about their intentions, when I suddenly recognize the ship as a well-known slave trader. Their captain hails me, and offers me “laborers” for cheap.
As I see it, I have a few options:
- I can buy a slave, and free them, though they will have to join my crew, as I don’t have the time or means to put them anywhere else. I can afford it, and I could use another crewmember, ever since Declan was killed by those giant alien arachnids a few beacons back. But we’re not exactly going into peaceful territory, and it’s not unlikely that our new crewmember and all the rest of us will perish somewhere out here in deep space, so I may not really be doing them a favor: perhaps a life of slavery is better than explosive decompression in hostile territory.
- I can attack the slave ship, which would certainly be just, but if I destroy them, I’ll kill all their innocent slaves. Perhaps I can scare them into freeing one or two of them after beating up their ship, but those freed slaves will still have to join my crew, and the rest will remain enslaved.
- If my teleporter is up to it, I might be able to transport a commando team onto the slave ship and kill the slavers in hand-to-hand combat, which might allow me to free many of the slaves. But this is risky. My crew is remarkably adept at piloting the Kestrel, but none of us has any unique aptitude for hand-to-hand combat, and sensors indicate several Mantis among the slaver crew. Sending my people over to die won’t help the slaves or my mission.
- Finally, I can leave. They’re not actively hostile. I won’t be helping the slaves now, but I’ll be able to focus on our mission without making their lives worse or participating in the slave trade. Maybe later, once the Federation is saved and we can regain order over our sector of the galaxy — maybe then we can crack down on this vile slave trade.
The slaver hails me again, impatience in his voice, and I frown for a moment before issuing my orders. This will keep me up at night for a long time.
FTL does not advertise itself as a game about difficult moral choices, such as you find associated with Mass Effect or Papers, Please. FTL does not have any sort of morality or alignment tracker. Whatever you choose to do if you meet the slaver, you don’t gain Paragon or Renegade points, your Reputation is unaffected, and none of your crewmembers approve or disapprove. Yet FTL is chock full of moral choices, made all the more difficult and complex by the lack of any explicit moral evaluation system.
FTL is variously described as a roguelike, an RPG and a spaceship simulator (I like Procedural Death Labyrinth, or PDL, best, because Procedural Death Labyrinth). In it, you control the crew of a spaceship on a Dangerous Mission to Save the Federation,1 traversing a series of dangerous and randomly generated sectors before ultimately (if you make it that far) showing down with the powerful Rebel Flagship. If you destroy the Flagship, the Federation is saved, and if you fail, it’s assured that the fascist Rebels will continue to make life difficult for this sector of the galaxy.
In practice, the game is about accruing enough resources to upgrade your ship such that you can survive the battle against the Rebel Flagship and get a high score. The whole game is based around risk/reward. You want to explore as much of the galaxy as you can so that you can gain the largest amount of resources, but each encounter could pose a substantial threat to the integrity of your ship, and the whole time you are being pursued by the rebel fleet. Screw around too much in any given sector and you’ll spend a lot of time fleeing from high-level enemy spacecraft without any chance to harvest any resources from their corpses, thus losing any resource advantage you might have gained.
To an experienced player, the slaver encounter above reads more like this: I have an opportunity to get either one or two new crew members (depending on how good my teleporter is and some amount of luck). Is my ship equipped well enough to take on this slave ship without incurring so much damage that the trade isn’t worth it? Do I even need any new crew members right now?
You can play all of FTL in this purely mechanical fashion, and I’m sure most people do. But the scattered bits of text that appear throughout the game’s encounters often indicate that you are intended to at least think about the situations in which you find yourself in more than a strictly risk/reward manner. Christopher Sawula wrote a short piece about the “Friendly Slaver” encounter which is helpful for unpacking its moral complexity. As he notes, “In describing the slave trader as scum and placing ‘laborers’ in quotations, the developers make it clear that your crew believes slavery to be immoral and that you can deal with the slavers accordingly.” Your crew is, after all, composed of valiant defenders of the Federation, which stands for peace, justice and freedom.
However, in this encounter’s most common solution (attack the ship until it surrenders and gives you one of its slaves, at which point you send it on its way) he points out a very real series of problems:
“While you’ve preserved the lives of innocent slaves, this option raises several moral questions. First, are the slavers simply allowed to continue trading throughout the galaxy? By accepting the offer, you’ve allowed the slave trade to continue in exchange for the life of a single slave. Second, what is the legal status of the slave you’ve taken on board? According to the dialogue presented to the player, the slave given as tribute is never freed. Instead, they simply appear on your ship where you can use them in any role you choose. In addition, the slave cannot leave your ship for the rest of the game. Rather than freeing a slave and dealing a blow to the slave trade, you’ve accepted human (or alien) chattel as a bribe.”
It would have been easy to write this encounter in such a way as to dispel any moral qualms. It could have been written such that after you buy and free a slave, he or she offers to join your crew. Or, after sufficiently damaging the alien ship, the slaves could revolt and kill the slavers, at which point one offers to join your crew. Instead, in many of the permutations, the “freed” slaves are clearly pressganged into your service, and although they behave just as any other member of your crew, this probably ought to make you think for a minute or two about the morality of your actions.
In a game more obviously about moral choice, such as Mass Effect, these choices tend to be highly scripted. Do you rescue Crewman A or Crewman B? There is no way to rescue both, and you can’t even try. Two warring races have come to blows. If you’ve done enough diplomacy in the game so far, you can get them to play nice, but if not, you have to pick sides, and the side you pick wins. Because these scripted games adhere to the “narrative reset” model of player failure (i.e., game-overs just push you back to your last save until you get it right, at which point the narrative continues) there is no chance of failure if you pick a riskier option. When you choose to rescue Crewman A, you will rescue Crewman A, no matter how many tries it takes you to complete the mission.
In FTL, things are much less defined. As in most PDLs, a game-over in FTL annihilates your save file — failure means the end of that run. So deciding whether or not to rescue Crewman A is not only a matter of leaving Crewman B behind to die, but also of whether or not you can accomplish the task, or if you’ll also get Crewmen D‑F killed in the process. Thus, while it’s difficult to imagine even the most Renegade of Commander Shepards not storming the slave ship and trying to free some slaves, with the player reloading saves again and again until Shepard gets it right, an FTL captain might have very good reason to simply ignore the slaver and go on his or her way.
This is much closer to how moral choice works in the real world — with real risk, no takebacks, and insufficient knowledge. In the real world, time does not pause as two distinct options materialize in front of my vision, patiently waiting until I choose. I don’t know for sure if my teleporter will allow me to rescue anyone in FTL, just as I don’t know for sure if my attempt to rescue a drowning man will succeed or if we’ll both end up drowning in the rough ocean. What might at first seem to be a relatively simple moral choice, such as “should I or should I not try to rescue these helpless scientists from Giant Alien Spiders” is a more complex proposition in FTL than in Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, Shepard would storm the gates and heroically kill some space-arachnids, but in FTL, I might get a very important member of my crew killed, making it harder to complete the game and accomplish my morally important mission.
This moral calculus happens alongside the mechanical risk/reward calculus, but is also tied up in it. If my mission to save the Federation is morally praiseworthy (which it seems to be — the Rebels are unrepentant fascists, and everybody who talks about the Federation praises its openness and goodness), it is not necessarily the “right choice” to put that mission at risk to rescue a small group of unrelated civilians. While it is good to rescue civilians, it is also good to prevent the galaxy from falling under authoritarian rule, and if the two goals seem to conflict, it’s not entirely straightforward which should win out.
FTL’s lack of an explicit moral system does make it easier to ignore the moral complexity of its situations (I suspect most players read these encounters in purely mechanical terms after their third or fourth playthrough), but it’s actually this lack which makes the encounters more truthful. The game itself does not take a position on what you should do with the slavers (beyond its uncontroversial claims that slavery and killing innocent people are bad), forcing you to actually engage with the morality of your actions in a way you might be able to avoid if the game had an explicit opinion. Further, it’s this ability to ignore the moral dimensions of these encounters which makes FTL so like reality. In reality, we do not get notifications about how many Dark Side points we gain if we ignore someone’s suffering or contribute to it. Many (if not most) evil acts are committed out of moral apathy rather than a deliberate desire to do Bad Things.
Games offer us the ability to unpack morally complex situations — to poke and prod them and see what comes out in a controlled environment where no real people are going to get hurt. But while there is value in games like Mass Effect and scripted Big Choices, I find that the choices which stick with me the most are ones I make in a game like FTL. I feel a pang of guilt when I choose not to rescue a space station from a devastating fire because I can’t afford to lose one of my two remaining crewmen, because the choice and its consequences all happen in an unscripted system much like real life.
- While FTL is not explicitly a Star Trek game, its Federation is obviously intended to be the United Federation of Planets — a utopian society full of acceptance and diversity which has come under fire from some ill-defined rebellion. FTL might be the only game I’ve ever played where the establishment is the goodguys and the rebels are evil. [↩]