Moral Choice in FTL 2


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, PleaseFTL 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.

Further Reading:

Oscar Strik (2013). “The Iterations of Punxsutawney Phil,” on Sub Specie

Christopher Sawula (2013). “Slavery and FTL: Faster Than Light,” on his blog.

  1. 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. []

Bill Coberly

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2 thoughts on “Moral Choice in FTL

  • Veela

    I per­son­aly find it amaz­ing how detached I got from those choic­es after gain­ing some expe­ri­ence. You just start to cold­ly cal­cu­late the risks involved. An escape pod that could poten­tial­ly con­tain a slave on the run? Jettison it, too many times I got an enraged Mantis instead. Epidemic and riots spread­ing through min­ing colony, but I don’t get a blue option? Tough luck guys, but I’m not risk­ing crewmem­bers for noth­ing. Racism is a hor­ri­ble belief to hold? So be it, I still won’t trust a sin­gle word com­ing from Slug’s mouth. Luckily my favourite play style, Mantis B focused on board­ing, usu­al­ly means that I can safe­ly take over slaver ships, so at least that much good. :)

  • Trung

    I will say that there is anoth­er option with the slave. Once they join the crew. You can “dis­miss” the crew mem­ber and they leave the ship. Hence you are lib­er­at­ing them from slave trade and you are not forc­ing them to work for you.

    Of course that means you are los­ing a valu­able crew mem­ber

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