Moral Choice in FTL 2



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FTL

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

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.