Killed By Death: FTL, Tokyo Jungle, and the Fail State
One of the things I like the most about sports games and fighting games is that losing or dying is rarely a true failure. Losing a match in Street Fighter or a game of Madden doesn’t contain the same stench of failure as dying in a traditional single-player RPG or even a strategy game like Civilization. Make a mistake? Dust yourself off, learn something, and do better next time. You lost a game; it happens in real life, too. Die in Mass Effect or Halo? The galaxy has just lost its sole savior.
That sort of fail state is a necessary evil in most games. It took the PS2-era Prince of Persia games introducing a narrator who, if you missed a jump and died, would say “no, wait, that’s not how the story went” to truly embrace how hokey this is in gaming. It’s easy to criticize, true, but much harder to sit down and come up with an alternative to the tried-and-true Game Over screen.
Unless, however, you turn the problem on its head.
A few of the games I’m enjoying right now have featured the same cavalier, losing-is-not-death rhythmic cycle as sports and fighting games, but implemented in single-player titles. Well, specifically, player-versus-CPU only as opposed to the player-versus-player option in sports games and fighters. These titles — I’m thinking specifically of FTL: Faster Than Light and Tokyo Jungle — turn the clock back, decrease the penalty for death, and revive the spirit of the roguelike, though in a much more palatable package.
Let’s start with the common pattern to one of these games. You start out at a low level, tackle challenges, make progress, level up, and increase abilities throughout the play-through. And, eventually, you meet your grisly end when things go tits-up at the blink of an eye. FTL presents this in the conceit of your space ship making its way away from an advancing rebel fleet; Tokyo Jungle has you trying to survive as an animal in post-apocalyptic Tokyo against the elements and fellow creatures alike.
But there’s no real single-player narrative arc you have to go through. Instead, they’re more reminiscent of old arcade games, like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, where your challenge is to advance. Of course, there are more complicated controls, game systems, and a nicer coat of paint now compared with those arcade classics, but the goal remains the same. The difference is an over-arching meta-game, where collectible items or unlocks persist. In Tokyo Jungle, the average Survival mode run may end after just a couple generation changes (if you’re lucky), but if you unlock a new animal class, it’ll be available from then on. Ditto FTL; find a new ship, and it’s yours.
More importantly, these are types of games that truly feel like sandboxes. No, they’re not as open as the third-person action GTA clones that usually carry the “sandbox gaming” banner, but FTL and Tokyo Jungle both provide a walled garden to create your own narrative. And where these games really shine is when things go into a tailspin. Success is fun, but failure is memorable. FTL in particular does this well thanks to its gameplay loop — jump from one point to another, and deal with what the random event generator gives you. Could be a friendly merchant ship, or it could be a group of insect-like pirates who board your ship and kill all your crewmembers. Or it could be a fire onboard that diverts attention just enough to shake your confidence. When things in FTL go wrong, it’s often quick and in spectacular fashion.
Yes, I know the roguelike is hardly a new concept in gaming. People have been bashing their head against permadeath and randomly generated dungeons for years. But unlike other subsets of RPGs, roguelikes have never made it big in the U.S.; moreover, for both FTL and Tokyo Jungle to be released to such acclaim this fall makes something of a bubble for the genre, at least for our corner of the Internet. Hell, if you tilt your head enough and look the right way, games like Dark Souls/Demon Souls (permanent death and learning through experience) and even Diablo and Torchlight (random dungeons, perma-death on Hardcore mode) have strong roguelike influence.
But is it frustrating? Sometimes. Fun? Always. And so long as the slow drip of upgrades and knowledge come, there will always be a reason to step back up and try your hand to post a better score. It’s the same as gaming’s always been, but it feels truly new.