A single death is not a tragedy in most video games. It's something closer to an irritant — not even a paper cut, more like a chipped nail. Death is so cheap that a new word — "permadeath" — has been coined to describe games that turn your demise into something more than a speed bump on the road to victory.
In these games, the death of the player character leads to irreversible consequences. There's no "extra life," no saved game to restart from, no option to continue from roughly the moment before you began pining for the fjords, in the words of the Monty Python crew.
FTL: Faster Than Light is one of the most popular games in the new permadeath wave. First released in 2012 for Windows, Mac and Linux after receiving $200,000 in Kickstarter financing from almost 10,000 people, FTL won the excellence in design award and the audience award at last year's Independent Games Festival. An iPad version of the game went on sale this month.
The fiction in FTL is cribbed almost directly from Star Trek: You're the captain of a starship equipped with weapons, shields and engines. Later, you're given the option to add technologies like a transporter — which beams crew members onto enemy vessels — or a cloaking device that makes your ship temporarily vanish.
Unlike most spaceship video games, which want to make you feel like Luke Skywalker piloting an X-Wing fighter, FTL tries to put players in the captain's chair, barking orders at the crew like James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. Lower shields! More power to the weapons! How long will it take to fix the hyperdrive engine?
On the new iPad version, these commands are issued by touch: You can tap to send a crew member — you start with three but can recruit more — to douse a fire in the engine room, or to target an enemy's missile systems, or swipe to give power to, say, your medical bay instead of your shields.
For most of the game, you're running from more powerful enemies, and the tension in the battles is increased by the consequences: A crew member who is killed by a boarding party is gone forever. And once your ship is destroyed, you have to start all over, without any of the upgrades you have accumulated over the preceding minutes — or hour.
The game is brutally difficult from the start, but its final stage is almost unforgivably so. After being chased across the universe, you're asked to turn and confront your enemies directly. It's a little bit like a novel whose final chapter is written in a second language. The skills you needed to get this far are no longer relevant.
Justin Ma, one of the two designers of FTL (the other is Matthew Davis), has said that the game is designed to be winnable only about 10 percent of the time by seasoned players. Ma told the website VideoGameWriters.com that he never even beat the game himself until a few weeks before its release.
The implacable nature of the game led me to delay writing about FTL at first. Never before have I written about a video game that I haven't completed — that is to say, that I haven't won by defeating the game's final stage. In fact, I've told myself that it's unethical to do so. You have to turn every page, watch every frame.
But a permadeath game subverts that expectation. Life is permadeath, after all, but you're not expected to delay your autobiography until you've played to the end, are you?
A permadeath game like FTL is a cross between chess, solitaire or football — designed to be endlessly replayable even if they can be won or lost in a particular instance — and narrative video games that are intended to be experienced only once. You can win a football game, but you can never win football.
FTL turned me into the equivalent of a losing sports team. In 2008, the Detroit Lions went 0-16, never winning a single game. But you wouldn't say they didn't complete their season.
So far, FTL has always bested me. But I think it's fair to say that I finished it — even if I'm not finished with it.