Slavery and FTL: Faster Than Light

In order to make better use of my blog, I’m going to write some smaller posts that cover something I’ve noticed in many modern games. Through several fantasy, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic settings, slavery is featured as part of the in-game society. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light, Fallout 3, and the Mass Effect series all direct the player to interact with slaves and slave traders. The Assassin’s Creed series, including Assassin’s Creed 3, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, address slavery as part of their respective historical settings. Within these games, the developers have established economies less constrained by morality or law, allowing for individuals to profit from slavery without retribution.

In FTL: Faster Than Light, the player can randomly encounter slavers as they attempt to fulfill their mission for the Federation. When they meet a slaver: they are given three options: (1) Buy one slave and free them to join your crew, (2) Attack the slavery scum, or (3) Ignore the slaver and continue on your way.

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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.

If you select the first option, a new crew member appears on your ship after presumably being manumitted. If you choose the third possibility, the encounter ends and you move on to the next waypoint. Attacking the slaver allows you to enter into open combat and eventually triggers more decisions. If you continue to attack and eventually destroy the ship, FTL informs you: “The slave ship is destroyed. They won’t continue their evil trade, but many lives were probably lost on that ship.” By drawing attention to the innocent slaves who lost their lives, FTL suggests that saving the slaves is more important than ending the slave trade itself.

On repeated playthroughs, this pushes the player to attack the slave trader but select the alternative option. The slavers surrender and state, “Take one of our slaves as tribute; if you destroy us they’ll all die anyway!” If you accept the offer, a slave comes on board your ship and you can travel to your next waypoint.

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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.

Your relationship with the slave traders is further complicated by a fourth and final option. If you have installed a teleporter on your ship (something I don’t often do), you can send a rescue party to free the slaves. In most of these instances, you are able to free one or all of the slaves and bring one of them aboard your ship. In this context, the game implies that you’ve freed all of the slaves and additional crew member joined your party of their own volition.

Eventually, your boarding party, with or without the freed slave, will have to fight the slavers in hand to hand combat. If you kill the entire crew, your party may find the slaves in the ship’s cargo hold. According to the dialogue presented to you, “They look at you questioningly and one asks if they’re to be released. You could use more crew but you don’t want to force them all to work for you instead…” Face to face with a cargo hold of slaves, your crew is incapable of passing up the opportunity to bring a slave on board their ship. While they feel that claiming all of the slaves would be immoral, they justify owning one slave for the good of the mission.

In a decision tree that uncomfortably mirrors historical slave auctions, you then choose between these three species based on innate characteristics that grant them unique abilities in combat and support roles. If the player is familiar with each species, they will likely choose the one whose labor will best improve the ship’s operation. The three slaves also come to terms with their continued enslavement in different ways. One “seems fine with the orders,” the second “remains silent and you worry there might be trouble,” and the third believes their enslavement to be “acceptable” as long as the primary objective is galactic peace. The remaining slaves are freed on a nearby space station, but the one you’ve chosen remains a slave in your service. Presumably, the three agreed to accept a lifetime of slavery if it meant the freedom for their compatriots.

While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant. When you first encounter the slave trader, your crew views the slavers, and by extension the slave trade, as scum. As the exchange progresses, however, your crew grows increasingly comfortable with the idea of using slaves to complete their mission. By either accepting a slave as tribute or keeping a slave as payment for rescue, FTL’s crew abandons their previous ethical objections and uses slave labor on their ship. This is especially tragic in a game where death and defeat is almost always your final outcome. Unable to leave your ship, the slaves that you could have freed are instead doomed to die in bondage.

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10 thoughts on “Slavery and FTL: Faster Than Light

  1. Wow, thanks for writing this. I’m planning on having slaves in a game I’m working on and this really clarifies my head mumblings into concise objectives. Great read.

  2. “While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant.”

    So it is just like our Universe then… we call it “outsourcing” though.

  3. It’s funny, because FTL is pretty much the only game I’ve ever played where I chose to use slavery to my advantage, simply because it’s so bloody hard and unfair that you really can’t afford to turn away anything that will give you an advantage.

    Which is an interesting outcome, I thought. Arguably it’s the most succesful implementation of slavery that I’ve seen in a game, then – in just about any other game, it’s easy to just refuse to have anything to do with it, and typically you get to be the heroic rescuer, and single-handedly shut down the whole slave economy. FTL is, in its own cruel way, far more realistic. It’s a grim subject to tackle, especially as a fairly minor feature of the game, but it’s impressively well done.

  4. Another game that mirrors the “strategically significant but morally reprehensible” approach to slavery is Call to Power, a turn-based strategy game like Civilization. In that game, though, players tend to eventually transition to abolitionism – though not necessarily.

  5. One interesting run I had in FTL involved me beating a slaver ship into surrender, and I took the tribute slave, who turned out to be a Slugman called Fish. Soon afterwards, during a major mishap with broken door control and O2 generation, all my crew except for him died. Unless the player is some form of AI with mental control abilities, he was essentially free at this point, but he was well up for continuing the mission, flying a mostly vented Kestrel for two more sectors until being eaten by Mantises. Not to mention that it’s possible for a lone Engi or Slug to take on a Mantis slave, and it’s pretty obvious to most players how that would go if the Mantis wasn’t there willingly. Though that could just be an example of ludo-narrative dissonance.

    i would also note that the encounter you describe is the friendly slaver encounter. There’s also a hostile pirate slaver encounter, where your first option is to draw straws and send someone over instead of being given the option to buy, and the rock bride transport mission, where you’re given a rockwoman to transport for an arranged marriage, and refusing to hand her over when she asks you not to results in her joining your crew, and possibly getting an augment if you win the ensuing fight, as opposed to just having a 100% chance of getting an augment if you hand her over.

    It does somewhat highlight the problem that the developers want to reward you going to the trouble of defeating the slavers without destroying the ship, and have chosen to do it by offering you the choice of taking one of three people as slaves. As far as the game’s design is concerned, a crew member is an item the same as an augment or drone, though a very versatile one, so it’s very easy to think that a ship carrying those “items” should “drop” them when defeated. They did realise the problem with the choice outcome, hence the fluff dialogue about the Mantis being OK with it as long as he gets to kill some Rebels and similarly for the others, but for whatever reason didn’t carry through with it and add a fourth option of setting them all free, which could have had a chance of other benefits, like the people on the station donating weapons or augments, or just good feelings in the player.

    Vicious pragmatism is something of a running theme in FTL, though. The sensible response to space spiders if you have no blue options is to leave the station’s inhabitants to die, the most rewarding, for you, options in the Remote Settlement blockaded by Pirates event are to firebomb their houses or ignite their crops with a firebeam and get hefty rewards from the pirates. But even then, all of those have the option to take an option that’s sub-optimal in terms of risk and resource management but more moral.

    One last thing about the tribute slave, many sector start messages say or imply that things have gone downhill since the fall of the Federation, especially the pirate controlled areas that have increased slaver encounter rates. Since the mission is to defeat the Rebels and re-establish the Federation as a power that could stop slavery and thus free all slaves, the morality of possibly endangering that mission by not accepting a surrender, which can come even if the player’s ship is on the brink of destruction itself, becomes a little murkier. That does still play a part in the problematic overall narrative of effective and lucrative immoral acts being acceptable ways to achieve moral ends in desperate times, though.

  6. “While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant.”

    But isn’t that merely realistic? For various reasons, I’m sure not everyone who reads/writes English on the Internet will appreciate it on a personal level, but for those who have studied American history, this makes perfect sense.

    Regardless of the fact that slavery was introduced to British colonies under British rule, it became a distinctly American problem once the U.S. became the U.S. Eventually, slavery became the catalyst for the U.S. Civil War, but in between the foundation of the British colonies and the end of the Civil War, the “strategic importance” of slavery meant that it continued as an institution. If slavery was ONLY a moral issue, the Southern states would have immediately said “Well okay then, if it makes our Northern cousins happier, everyone’s free!” as soon as the Declaration of Independence was signed, or at least by the early 1800s.

    If FTL is as similar to the Star Trek universe as to have “we’ve evolved beyond money” as far as personal salaries, then there’s no difference between a crew member and a slave except for whether they volunteered. On the other hand, if the game assumes crew members are paid via salary or (more historically) shares of loot but it’s just not specifically tracked for each crew member, then there’s even less difference.

    I’m not defending slavery on moral grounds (and I wouldn’t), I’m just pointing out that in the game as in real life it’s a complicated issue that we in 21st century Western society are not used to thinking about it as other than a moral issue.

    • Agree with Matt here. Far better than the incredibly forced and tired trope of old where obvious good vs evil moral choices would be known to confer a bonus, and the decision was just fluff. The universe you’re speaking of is the one we live in — one in which, from a granular perspective, selfishness always has a reward in sight, while altruism defers gratification — sometimes for unexpectedly immediate results, sometimes incalculably distant and not economically appreciable on your scale, often contingent on a myriad other unlikely factors.

      FTL is a far more interesting game for it —for allowing that depth of interaction, giving that strategic and moral granularity, and ultimately presenting it to a player who by all economic reason should be desperate in the face of impossible odds, but might just be subtle enough to play the game with other thoughts in mind.

  7. I think the game is also constrained from giving you the option to free all the slaves. I’ve seen several role-playing games and strategy games where you’re presented with attacking slavers, benefiting from them, being one, or compromising in some way.

  8. Regarding the status of the slave traders, and by extension, the slave trade itself, I understood the geography of FTL to be the very edge of “civilized” space. Hence the frequency of pirates, and scarcity of trading posts and inhabited worlds. Slavery in FTL would then appear to be if not illegal, perhaps a sort of grey market.

    I always viewed my options when dealing with the slavers as a “lesser of two evils” dilemma. That’s how I rationalized it anyway. Great article, and very thought provoking.

  9. Pingback: Track 2: FTL: Faster Than Light | Game Chats!

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