VGM Review #8: 'FTL: Faster Than Light' OST


Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or irl) know that I have been playing a ton of FTL lately. I just bought it during the Steam Summer Sale for something absurd like $2.50 (<3) and it has maliciously taken over much of whatever free time I have to burn.

For those that don’t know, FTL is a real-time strategy game by Subset Games that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter to a release last fall (2012). While it is very fun and comes highly recommended – and not just by me, evidenced by its Metascore of 84 –, it is extremely unforgiving and has done nothing but pain me at great lengths. Still, I will on, determined to beat it someday…

But my excruciating experiences with the game are not why I write today. I come to speak of the soundtrack, of course—a soundtrack that has received high praise from a variety of sources. The accolades that composer Ben Prunty has listed on the front of his website are as follows:

  • IGN: Best Overall Music and Best PC Sound of 2012 (nominee)
  • Kotaku: Best Video Game Music of 2012
  • The Game Scouts: Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks of 2012
  • Complex: Top 25 Best Video Game Soundtracks on Bandcamp
  • NeoGAF: Official Game Soundtracks of the Year 2012

That’s pretty great. Based on his webpage, Prunty has only composed for a few projects so far, so kudos to him for getting that kind of recognition so early on in his career.

I will start out by saying that I was instantly attracted to Prunty’s music. The title theme, “Space Cruise” is easy to like. The beginning certainly screams “OUTER SPACE,” from the tone choice, to the chord that bends and fades, to the seemingly eternal amount of space between that first chord and the second. Hearing those elements from the very beginning immediately puts the gamer in the mood to play a space-themed game.

Another great thing about the open beginning is that it sets up the next section, which one can still consider spacey, but in a different, more light-hearted and fun way. Prunty introduces more electronic instruments with different tone colors that fill in the voids that are left between the first two chords. What you hear is a pretty typical layered build-up that is meant to lead into a climax at 0:57.

This climax features a swifter pace that comes about by way of new, swirling rhythmic sounds and notes with shorter durations. It doesn’t last too long, though, as it hits a breakdown at 1:16 that signals the beginning of a devolution back to the more open feel of the beginning. Essentially, the other two-and-half minutes are filled by a variety of melodies and rehashing of ideas from the beginning of the tune in that open feel.

While I enjoy the piece, I do have some criticism for it; namely, the tune could have been half its length without the listener suffering any real consequences. That is not to say that the second half of the tune is void of any value, but it becomes so atmospheric that it fades out of relevancy. Even the melody that comes in at 1:54 seems to blend in with that atmosphere and fails to develop in a meaningful way. So, while it is indeed nice to have a title theme that loops after four minutes instead of two, I would prefer that the last half has little more body despite the setting in which the music finds itself.

The rest of the soundtrack, sans a couple of tunes, is comprised of pieces that each have two versions: an “Explore” version and a “Battle” version. For the “Battle” tracks, in many cases Prunty smartly sets the “Explore” themes as bases and layers new rhythms and melodies on top of them (e.g., ”MilkyWay (Explore)" vs. “MilkyWay (Battle)”). In other cases, such as in “Civil (Explore)” and “Civil (Battle)” (above), Prunty sharpens up some of the melodies in the “Explore” version to make them better equipped for battle.

For the most part, the new melodies are more rhythmic in nature than anything else—that is to say, the note movement more affects the listener’s conception of the feel of the tune rather than providing new graspable themes. The concept of “rhythm as melody” comes into play in the “Battle” variations, too, because oftentimes the drums provide the most notable parts. These parts are not just notable for the fact that they provide the variance; rather, they act as dominant melodies.

Some of the individual tracks’ placements in the game are completely recognizable and some are not. For instance, I would know if I were in Mantis territory instantly from the theme (above), and the same goes for Rockmen space. As far as being able to tell you whether I were in a spot that features “MilkyWay” or “Civil,” however, I would not, and the same goes for the likes of “Debris,” “Deepspace,” and “Wasteland.”

Now, there is a significant difference between the former set and the latter: the former’s tunes have very distinct melodic themes and the latter is made up of ambient compositions. In terms of the soundtrack not providing the listener with a distinct sense of place, Prunty may be excused in both cases. In terms of the first set, the game designers did not do enough to make an area featuring “MilkyWay” visually distinct from one featuring “Civil” (in fact, I am not even sure that they do not occur in the same spaces). Making the areas distinct visually would not particularly enhance the gameplay, nor would it necessarily make too much sense when thinking of how space is presented on the in-game map. In the second case, those tunes – plus “Cosmos” and “Void” – are ambient in nature, and the listener can certainly be excused for not being able to identify their place in the game. That is not to say that those tracks are not distinct from one another when listened to side-by-side, but when put into a game where the player’s attention is going to be primarily on frantically executing his or her mission, there is a slim chance that s/he would catch which tune is used when.

Speaking of, the ambient tracks are put to good use in this game. It feels great to hear the largely minimal themes after a tough battle, and if the player gets into a scuffle in a space that features an ambient theme, there is enough behind the “Battle” variations that s/he won’t grow annoyed due to any kind of overexposure.

If there is one place that the FTL soundtrack falls short, however, it is in the fact that there could be more strong, structured melodic content. For instance, the ambient “Battle” tracks are different enough from one another and are plenty original, but for being tracks that do not have any sort of real distinguishing hook, they are too plentiful in number for my tastes. I know that space is this unfathomably large vacuum that naturally lends itself to ambience, but Prunty’s writing for the species’ themes is so good that it leaves me wanting more from the rest of the soundtrack. If the ambient pieces’ “Explore” themes were left more open and the “Battle” ones were pumped up more melodically, I would be more interested in listening to the soundtrack from beginning to end; though as it stands, I regret to say that I cherry pick heavily when I go through it.

Other instances of that lack of fulfilling melodic content occur at the end of some tunes that have good melodic content before it. In the same vein as “Space Cruise,” tunes such as “Zoltan” and “Colonial” – even in their “Battle” incarnations – seem to fall off of a cliff about a minute from the end. The same could be said for “Rockmen” and “Engi,” even though the problem is less apparent in these two because there are still moments within the last minute that knock the listener’s attention back into gear. Even if Prunty created some more electronic sounds to fill in the space at the end of these tunes I would not have even noticed, but as they are, my attention sadly wanes.

All in all, I really like the work that Prunty has done. He has constructed some great music that not only enhances the gamer’s experience while playing FTL, but gives him or her some ear candy to get stuck in his or her head randomly throughout life. I look forward to being drenched in his music more as I continue not to come anywhere close to beating the game!