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The Flame in the Flood makes survival an experience defined by momentum and movement, taking you out of your comfort zone by removing it entirely. Where the experience of survival games has come to be defined by the slow accumulation of sustenance and safety, it instead pushes you forward under the unrelenting flow of a great, swollen river. You have to keep moving, and you have to hope that you can scrounge enough supplies as you go to stay awake, fed, and healthy.
The game was successfully Kickstarted by Molasses Flood, an indie startup filled with Irrational alumni along with others from Harmonix and Bungie. The Flame in the Flood presents the player with a painterly aesthetic that is a far cry from its punishing survival mechanics. The anonymous female protagonist can collapse from exhaustion if she doesn’t find a place to stop on the river. She can starve to death or die from thirst, or be savaged by wolves or succumb to the harshness of the elements after taking an unexpected dip into the chilling waters of the river.
"I was far more interested in a journey than building a home or a base, which I think a lot of survival games gravitate towards. From that came the idea of the river."
Talking to Forrest Dowling, the President of The Molasses Flood and Lead Designer on The Flame in the Flood, it’s clear that this incongruity between the visual style and the mechanics is completely intentional. “I really like contrasts,” he tells me, “and I don’t think there’s any reason that something being very aesthetically illustrative can’t be adult or realistic at the same time. In some ways, it works well because it blunts some of the harshness of the experience, and I really like that contrast between something that is beautiful and stylish with something that is very grounded.”
The harshness of the experience is what makes The Flame in the Flood a tense game to play; not only do you have to worry about making sure that you have enough supplies to survive, but there is also the river to contend with. It might be your method of transport, stuck on the top of a makeshift raft and mostly at the mercy of the currents, but it can also be cruel.
Rapids are fraught with danger, more likely to upend you into the water than carry you through, and it will eagerly pull you away from locations that you desperately want to reach: Shelter where you can wait out a storm, places where you can trade for supplies you desperately need, clearings with lots of potential for scavenging (even if they might hold the occasional deadly wolf), or just somewhere to rest your head.
“With the river, I always wanted two types of tension,” Dowling continues. “The ‘stay alive stay alive stay alive’ tension that is there right now, but the other that we haven’t quite got to yet is the idea of driving through the desert and watching your gas tank get lower and lower and wishing you’d stopped at that last gas station. Something I want to get to soon is to create a biome where things just get really sparse, and you just hope that you’ve stockpiled enough of the limited resources available to get through.”
The river itself is procedurally generated, and unfeasibly wide. The suggested back story of this world is one of melted glaciers and global warming, swelling the river into a tumescent behemoth that almost has a mind of its own. It means you never have a really good sense of the size of it as you raft down, and angling towards stops on the way is always a gamble.
“There are a lot of variables that we can tune throughout the river gen as we wanted to create a lot of different experiences as you travel down it.” Dowling tells me. “The way the flow is generated and the speeds it moves in the ways it affects the raft had been difficult. We want it to feel like something you don’t have a lot of control over, but you need to be able to feel like you’re able to exert some control.’
‘Another challenge is regarding the places that are created along the river, as you have to make mutually exclusive decisions about which to visit. It’s been a real balancing act to make it feel like a river and not like a circus, in terms of the islands that are generated and how dense it is. There were times when it felt like a weird lake in a theme park, but I think it’s in a good place now. Hopefully it still feels like a river”
The river itself functions incredibly well within a survival setting. The pressure to constantly move on, the sense that just stopping to pick up supplies can itself be a risk--it all pushes the player away from the tentative hesitant pace that so often defines the survival genre. I ask Dowling how Molasses Flood settled on that as the central design conceit.
“I was looking at different ways to approach survival,” he tells me. “I was far more interested in a journey than building a home or a base, which I think a lot of survival games gravitate towards. From that came the idea of the river, and we were looking at different ideas for a river journey, and as our art director is from down South, he knew that area really well, and it fit perfectly. The river in the flood came out of these other things we wanted to do, but it wasn’t really the start point.”
As it stands, there is some friction between the illustrative and slightly abstract art style of The Flame in the Flood and its more aggressively harsh survival mechanics, but it’s hard to deny that the latter are effective in creating the tension that this genre demands. I’ve made more than a few attempts to get down the river, and while none of them have been successful so far, the experience was always harrowing and never dull.