Sometimes, just surviving is a game. That’s the idea behind The Flame in the Flood, a beautiful indie game that is being shown off at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Your job is to navigate the flood waters of a raging river and survive for as long as you can in the wilderness.
You play a young girl, Scout, who has to navigate the wildness with her dog. The game has the increasingly popular feature of Permadeath. If you die during the game, you go back to the very beginning. And, unfortunately, this game takes that idea very seriously. It will probably make you frustrated, but you may have a sense of triumph, the longer you survive.
Game designer Forrest Dowling showed me the game at a recent indie event atop a roof in Santa Monica, Calif. His team lost their jobs when BioShock Infinite creator Irrational Games downsized. They started a new studio and are building The Flame in the Flood with the Unreal Engine.
The title is the first game from a half-dozen developers at The Molasses Flood. The Boston-based company itself has an interesting name, as it is named after the Molasses Flood of 1919. On Jan. 15, 1919, a large molasses storage tank burst in the North End neighborhood of Boston. It send a wave of molasses gushing through the streets at a reported 35 miles per hour, killing 21 people and injuring 150. Dowling’s team worked on titles such as BioShock, Halo, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band.
So many ways to die
The setting takes place in a wilderness alongside a river in “forgotten post-societal America.” You play a young girl with a dog who tries to head down river during a flood. You have to navigate your raft through the rapids and avoid rocks and other obstacles. If you bump a rock at a high speed, you’ll go flying into the air. When you land on the shore, you have to scrounge for resources, craft tools, fix your afflictions, evade dangerous wildlife, and then get back on the river to stay ahead of the rains.
The river is procedurally generated, meaning it can be randomly reproduced so that you can go down it forever. The environments are inspired by the Florida Everglades, the Mississippi Delta, and the Louisiana Bayou. Over time, the climate gets colder, and you have to build clothing from wolf hides and bear hides. I’m pretty sure that it’s no picnic trying to get those hides.
One of the things you have to craft a lot is natural remedies. You have to deal with snake bites, fatigue, hypothermia, open wounds, and infection. You can create traditional herbal cures and wound-dressings or simply try a solid night’s sleep. Whatever you do, you have to address those afflictions before they become worse.
Eating is a challenge. Some things try to eat you. And sometimes you can hunt wildlife down and curb your hunger. You can use traps, stealth, distractions, timing, and your legs. You get a little help from your faithful hound, Aesop.
The soundtrack is haunting, and it comes from the Alt-Country rocker Chuck Ragan.
The first thing I did as I floated down the river was crash my raft into a rock. I went flying and broke my arm. The scenery constantly changes as you float past what remains of society.
I collected some cat tails. I used them to craft tinder to start a fire. You can eat your cat tails or use them to insulate your clothing. Or you can break down the fibers to build cords and use them for traps. That means they’re pretty versatile. The survival tactics are very authentic. If you learn them well enough, you’ll actually learn a bit about surviving in a real wilderness.
“You can drink the water, but there’s a pretty good chance it will give you dysentery,” Dowling said.
I replied, “So kill me now or kill me later?”
“I’d risk it, I’d go ahead and light the fire,” he said.
I lit the fire, boiled water, and then got rained on.
I started over and gave it another try. But that time, I hit a rock on the river and died as I came crashing down. As I found, it takes a lot just to be able to master the raft maneuvers. I would have played more, but the rooftop got very windy, and I was worried about my own survival.
Dowling said the plan is for the game to last about three hours. But Dowling himself has survived no longer than 45 minutes. Dowling said he was inspired by FTL: Faster Than Light, a real-time strategy sci-fi game where you can play it in one sitting. When you die, you can get some of your stuff back from Aesop, who carries somethings for you in his pack.
I like the fact that Dowling has put a lot of thought into what happens when society falls apart and surviving day-to-day is a challenge. The river journey is archetypal, from things such as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Dowling invokes a quote from poet T.S. Eliot, “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river Is a strong brown god –sullen, untamed and intractable.” Essentially, the river is the central character in the game. It keeps you ahead of the storm, but it can kill you too. At its end lies salvation.
That’s a nice story, and I’m afraid a lot of people are going to go through a lot of heartache, playing this game until they reach salvation.