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‘The Flame in the Flood’ Is a Cute but Crushing Game About the End of America

The game is an arduous journey featuring starvation and exposure, but that doesn't stop it from looking really pretty.

Screenshots via Steam

Appearances can be deceptive. The Flame in the Flood looks cute, but spend an hour with it, and your nerves will be shredded. You're Scout, a lone wanderer with a scrawny old dog, Aesop, for company. The world is a changed place: Waters have risen, breaking the old America up into small chunks of dry land separated by vast floods and surging rapids. When you begin the game's campaign, you are charged with setting out to find the source of a weak radio signal. Perhaps society has clung on, somewhere, while all around you humanity is shattered, carved up into pockets of increasingly feral folk who might not be too pleased to find you rummaging through their supplies.

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The look of the game, almost handcrafted and definitely attractive (unless you focus on the misery in the human faces), masks the considerable challenge you face. Keeping Scout alive—warm, topped up with unpolluted water, fed on anything she can pull from the Earth or trap using makeshift snares—is a constant demand. If it rains, and it will, she'll get wet, which could lead to catching a fever. If she scratches a leg on some thorns, the wound might heal up by itself—or it could turn nasty.

The raft she uses to travel downriver, toward the signal's source, isn't indestructible, and every effort she puts into navigating the game's crunching rapids drains her energy. If she's too tired to steer away from an onrushing rock, jutting from the white froth like a dagger, the craft will crash into it, compromising its condition. Along Scout's journey, there are opportunities to fix the raft up and upgrade it—likewise to get a good night's sleep, eat a hot meal, and meet helpful non-player characters. But the hardships far outnumber the strokes of good fortune.

"The contrast between aesthetic and gameplay experience was very deliberate," the game's designer at Boston studio the Molasses Flood, Forrest Dowling, tells me. The Molasses Flood is an indie setup comprising creators whose past credits include titles in the Halo, Guitar Hero, and BioShock series, and The Flame in the Flood, which raised $250,000 on Kickstarter, is its first game. "I think as a team we're fond of surprising contrasts, things that maybe look like one thing but feel like another, as it can add weight to those contrasts. The contrast also should help something that could feel really oppressive still feel like a world a player may want to inhabit for a while. If the aesthetics completely matched the grim difficulty of the game, the result may well have been an experience that sat too heavily on the shoulders of the player, beating them down."

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"Another way to look at it may be via our studio name, the Molasses Flood," he continues. "To me, it says a lot about the sort of experiences we are interested in creating. If you're not familiar with it, it was a major accident that occurred in the North End neighborhood of Boston in 1919, in which millions of gallons of molasses flooded the streets of the city after a tank burst. It's a funny and weird story initially, but it reveals itself to be a much more complicated tale of tragic loss and industrial malfeasance as you learn more about it. I viewed that name as a sort of mission statement to create experiences that have multiple facets and defy initial expectation."

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As Forrest so clearly states, The Flame in the Flood is a hard game, one where an easy opening so quickly becomes a grind against wave after wave of problems. The situation for Scout can become grave in no time at all unless you're keeping a keen eye on her temperature, constantly topping her up with food and clean water—or, better, combining raw materials to cook up something a little more satisfying, from dandelion tea, both refreshing and medicinal, or stitching together animal pelts to make warmer clothing. Whatever your efforts, though, your first Scout will most likely die. Items transferred from her backpack to Aesop's will be carried over to your next Scout, who will pick up the journey from a previous save point. The game is procedurally generated, a roguelike (or, in its makers' words, "rogue-lite"), so there's no easily mapped "right" path to take. Deaths cannot be reversed, and I have to say, the first time my Scout died, set upon by a pack of wolves in the middle of the night while looking for a place to bed down, I was crushed.

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"It's definitely the intent that it hurts when you die," Forrest says, "but hopefully you learned a bit along the way and feel like you could have done something differently the next time around. It is a tough line to walk, when a game allows the loss of progress, but I think the fact that it raises the stakes for the player is something that's appealing about games with permadeath and seemed like the right call for a game that's primarily about survival in a procedurally generated world."

There's no hand holding in The Flame and the Flood, few useful tips that flash up on the screen—just warnings, when Scout's in a bad way. It doesn't even tell the player why America is in this awful state. This is a very deliberate move by the Molasses Flood—the "why" isn't as important as the need to just keep going, to get by now that everything's gone to shit.

"Our intent was to let a person's understanding of what he or she needs to do to survive drive him or her," Forrest explains. "We all know that we need food and shelter, and if we're stuck in a wilderness and there's nothing to offer reprieve, we better move. Also, some games are about pointing you in a direction and setting you on a rollercoaster, others are about learning the systems, and we aimed squarely at the latter. We try to give enough hints and tips to allow someone to understand the basics, but we want folks to figure out the specifics on their own."

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I make it eight in-game days with (my first) Scout, something that Forrest says means "it sounds like you were figuring it out, at least enough to navigate the river, stop places, and start finding supplies." People who dip into the game's journal will find additional assistance for their journey: "One of our ideas is that Scout does have survival knowhow, and we felt that the journal was a good way to allow the player to pull info that the character should know."

The game's debut trailer, from October 2014

The game's campaign has a start and end point, and while what the players see on the route between them will vary every time, Forrest tells me that, more days into the experience, I'd "best bundle up because it's going to get a bit colder." By day eight, I was seeing the wilderness give way to more signs of a greater settlement having once been here—broken bridges, floating cars. Wherever Scout's headed, it feels, to me, like it's closer to what was once an urban center. Forrest isn't about to give anything away, of course.

"Ahead, you'll find more types of environments to explore and some other threats. But while there is a backstory, and a reason behind why this world is the way that it is, it's never something that we dive into very explicitly. I loved Cormac McCarthy's The Road as an inspiration for this: In that work, you know there was a nuclear disaster of some sort but why and how don't matter. It's not a story of the end of the world, it's a story of a father and son trying to stay alive after everything fell apart. We wanted to take a similar approach.

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"Things are bad, everything's fallen apart, and some specifics about what happened do become clear, but there's still a lot open to interpretation. Early on, while discussing the plot, we knew that the most important story of this game was going to be each player's own one, of his or her journey, so that's where we focused most of our efforts. Also, personally, I'm not a huge fan of lore-heavy works, and I tend to like backstory when it is delivered as minimally as possible to make the world make sense."

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High challenge, appealing aesthetics, an open narrative, and a singularly impressive soundtrack by Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan—"he's a long-time friend of our art director, Scott Sinclair," Forrest says, explaining how that connection came about—all suggest that The Flame and the Flood will be an indie hit of 2016. It has the right ingredients, at least. I'm not sure how much more I can take in it, but I'm going to push on all the same—I want to see more of this ruined America that the Molasses Flood has realized, one quite unlike any game world before it. Forrest isn't about to get carried away with what the game's potential success will do for its fledgling studio.

"Our hope is that this game does well enough that we can afford to make another, and maybe grow a bit as a studio, but until it's out and we can see how it was received both commercially and critically, it's awfully hard to say. At the very least right now, I can say that we feel like we're in a really good spot, and the reception we've received from our early access players has been really good. Now, we've just got our fingers crossed that people will like the final product.

"Ultimately, if the worse case scenario comes to pass, and the game is a commercial and critical failure, we still get to have the knowledge and pride that a small group of us got together and built something from nothing, finished it, and got it out to the world. The fact that we've been able to do this is a gift already, so no matter what happens, I'll still be happy with what we accomplished."

The Flame in the Flood is released for Xbox One, Windows, and Mac OS X on February 24. Find more information at the game's official website.

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