Impressions: The Flame In The Flood

The Flame In The Flood [official site] is a ‘post-society’ survival game from The Molasses Flood, a new studio formed from the ashes of Irrational. It was successfully Kickstarted last October, and just sent out its first, very early and not at all finished build to backers (and press). I thought I’d have a look and see how it’s coming along.

Don’t starve. Don’t freeze. Don’t drown. Don’t dehydrate. Don’t drink suspicious water. Don’t break all your bones. Don’t ram your raft into a boulder. Don’t get mauled by wolves. Definitely don’t leave the game alt-tabbed without having hit pause first, because then you’ll definitely starve.

The Flame In The Flood is, I suppose, a survival roguelike game from assorted Irrational refugees. It’s survival as an urgent journey rather than the rambling, directionless scavenging which is the norm. You’re headed down a seemingly endless river on your ramshackle raft, stopping off at sporadic outposts to search for food, tools and supplies with which to keep yourself alive. Your only companion is a faithful, and apparently immortal, dog, who’ll alert you to both aid and danger.

The world is drowned, and only tiny islets remain. Some house scraps of civilisation as was – an old church, a fishing bait shack, a long-stationary bus you can nap in the back of. They’re uninhabited now, but their bursts of colour and echoes of life still bring comfort. The specifics of the location don’t matter in any practical sense. They’re just the useless remnants of a dead world. All that matters are saplings, stones and water, dandelions, berries and fire, and many all-too-rare fragments of nature which you can either consume or craft into tools and medical supplies. Nature is cruel as well as kind, of course: low temperatures, dirty water, food poisoning, broken bones, ravenous wolves. Any of these things, and more, might take your life.

But the greatest threat is the flood, that mighty river which has subsumed so much of the world. The Flame In The Flood diverges from other crafting-based survival titles by being hung around a rafting mini-game. You’re hurled down the river at increasing speeds, desperately trying to dodge the rocks and rusty cars and empty houses which pepper its surface, as collision can mean broken bones, drowning or a destroyed raft. I like The Flame And The Flood a lot, but I dislike the rafting intensely.

It’s a little like an endless runner, with its high-velocity dodging of randomised obstacles, though you do get to pause the sprint and go scavenging regularly. But when you’re on the river, you’re dragged inexorably downstream, inexorably towards immovable threats, and it’s a struggle to turn the unwieldy raft away from them. The required discipline changes entirely, from resource management to twitchy reflex, and when collision inevitably comes I feel irritated. I feel I’ve been spammed with high-speed threats rather than being permitted to make decisions and take measured risks.

So much of the game’s drama is hung around the consequences of a collision: you must find fire to dry your clothes else you’ll perish of cold, you must find stone and rags to make a splint for a broken bone. As soon as these things are required urgently, the arbitrariness of The Flame In The Flood’s crafting logic becomes maddeningly apparent. Why can fires only be built on specific spots, regardless of how much tinder and flint I’m carrying around? Why can I only take water from randomly and rarely-appearing rain-filled barrels and not from the enormous river that’s all around me? Why can I not use any of the wood and metal from the many structures strewn about the place to build traps and splints, or to repair my raft? When I urgently need a stone knife with which to make a splint, why can I not use any of the many stones all around me?

I enjoy the hunt and the anticipation of what each new place might bring, but it’s frustrating to leave somewhere with little or nothing achieved because game rules deem that place to be useless to you, despite your eyes offering you very clear evidence to the contrary. The crafting tree, from food to clothes to traps to medicines, is large and thoughtful, but the acquisition of ingredients for it feels restrictive and arbitrary. Clearly resources must be limited in order to make the survival experience meaningful, but I hope The Flame and the Flood can gradually become less game-y about it.

I should restate that this is a very early beta, primarily for Kickstarter backers, so clearly all is subject to change. I’ll be paying close attention to how it goes and grows, because this drowned world is a place I want to spend a lot of time in.

I love the way it looks, a little bit Pixar, a little bit Fallout, this colourful and rustic approach to an apparent post-apocalypse. It’s both tribute to and mourning for an idealised America that never was – the optimism of Rockwell, the forlornness of Hopper. I love the way it simply hints at the world that was and how it became the world that is, its rusting structures and collapsing signs enough to convey both loss and wonder. And there’s its great and mighty river, different every time, different stop-offs with different names every time. The river is a lead character, in the way the city is a lead character in GTA games, or Rapture was in Bioshock.

I love the way it sounds, with the noisy ambience of the natural world and the thunderous river, its downbeat country score and the guitar twangs every time you craft an item, joining into a short melody if you build multiple things in quick succession. Its few characters are wordless, but all that needs to be said is said by music, animation and architecture.

Yes, The Flame In The Flood is a particularly delightful end of the world. But it’s also a bit of a grind in this current, early form. I don’t feel that I learn much more with each new foray and each new perma-death (as I do in, say, Spelunky), just that I need to start all over again, slowly building up my stocks of plants and tools and waiting for the same recipes to be unlocked once more. Once I have, all might be lost when that bloody raft slams into another bloody rock, or one of the enormous wolves I cannot fight until I’ve lucked into finding the parts for a knife will inexorably hunt me down before I can escape back to the raft.

It may be that the game’s very mechanical nature is fundamentally at odds with its rustic, near-real world appearance. Rigid, unreal game logic that you’ll accept when you’re in a magical cave full of ghosts and goblins is more jarring when you’re in the backwaters of a something-like-contemporary America.

This is only the start though: the game is nothing like finished, its backers are currently providing feedback and courses may yet change. I’d like nothing more than if later builds of TFITF were able to feel a little more organic, and perhaps a little more willing to let me enjoy the journey as well as be bruised and battered by it. This depends on what the devs hope to achieve: the look suggests some interest in tranquility, the pace often suggests a preference for the frantic. I’m a fan of the scenery even if I’m not so sure about the ride just yet, and I am very, very interested in seeing where this river eventually takes us. It’s already a beautiful and fascinating place to explore.

The Flame In The Flood‘s first beta is available to Kickstarter backers now, and “our plan is to go into wider early access in the future.”.


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    Serrit says:

    Hmm I wonder with this early build whether the devs are following either a rapid iteration approach, or a waterfall methodology…

    • Eery Petrol says:

      Perhaps an insightful flowchart would flush out our reservations.

  2. Wolfman says:

    I can just see the puns starting to flood in soon.

  3. Baines says:

    For all the issues with crafting systems and their arbitrary components, the river’s water is presumably not clean and the average rock will not make a remotely functional knife.

    • suibhne says:

      The thing is, you need to purify water from rainwater barrels anyway, and purification apparently boils down (heh) to boiling the water (since the process involves fire). There’s absolutely no reason why river water would be unsuitable for this sort of purification unless it were massively polluted with chemical (i.e., non-biological) contaminants. Which doesn’t seem to be supported or called out by the gameworld’s fiction, really, so the whole distinction between rainwater and river water feels infuriatingly artificial and game-y.

      Yet: the game is so extraordinarily lovely that I’m perfectly willing to reserve hope for positive changes.

      • stuckbug says:

        Great preview, and we’re definitely taking a lot of these critiques to heart. I’m Forrest (the designer on TFITF).

        We’re looking at revamping the entire water system. The barrels always felt like a stop gap, but we just haven’t invested the UI time yet in making a unique water management system. We expect a change to this will roll into our next major content update for the beta. We’ve already put a bunch of time into improving the rafting experience as well.

        Anyway, I really appreciate the thoughtful criticism. This is one of the best parts of doing this sort of beta: we get feedback while there’s still plenty of time to address it.

        • suibhne says:

          Great to hear. I’m happy I backed the game.

          Fresh water’s just a tough resource to meter when you’re surrounded by it. Even if it’s not potable, purification is pretty low-tech – either via boiling or evaporation. Both approaches are easy to do and pretty foolproof, and they don’t require any specialized knowledge. I think it’s fine to just go with boiling, since that’ll be more familiar to most players and is easily gated on access to fire, but I still think you’ll have a hard time making potable water a scarce resource in a game organized around rafting down a great big river. ;)

  4. moghaus says:

    I suggest making the river water drinkable but you also risk getting sick.

  5. smuppet says:

    Is there any game these days that isn’t made by ex-Irrational people?

  6. jonahcutter says:

    Funny, I find the rafting gameplay the strongest part of the game. Gameplay-wise anyway.

    The rafting is the unique thing that TFATF brings to the table. No doubt it will benefit from tuning, but the core mechanics feel solid and fun. It’s the instinctual flow in the game that has you actually playing something. Never in total control, you look ahead and position yourself as best as the constant flow lets you.

    I find myself looking forward to getting back on the raft and away from the rather standard crafting, and endless inventory shuffling. No offense intended to the devs, who seem great, but that portion of the game is as standard as it gets. There’s nothing wrong with it and it functions fine, but there’s not the creativity in it to match that of the rafting and art design.

    The art and sound designs are excellent. Lovely, immersive and poetic. And perfectly chosen music in the original songs.

    • jonahcutter says:

      Oh, and I found it disappointing that you don’t need to care for the dog at all. Not even needing to give it food or water. The opening cinematic makes it seem like it might play more of a role, but it’s really just more inventory slots.

      • Jackablade says:

        I’d hope that they make the doggie a bit like the one Fable 2. He can’t die, but is prone to injury that’ll slow him down while he hops along on 3 legs and whimpers. That’s need to be balanced with the fact that you can’t heal Fire and the Flood doggie immediately, but I think anything like that would help draw the player closer to their furry friend.

  7. bl4ckrider says:

    One of the games that makes me feel old.
    It looks intrigueing, but too difficult. These devs are creating such great worlds and many of us will just experience 10% of them, because they are just too time consuming and difficult to learn, and I just don’t have the time nor patience to fully engage.

    I get it that some people want brutally challenging games like Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls, but sometimes the devs deprive the players of so much more. Playing Papers Please on easy (and getting to the end) made it so much better than on normal (and running out of money after a couple of days). What made the game so great was the story and not the mechanics of finding the frauds in documents.

    I hear that they have seasons in Don’t Starve. I will never see what winter or spring is like because I can only survive a couple of days, but I also don’t want to spend many hours on Wikis learning how to survive (that’s what real life is for). Sad.

    Looks like the game will remain as unattainable as watching c-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate.

    So how about an easy mode? Devs can ridicule me ingame for choosing it, but I really don’t have the many, many hours to sink into such a game to appreciate it. Please, think of the old folks, the content tourists who want the experience, not the epeen.

    • Monkeh says:

      Bit of a weird request if you ask me Seems to me like you just shouldn’t be buying games that are build around “uncompromising wilderness survival”, which is the case for Don’t Starve. If you just want to stroll around you should be buying different types of games. Also think the “e-peen” comment is a bit inappropriate, since most people playing games like Don’t Starve don’t share their experience with others and just enjoy overcoming the challenges the game brings, which is something that’s akin to survival games IMO.

  8. dungeoncrawl says:

    Is there a mode that lets you “get to the end and win?” My main issue with games like this is that there is no successful ending……you just keep going until you die. I get no satisfaction from surviving N days….and then surviving N+X days. That should be, IMO, a game mode that you can play if you like.

    • stuckbug says:

      There’s definitely an end and win state. Endless mode was an additional mode that was achieved as a Kickstarter stretch goal.

  9. RogueLiking says:

    Ugh. I was really looking forward to this game but now I’m pretty disparaged. The two main things that sound terrible to me are the very action-y raft mini-game, and the focus on the extensive crafting system. I am of the strong opinion that the latter just shouldn’t be the focus of a roguelike game, because when you replay it, as you should, it just gets too same-y. I think Don’t Starve fails exactly on that aspect. Oh well. I guess my morale is even lower due to the fact that even though there was a sort of burst of roguelits after Issac and FTL, 1) None of them were really any good at all, and 2) It seems that this trend has stopped. I was hoping for many more developers to understand and see the value roguelike characteristics possess.

  10. lordfrikk says:

    If nothing else the visuals and the presentation in general is astounding. The Molasses Flood really knocked it ouf of the park in that regard.