The Flame in the Flood [official site] took a while to settle for me. I went through a few phases with the game but I seem to have landed on “comfy but ultimately not very deep” as a verdict. Ironic given it’s a game about being uncomfy and surviving a flood. Here’s Wot I think:
The Flame In The Flood has you playing as Scout, a woman surviving a flooded landscape by punting a raft between tiny landing spots in search of provisions to keep her alive. As you’d expect from a survival game there are a number of meters which keep ticking down – hunger, thirst, body temperature and fatigue – and it’s your job to keep them topped up. To assist you there’s a little dog called Aesop and the aforementioned raft for which you can also craft upgrades.
I bounced off the game pretty hard at first, getting frustrated with what I felt was a reliance on getting the right set of randomly generated materials near the start to get you going followed by a lot of inventory fiddling and a sense of spinning my wheels doing repetitive crafting while the game indulged in that particular sentimentality you can get with Americana – twangly guitars and the power of nature.
What changed my mind, or at least my experience, was sitting to play it with my partner. In watching someone else take the controls I could better see the pace the game required. It seemed far slower than my own. I’d wanted to explore and the sameness of so many of the environments and the repetition of the crafting and surviving conflicted with that. With that mindset, micromanaging inventory space (which the game demands of players, particularly early on) switches from being an irritant to a major frustration.
This was partly because I’d started on campaign mode rather than endless mode. Campaign has a narrative component and starts you off with the task of finding higher ground to better intercept a radio signal. The thing is, the core game is still the same as it is in endless so you’re still expected to go slow and steady, you just also happen to trigger these narrative chunks if you successfully travel the right number of regions. But I kept seeing all these islands with hills on them or high points so I would land and try to find out if this was the right spot for the radio, prioritising that.
Campaign mode, particularly with its option to lower the difficulty setting feels like it’s maybe an attempt to present a manageable amount of game with a definite end point and basic story. But the sense of direction given in that initial command didn’t sit well with the pacing of the rest of the game. The radio signal felt like a thing I was seeking and it was only after I realised it would trigger anyway after I covered a certain distance – that my agency wasn’t required in a direct way – that I could settle into a different relationship with the game and actually find the things I enjoyed.
From that point onwards I actually found it soothing. I’d micromanage my inventory to try and maximise its potential, I was so familiar with the crafting recipes and how susceptible I was to various ills that I could easily prioritise my loot, and I started to enjoy looking for materials to upgrade my raft. Navigating the waters was a really lovely experience, particularly after I’d built myself a rudder and I’d find myself happily settling into the stretches of twangly Americana every time I took to the water.
I’m also the sort of person who really likes a certain kind of repetition so I warmed to the limited scope of the crafting system because although you were making the same objects over and over it was manageable instead of sprawling. The similarity of so many of the land areas and the repeated visual assets also made the game seem cosier – a well worn blanket rather than this huge unknown wilderness. It felt comfy. As long as I didn’t get massively unlucky with loot and as long as I didn’t piss off any more bears (or stocked up on splints and bandages and sewing kits before I pissed off more bears) it felt like I could keep this survival malarkey up indefinitely.
But that also became the rub. After a while the game stopped offering much of a challenge. You could still die but living wasn’t actually that interesting – it was just maintenance and repetition. I found myself fixating on the bears because bears were my remaining source of interest. I’d craft arrows (no fewer than four because four is how many it took for me to kill my first and only bear). Then I would make the aforementioned splints and bandages to heal the inevitable broken bones and lacerations. I never managed to kill any other bears but running away from them and healing my wounds became the main event which alleviated the comfy fug of the game.
I then started to experiment with leading animals to other animals so one would kill the other, costing me zero resources. That’s how I took down a special kind of wolf. The bear did it for me. THAT BEAR WAS IN MY EMPLOYMENT. But then there was no corpse. I have no idea if you just don’t get a corpse for those wolves or if the game bugged out and took my potential new coat with it.
I guess that brings me to the technical side. The game is very polished in terms of the look and the sound and how the systems work but on my laptop it crashes a lot. I booted up a new run last night and had two crashes in about an hour. If it crashes very near the start of the game you have to go through the whole intro again. On my PC it crashes far, far less but it still crashes. I’ve also given up examining quilts which spawn in the environments – they’re supposed to be indicators that people used to live here and you can click on them for a bit of back story but instead of imparting narrative they reliably crashed my game.
My most frustrating crash happened as I triggered what I assume to be the final scene of the campaign. Text started to appear on screen addressing my character and then… This program has stopped working. That was after about 7 hours of campaign and when I got back into the game my only option was to start anew. In-game, sometimes you can’t interact with an object even if you’re clicking directly on it, you have to walk away and come back, or the AI will cause an animal to think it’s in combat when it isn’t and you can’t get its attention or cause it to move.
There are other little irritations – you can’t open your inventory and move things around to make space for an object you’re looking at after having searched a container. You have to close that container menu down, open your inventory, move things, close that, re-open the container and then take the object. It’s just fiddly. There’s also supposed to be an option which lets you start a next run of the game with anything the dog was carrying in its inventory when you died but I couldn’t get that to work 100% reliably. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it wasn’t. Similarly, with the tasks you can pick up from little post boxes (collect 10 yukka plants, make a torch, heal a broken bone…) sometimes the game would remember you’d already done that and trigger the task completion immediately and sometimes it wouldn’t.
Where I’m at with the game now is that I do enjoy playing and it’s because it offers a beautiful and non-overwhelming survival option. I also find that the repetition of crafting and of landscape and of encounters combined with changes in biome end up feeling like verses in a song – familiar but with some of the beats changed up. But I also find that I feel I’m spinning my wheels a lot, that the systems aren’t creating interesting or varied stories. I can’t tell you about specific runs or particular events in The Flame In The Flood because they don’t feel distinct from one another. The systems don’t layer in a way that surprises me or prompts me to impose a narrative. It’s comfy and I can play for hours, but it’s just not that deep.
The Flame In The Flood is out today for Windows and MacOS X.