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Impressions: The Flame In The Flood

Survival game from ex-BioShock folk

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.

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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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