The Flame in the Flood

The Flame in the Flood is a rare game, the equivalent of that scene in every teen romantic comedy where the ugly, bookish girl (who has just undergone a total makeover)is revealed to be exactly what the protagonist wanted all along.  The Flame in the Flood manages to revitalize three genres I’d written off as completely bereft of further value, as well as explore concepts I had started to think impossible for video games to cover with the proper weight and tone.  And it still , somehow, welds them into a cohesive and interesting whole.

I’m not sure it’s a game that everyone will find enjoyable.  I don’t even know that I find it “enjoyable”.  But it’s definitely a game that should be rewarded for what it both attempts and achieves.

Mississippi Queen

The Flame in the Flood is a game about a girl in a post-desolation wilderness, who is making her way downstream on a raft with her dog companion, stopping at various ruin-dotted islands while trying to avoid injuries, dangers, and starvation.  Most of the game involves foraging for supplies, managing storage space to keep a surplus of the things you definitely need without having to throw away things you may need, and trying to avoid (or eventually, deal with) threatening predators.  So far, the setup seems pretty common, right?

But it’s really not the broad strokes that show what a breath of fresh air the game is.  Much like the journey that the protagonist faces, it’s the small things that add up over time to tell the true story of what this game is.


The game generates a map showing the story of your entire play through

The first thing that stood out to me is how rooted this game is in its setting.  In film and literature, not doing this is something that is considered a major flaw.  But so many games never feel like they have a real versimilitude.  And not simply because they’re fictional worlds.  It’s essentially the “uncanny valley” problem writ large – so many video game levels feel manufactured solely for the protagonist to walk through, without any thought to whether an actual building or castle or town would be laid out in such a manner.

Here, though, The Flame in the Flood seems to clearly be taking place somewhere in the Mid-South, probably in Alabama or Missouri.  The buildings, the towns, even just the raft  seems like what I imagine in my head when I think “small town along the Mississippi River”.  And while it’s probably more accurate to say that it’s “Hollywood real”, it has enough specificity and nuance built into it that it feels like an actual place where people once lived and worked.

The game does some sleight-of-hand to make this work, of course.  Most obviously, since there are almost no people in the world, it doesn’t have the problem of many games, where they simply can’t populate a city with a realistic number of people.  And despite the game actually having several varieties of places at which to disembark, it’s connected by long stretches aboard a raft.  This leads to the game having a feeling like Huckleberry Finn, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the long stretches of time that don’t actually advance the plot can be bridged by a few paragraphs, allowing only the important vignettes to take focus. The Last of Us and Bastion are two other games that have a similar feel of highlighting specific vignettes.  That’s good company to be in.

Survival…   Horror?

This game is probably best classified as a survival game.  Specifically, The Flame in the Flood’s Steam page calls it a “survival roguelike”.  But unlike many of the post-Minecraft games that refer to themselves as “survival sandboxes” (your Starbounds or your Day Z’s or what-have-you), The Flame in the Flood never lets you feel safe.  This feels like the part they truly got from the roguelike genre, and is a concept that many of the people making modern interpretations of roguelikes don’t quite seem to understand the importance of.

Roguelikes, for those who don’t know, started as old ASCII graphic, turn-based RPG games, and were basically the earliest form of computerized RPG’s.  And, in the same way “raft on a wide river” makes me think of Huck Finn, roguelikes have become synonymous with the origination of “permadeath” (where dying means the player’s character has to start all the way at the beginning of the game again from scratch).  This has led to numerous games being created in what is now commonly known as the “Rogue-lite”genre  – games that take the perma-death mechanic from roguelike games, but then put some twist on the gameplay itself.  Games such as Spelunky, FTL, Binding of Isaac, and Rogue Legacy are some of the earlier and better known games in the genre.

The thing that most of these early roguelikes had, which many of the later roguelikes (and most later rogue-lites) have eschewed is some sort of “timer”.   In the early roguelike games, the player had to eat at regular intervals.  Not eating could kill you just as dead as a monster attack.  Some early rogue-lites also had a timer, though even the best example of a hard timer (FTL’s advancing wave of Imperial ships will eventually catch up to you) doesn’t kill you outright, and can be survived with only minor detriment if a player is careful.   This minimizes the creeping dread that forces you to keep running, because no matter how tempting it might be to slow down and catch your breath, it will eventually kill you.  And even the games which seem to have taken the other half of the roguelike formula – survival games in the Minecraft vein – have a similar problem; the player can build farms, create stockpiles, prepare defenses.  You can reach a point at which you feel safe.

The Flame in the Flood never feels truly safe, for several reasons.  The first is that you have four constant reminders of time passing, giving the character deadlines to find more supplies.  Scout, the main character, needs food, water, warm clothes and sleep, and the gauges next to her profile slowly drain every second.   Seeing how quickly each bar empties leads to a feeling that every passing second is crucial to survival.

Second, Scout’s limited inventory space (a contrivance I usually find frustrating in games) means the player has moments where they have to make extremely tough choices:  “I have two pieces of corn.  I could eat them, for very little nutritional value, and pick up these dandelions to make a healing item.  Or I could risk holding onto the corn, in hopes I’ll be able to cook it for a very nutritious meal.”

The Flame in the Flood never feels truly safe.

Third, the player never comes across a place that feels like Scout could comfortably live out her time there.  The best shelters she finds are school busses and abandoned shacks.  The land is mostly arid or swampy.  Wells don’t produce enough water to sustain someone for more than a day or two.  Hostile animals have set up dens in places that might support her.  She’s forced to eat cattails, berries, and sometimes even worms to survive.  The player gets a very clear picture of what daily life is like for this character.  And the fact that it is happening to another character, not the player, reinforces the compassion.

Which brings us to the fourth reason The Flame in the Flood never feels safe – the ailments system.  The game has a number of tragedies which can occur to Scout – such as being caught in the rain, bit by ants, and breaking her bones.  And the game does several things to make this feel impactful – first a warning bell sounds and a red icon flashes on the screen.  Then, the character starts hobbling, or shivering, or otherwise appearing to be miserable and in pain.  While both of these are just basic interface design being applied well, it’s the fact that each of these ailments also have timers attached to them that breathes new life into this system.  When Scout gets cut, waiting too long before treating the wound means it could get infected.  When she is burned, or drinks contaminated water, waiting too long to cure her could prove fatal.  But you’re never sure.  So there’s a mad dash attempt to find the supplies necessary to fix Scout, made more harrowing because the limited inventory space still means that picking up supplies to make the bandage you need right now might mean you’re dropping a splint you’ll need in 10 minutes.  And if you stop worrying about everything else as you run around looking for a healing item, when you’re finally out of panic mode, you may realize Scout is almost dead from hunger, or thirst.

Verisimilitude is the Name, and Mechanics are the Game

I always hate when people complain about a game ‘not feeling real enough’.  Games can’t model things perfectly, due to their various mechanical limitations, and the biases of the people involved in coding them.  But I think that what many people mean when they register that complaint is that the game doesn’t have the appropriate level of verisimilitude.  They’re not actually looking for the male characters in a game to average out to 5’8″, and whatnot.  But they want it to accurately replicate things they think they see (or dream about) in the world around them.

This game is startling and arresting for the same reason books like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, Robinson Crusoe or Hatchet are.

Here, The Flame in the Flood comes through in spades.  It provokes reactions similar to those felt by a person in situations like those experienced by the main character; not despite being a third-person game, but because of it.  The use of an on-screen avatar through whom we can view the experience, and empathize, allows players to understand both the horrors of the brutal, uncaring wilderness and the helplessness of wanting to be able to save a person going through those traumatic events.  In fact, The Flame in the Flood has basically  convinced me that a game like this is not possible with either a first-person or blank-slate third-person game.

This game is startling and arresting for the same reason books like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, Robinson Crusoe or Hatchet are, and it’s only possible because of the interaction of both the underlying systems and how they’re presented.  It simulates the desperate adrenaline rush a person experiences when they’re undergoing trauma, as they focus on the single problem to the exclusion of all others.  It demonstrates the very real danger of thinking you’re totally prepared for every situation, leading to making a serious mistake due to overconfidence.  And it accurately represents the creeping dread a person experiences, as they realize they’re lost in the woods and don’t have the supplies they need to survive.

I would usually talk about the game’s graphics and its music at this point.  And they’re totally solid.  But there’s not much of note to say about them (except that the country songs are great) and that’s not why you should play The Flame in the Flood, anyway.  You should play it because of what it represents and what it inspires, not because of what it looks like.  This game is saying something, and more people need to hear it.  I haven’t even gotten into all of the lessons I hope people will take away from this game , but we’ll dive a bit deeper another time.

Cost: $15 on Steam

Mechanics: As refreshing as a bottle of fresh water after a 3 day drought

Aesthetics: Looks and sounds so real, you can almost smell it.

Verdict: It should, at the very least, be studied.

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