One of the few benefits of the implosion of superstar developer Irrational Games—now-shuttered maker of the Bioshock series—is the parade of cool new indie development teams born from the big studio’s ashes, eager to use their experiences in gigantic blockbusters to create something smaller and more personal. The Flame in the Flood, from Irrational refugees calling themselves The Molasses Flood, is a perfect example of big budget sensibilities distilled into something much smaller and more daring.
The Flame in the Flood is a survival game in the spirit of Don’t Starve, by way of the arcade classic Toobin’. The game revolves entirely around its river setting, so much of the time is spent navigating the treacherous, ever-flowing waters. Islands dot the river and many of them can be explored. This is a game of forward motion though, so missed islands are missed opportunities. Your raft goes with the current and going back simply isn’t an option.
The gameplay, like most survival games, whittles down to collecting resources, crafting items, finding food and water, and not dying. On that level, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen a lot of lately. These kind of unforgiving survival exploration games are in vogue now for some reason, which probably says something about our collective mindset. Where The Flame in the Flood distinguishes itself from anything else is in its somber, beautifully solitary style.
From the evocative, perfectly paired score by Chuck Ragan, to the minimal, yet detailed graphics, The Flame in the Flood has a sense of place and atmosphere that elevates it above most games.
There are still some people around in this river world—using the game’s minimal dialogue, you’ll meet a variety of bizarre characters trying to eek out a life after the fall. The game feels like a post-apocalyptic Twain novel, where a girl and her dog travel the mighty Mississippi searching for keys to the past while struggling to find any kind of future at all.
The isolated landscape might represent the aftermath of an unknown disaster, but as one of the characters tells us, even before the fall, this place was already separate from the rest of the world. In that isolation, the wildlife has thrived, from prolific rabbits you can snare to impossibly large, gaunt wolves eager to take a bite out of anything they can catch (especially you).
Learning to survive by becoming a predator comes in many forms. Wolves can be fought off, lesser creatures hunted, and all manner of flora can be utilized in myriad ways. Fire is one of your greatest allies here—for cooking, safety, light, and warmth. Ramshackle structures will provide a safe night’s sleep and protection from the elements, but the search for clean water is a constant worry.
The Flame in the Flood creates its river fresh for you each game, and in the endless mode, it just keeps on creating it. This is a harsh game full of death and danger, but the challenge of learning to gather and craft the means for survival is its own oddly appealing payoff.
Earning the means to upgrade your raft or learn a new recipe is an ever-constant motivation, but the greatest appeal is simply surviving long enough to explore more of this beautiful, eerily empty epilogue of the American landscape.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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