It's the day after PAX East. With bodies aching to go home we have one final stop on our tour that included four days of GDC and three days of PAX. Equal distance from Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are the offices of The Molasses Flood - a team made up of former Irrational Games, Bungie and Harmonix employees who struck out as indies after the decision was made to disband Irrational Games following the completion of Bioshock Infinite.
We're greeted by lead designer Forrest Dowling in the lobby of the inconspicuous office building. After making our way through want can only be described as a dream-crushingly dull cubicle landscape we're taken to the small room that houses the team. Here it is much warmer. There's artwork on the walls and desks are facing each other. There's a massive contrast compared to the office space outside their small room.
The Flame in the Flood is the first game from the team. It's a survival game where you travel down a river in search of supplies and in the hopes of reaching safety (or whatever the end goal may be, we're not sure, but there is an end you can reach). Maintain your thirst, hunger, and warmth, and deal with dangers like wolves and the river itself along the way. There's nothing supernatural here. Just a girl, her dog, trying to survive the flood, and a journey down a river.
"It's a game about survival, fundamentally, and about a journey and about travelling," says Dowling. "In which you are a girl with her dog travelling by raft down a river that's procedurally generated and is kind of inspired by the American south. It's very similar in some ways to a lot of games that you might be familiar with, but we tried to do a lot of different twists on the idea of the roguelike and the survival game."
The discussion in the room is focused on feedback the team has received over the course of the last week as they've shown their game at GDC and PAX East. They're also about to go to SXSW and are sending their code off to Rezzed in London. These are busy days for developers who want to showcase their games at all the events, but the feedback is also invaluable to the continued development. But rather than talking loosely about bits and pieces of feedback, it is decided that all the feedback is compiled and analysed before they decide what to do. Interface and usability issues appear to be the first order of business.
"Rather than surviving by building a base or setting up a farm and building a little house and so on and so forth, you're sort of always moving," explains Dowling. "I thought that'd be interesting, you know, going way back to the Oregon Trail, a game in which you need to survive and you're fighting the elements but you always need to keep pushing forward, and the river became a really natural way to present that."
The river is an interesting main mechanic. The flow means that you can only move in one direction. There is no way to paddle back and revisit a safe haven, instead you're always rolling the dice hoping that the next few ports hold valuable resources and not too many dangers. The currents are strong at times making it difficult to control the raft. We also learn that at times a slower, still river can be your enemy as that means you won't reach the next port quickly. Of course, if you don't find a port and you don't have provisions your journey will soon come to an end. Since the river is flooded it isn't safe to drink the water and the team are currently contemplating whether to include any sort of fishing in the game. We suggested you could be able to poison wolves with foul fish, but we're not sure our suggestion will make it into the game.
While the river may very well be seen as the main protagonist, the actual protagonist of the story is Scout and her trusted dog (or should it be hound) Aesop. Scout, as her name implies, is very well trained in the art of survival and living off nature. That's why there is no tech tree, nothing to learn in The Flame in the Flood, instead Scout will come with all the knowledge she needs. Your task is instead to decide how to make use of her knowledge in the best possible way.
Scout's relationship to Aesop can be seen in the little intro sequence to the demo and in the short animations seen as you dock your raft. Aesop will point towards resources if you miss them, but at this point he doesn't really do anything to help if you happen upon wolves. What players will love most about him is the fact that he will serve as an extra backpack, but there's more to him than that. If you die then the items stocked with Aesop will be there for you at the start of your next try. So if you're bleeding out you may want to hurry over to Aesop and give him your best items before you expire.
Then there's the raft. During your journey you will find materials to build and upgrade your means of transport. If you're anything like us you'll also have to repair the damage you've caused from bouncing off of various obstacles. Hopefully you'll be able to manufacture some kind of roof so that you're not as exposed to the elements on the river, but perhaps that's asking for too much.
The demo The Molasses Flood brought with them to GDC, PAX East, SXSW and Rezzed was a timed ten minute one, and our first attempt saw us getting chewed on by wolves, getting dysentery from dirty water, getting wet and cold, and having our raft crash into several rocks and shorelines. You can say we were saved by the bell as the time for the demo ran out. Our second run (with GRTV's Dóri playing) was more successful, we even caught a rabbit with a snare and got to explore more of the crafting side of things. The crafting is fairly straightforward as you know all the "recipes" for the start, but there are a lot of important decisions to be made.
"The decisions you're making are more about what you do with the things you find," says Dowling. "What we are looking to do is try and create, try and build up based on the things you find in the world. There are some things you can do with thse things you find. But what I really want to lean heavily towards is things that have multiple uses so that you have interesting choices to make there. You saw in your play-through you got a couple cattails. Cattail you can use the head of the cattail to fluff up and stuff your clothing with and that will help insulate it. You can also use it like a fire-lighter, like tinder it's very flammable. You can use the stalk of a cattail, you can actually braid it into chord which can be used to make things like snares, or you can eat kind of the insides of the roots."
A few days later our colleague Mike Holmes experienced the same demo, this time at Rezzed, and these are his impressions:
My experiences with The Flame and the Flood were markedly different. I took one pass at a timed demo at a separate event, and during my hands on time I encountered a pack of wolves (which I batted away with my stick but who kept coming back for more), I met an old woman in an abandoned garage and we discussed my character's background (I got to pick certain parts of her backstory), and I spent a fair while floating downriver past menacing red eyes, hitting the bank with the makeshift raft on more than one occasion.
Perhaps my time with the game wasn't enough to really experience the game's deeper systems, like crafting and whatnot, but I did get to explore several different environments, rummage for a variety of different items, and get a handle on the atmosphere of the game. The flow of the game (pardon the pun) is really nice, and there's plenty of intrigue to drive the action along. I only saw a small section of the game, but I'm getting the impression that there's plenty to discover on the banks of this particular river.
I really liked the companion dog, Aesop. I got the impression that he's invulnerable, and he's also really helpful at sniffing out items of interest in the world. I also liked the one-time conversation I had with the old lady we met. She gave us food and shelter, asked some questions, and then we left her, never to meet again, a solitary experience not to be repeated in that play-through. While it can be fun exhausting every avenue of conversation with a character, it never feels natural, and The Molasses Flood has found an elegant solution to that.
"There are various NPCs that you can encounter in the world, and you have little conversation trees with them, which we're treating kind of like... we're calling them almost rogue-like conversation, in that there a conversation trees very much like a JRPG or something like that, but you only ever have one shot through it, so you can't see somebody and then mine them for information," says Dowling, explaining the reasoning behind the decision to impressed Mike so much.
The Flame in the Flood offers a contained experience which may not appeal to everyone, but certainly appeals to us. It's a refreshing look at the genre that feels more like a poem on survival than an epic spanning several volumes. The gorgeous art style and the atmosphere impressed us throughout.
"This is a world that has a history and there are things you can learn about it as you play," says Forrest Dowling. "It isn't just an endless game, it is something that you play to completion. There's a reason that she's going down the river, and then we're going to tell that through to the end."