The thing about rivers is that they never stop running. They never reverse course. And, no matter how deeply we might wish otherwise, they will never yield to our demands. We can drink from their waters, eat their fish, and travel upon their currents as we make our way toward the horizon; the rest is up to the river.
The Flame in the Flood, a survival game released this month on Nintendo Switch, is as much about the unyielding flow of time as it is about what we do with the time that is given to us. Its world has been ravaged by—well, something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but not zombies or nuclear fallout or anything as pedestrian as that. But the land is dying, and the people—the few remaining—have reverted to a primitive state, with feral children fending for themselves against the elements and opportunistic adults preying on the desperate. It’s humanity’s twilight, and it’s amidst this unyielding decay of environment and empathy that your character, Scout, first awakens. As the light of her campfire sputters and gives way to the night, an unfamiliar dog creeps timidly forward, dragging with him a backpack that appears to have been lost recently. You picked this place clean long ago; now seems as good a time as any to move on. You take the pack and your journey begins, your new friend tagging along as his kind is wont to do.
There is an ultimate destination to reach at the end of The Flame in the Flood, but it’s the journey that matters most. That journey is divided into two complementary halves: the land, and the water. On land, you’ll scavenge for anything that will help keep you going just that little bit longer—twigs, berries, rags, water, flint, fire, bugs, feathers—really anything you might be able to use to cook a meal or heal a wound or fend off the cold or soothe an upset stomach. On the water, you have just one real concern: keeping your raft together as you make your way upriver toward the next landing. There is an endgame if you want it (play Endless mode if you don’t), but again, it’s what you do on your journey that really matters. And what a journey it is.
Of the two halves of the game, the on-foot sections are certainly the most unpredictable. That’s because the world is generated randomly every time you play, so no island will ever be the same. Any given island will contain one of several distinct landmarks: camp, farm, church, wilderness, marina, etc. Camps have campfires, which provide warmth, protection from wild animals, and a place to sleep. Ghost towns feature abandoned shops and derelict vehicles, which might provide the tools you’ll need to craft weapons, traps, and warmer clothes. Wilderness is a great place to stock up on edible resources: rabbits, berries, etc. Sometimes, wild boars or roving packs of wolves will take up residence at any of these places, though you’d better hope not. Occasionally, you’ll meet fellow travelers.
Because the individual elements populating each island are generated randomly—animals, resources, buildings, weather—you’ll never encounter the same exact situation more than once. But depending on the type of landmark you’ve reached, there are specific resources you’re more likely to find. Camps and farms, for example, are typically the only places to find flint, which you’ll need to make stone tools or arrows, while marinas let you work on your busted-up barge. Most resources and tools can be used in a myriad of ways, both to suit your immediate needs, and to help you prepare for those inevitable times when your stomach is grumbling and your lips are parched but pickings are slim. Dandelions can provide a tiny bit of nourishment if eaten raw, but collect a bunch of them and you can blend them with clean water into a tea that will quench your thirst and dispel food poisoning. Some poisonous plants can be eaten safely if you cook them first, while others can be used to taint raw meat, which can then be used to kill predators. You might build a rabbit snare with all the saplings and cattails you’ve gathered up, or maybe you’d rather combine them with a steel knife to make a bow instead. Then you’ll need arrows. Each time you gather up new materials you’ve never seen before, you’ll unlock recipes for new tools, garments, meals, or medicines; there are about seventy recipes in total.
I can’t possibly describe every scenario you’ll encounter in The Flame in the Flood, but the variety of moment-to-moment gameplay feels impressive for something that can seem repetitive on paper. Still, you’re never really given free rein over the environment. No matter how abundant your resources are, you can never take more than you can carry, and space in your pack (and your dog’s) is limited, so you’ll spend a lot of time deliberating over what to take and what to leave behind. Even when you’ve expanded your pack to carry as much as you could possibly need, you might not always have the opportunity to gather it all up; a paradise of protein and clean water and steel bolts and lumber is useless if you’re being stalked by a pack of wolves and don’t have a way to dispatch them. Even the rain, a fantastic source of clean water (fill, drink, then fill again), can be your enemy: get wet and catch a chill and you’ll eventually die if you don’t have a way to dry off.
The rest of the game takes place on the river, where you’ll navigate your ramshackle barge around houses, cars, boulders, and other hazards that have been swept up by the flood as you make your way toward wherever it is you stumble upon next. Whether rain or shine, rapid or calm water, it’s easy to steer wrong, and it doesn’t take much to destroy the thin planks that are the only thing keeping you from drowning. You can upgrade the raft with a rudder and other features to make this section easier, but you’ll still never be able to take your eyes off your surroundings, even for a second. This half of The Flame in the Flood isn’t particularly complex, but it can provide some of the most relentless drama in the game if you’re floating by on only a sliver of damage with no marina in sight. Enhancing this drama is an acoustic folk and bluegrass soundtrack, complete with stirring vocals by musician Chuck Ragan, that effectively conjures up so much of the imagery we’ve seen on the news this year as hurricanes and floods continue to ravage densely populated coastal areas. In fact, The Flame in the Flood might just be the most political game of this era, intentionally or otherwise. If you can play through it without worrying even just a little about the future of our planet, you should turn on the news for a few minutes.
Survival games, by their very nature, aren’t the kind of experience I find compelling. The world we live in is grim enough that I don’t need to seek out reminders of what humanity has done to it. But The Flame in the Flood feels different. Because even in its depiction of a world that’s not so very far off from our own—in its reminder of the kind of skills we’ve lost, and the ones we stand to lose if we forget to be kind—it offers a glimmer of hope. You can hear it in the rustling winds and the beating rains. You can feel it in Ragan’s twanging guitar and primal howls. At the end of the day, the river will carry you wherever it wants to; it’s what you do when you get there that makes all the difference.
Invisible Gamer’s review of The Flame in the Flood is based on a retail code provided to us by The Molasses Flood. The game launched on Nintendo Switch on Thursday, October 12th, 2017.