June 25 2018
New Steam game The Flame in the Flood just gave me one of my most brutal video game deaths ever.
The Flame in the Flood is a new survival "roguelite" with a long-term travel (think Oregon Trail) twist, born of an intriguing Kickstarter by a bunch of ex-BioShock developers.
Here’s the setup: It’s the apocalypse or something (probably), and water has swallowed up the majority of civilization. Ramshackle remnants that haven’t drowned have been reclaimed by nature. You raft your way down a procedurally generated river while coping with hunger, thirst, exhaustion, the elements, your feelings about the American South, and goddamn fucking cancerous eyesore devil wolves. It seems a little overwhelming at first, but it’s actually a pretty straightforward game of rafting, crafting, and something that rhymes with those first two words but means "not dying." It all looks so nice, too—like a Pixar movie tried to have an edgy teenage phase but never really lost its heart of gold.
It is, however, devilishly difficult. To demonstrate, I will tell you the tale of one of my first deaths.
Things began well enough. I picked some dandelions and cattails (they’re not a great source of food, but they’re something) and hopped on my raft, loyal dog companion in tow. Birds were chirping, the wind was humming, and sunlight slow-danced with calm dawn waters. Everything was so pretty, so hopeful:
... [Full Story]
After making my way down the river and narrowly dodging a handful of rocks and trees, I spotted a landmass I could land on. So I did. After partaking of the local flora (a couple saplings; good for building snare traps), I found an abandoned old house with a tire swing out front. The tire swing, the game mournfully informed me, hadn't been used in a looooooong time.
Night came swiftly, and—after a whole day of adventuring—my character was starting to get fairly hungry and thirsty, a little tired, and a lot cold. I found some kindling, crafted some flint, and made myself a nice warm fire. It was at this point that I noticed my dog was barking. Previously, I'd kinda just ignored him, because he barks at everything (supplies I can pick up, rabbits, epiphanies), but this time I noticed what he was barking at. Something was skulking around in the shadows, just outside the perimeter of my fire. It was a goddamn wolf, now the subject of my slightly rewritten Queen cover, "Dick on four legs."
At the time, I didn't know that a) wolves won't attack you if you're close to a fire and b) their attacks will fuck your shit. I bolted, and the wolf clawed a chunk out of me. My inventory screen helpfully informed me that I suffered a laceration, and unfortunately I didn't have the materials to craft a bandage and clean it up. Hobbling desperately, I made it back to my raft and practically cannon-balled onto it. "Stupid wolf island," I thought to myself, still panicked. "I hope it gets run over by a flame and a flood and a truck."
Once again soaring down the river, I noticed that things looked dark. Extra dark. The kind of dark that menacingly growls, "You have made a mistake." It began storming, and the waters churned. To make matters worse, I hit a patch of rapids, causing my raft to barrel through the waters at torpedo-like speeds. I did my best to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but both of those creatures suck at all things water-related, so I went careening into a patch of rocky islands and—SNAP, CRACKLE, POP—broke my leg.
Freezing cold, soaking wet, and grievously wounded, I needed to find land, stat. I aimed my craft for the nearest patch of eroding civilization I could see and, thankfully, didn't ram into any more rocks on the way. As I hobbled ashore, the sun rose, giving me a chance to take a breather and regroup—or so I thought. Briefly, I stood in the shadow of a disheveled church. I hoped its congregation got their joyous rapture, but I feared otherwise. After eating everything I could find—just enough to keep myself from starving—I took a nap in the immobile carcass of a bus. When I came to, I realized I'd attracted the attention of a new friend: a wild boar. My dog began barking—bleating, really, with all the effectiveness that implies—as I dodged the boar's first charge. I tried to maneuver around its attacks while gathering more desperately needed supplies, but that proved to be my undoing. The boar connected and—NOISE THAT SOME OTHER BREAKFAST CEREAL MAKES—I had another broken leg.
Once again, I stumbled back to my raft. The game then alerted me that my laceration—which I still didn't have the right supplies to treat—had given me staph infection. Fantastic. I couldn't treat that either, so I soldiered on—by which I mean "collapsed wearily onto my raft."
Next stop. Desperate. Climb ashore. Getting dark. Starving. Thirsty. Throat like splinters. Need shelter. Need rest. House. Sleep. ...Where? Who? So hungry. Can barely feel... legs. Crawling. Crawling. Craw... what's that behind m—
Hello, my old wolven friend.
You can probably guess what happened next:
So that's how I died: literally crawling—at death's door from sickness, thirst, and starvation—and then savaged by a wolf. This after I had both my legs broken, came down with staph infection, got gored by a boar, and nearly drowned. All things considered, it was one of the most enfeebled, unnecessarily brutal video game deaths I've ever witnessed. Things got so bad that it was almost comical. I felt terrible for my little avatar—almost sick to my stomach. She went through absolute hell.
Here's the thing, though: I kinda enjoyed it? Not watching my avatar suffer— I'm not that much of an asshole—but my torrid, increasingly suicidal adventure. The basic structure of The Flame in the Flood—raft down the river, discover a new place or two, explore/survive/craft, repeat—means you never know exactly what you're gonna get next. It's also a very different kind of post-apocalypse, one that's actually pretty beautiful and, at times, soothing. My guts were in stress knots the entire time, but drifting along the river just as the sun's coming up? That scores 9/10 Shires on the idyllicness scale. It's a road trip with your sweet dog, Americana without all that nasty racism.
That said, I do have a few issues with the game. Foremost, it's in Early Access, and though I've only played for about an hour-and-a-half, I've already seen some repeated structures and locations. Also, while I know the game's a roguelike-like, I feel like it makes the player a bit too reliant on luck of the draw. First few stops lacking in essential supplies for animal traps, bandages, splints, and the like? Too bad. You're probably fucked. This goes double once you've been wounded. It becomes easy to feel like a run is un-salvageable, no matter how clever you get about it. Lastly, I encountered pretty serious performance issues on my Pretty Damn Powerful PC and still got a crappy framerate even with all my graphics settings turned down (which is why this post is mostly words/images and no video).
Still, I'm definitely excited to play more and see how the game evolves during its planned six month Early Access stint. It's kinda like Oregon Trail, except everything either wants to kill you or is dead. Fun!
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