The survival instinct is vital to the existence of life itself, let alone humanity, so it's unsurprising how often it's used in entertainment. Games are no exception: over the past decade especially, we have been treated to a smorgasbord of expressions on this universal idea. Survival horror games motivate the instinct with fear, games like Minecraft tie it to creativity, and others deal with abstract concepts of why we have it in the first place. Survival game The Flame and the Flood ties these three approaches together, engaging with its gameplay while simultaneously challenging conceptions about humanity and our will to survive.
The Flame in the Flood follows a young girl, Scout, and a dog, Aesop, as they attempt to survive in a post-societal America, while boating down a river from port to port. In many ways, Aesop is the protagonist of the game, because though players control Scout, the game's roguelike structure sees Aesop find a "new" Scout every time the player dies. It's an interesting change of perspective, with the Scout character essentially filling the same role that dogs do in other games.
The game offers no linear narrative, but allows players to craft their own story from the experiences they have and the thoughts and feelings the world evokes. It evokes feelings aplenty: the solemn tone and gritty realities of Scout and Aesop's world are easy to reflect upon. The thought, "why bother?" springs to mind often. With little hope, constant struggle and the miserable face of Scout at the bottom of your screen, the game subtly pricks at notions of the futility of survival under certain circumstances. Successfully kill a wolf and gain a full belly of meat and water, though, and that outlook changes considerably.
For the most part, the game offers players a decent platform for this kind of reflection. Occasionally, heavy handed interactions and a blues soundtrack ruin the atmosphere, but thankfully these intrusions are few and far between.
It is clear to see that The Molasses Flood has taken a lot of inspiration from Klei Entertainment's survival series Don't Starve. Both games share the gameplay loop of exploring an environment for supplies and crafting them into tools and items. But despite how derivative the gameplay in The Flame in the Flood can be, it amalgamates its derivative ideas successfully.
Resource management in The Flame in the Flood is especially successful. It urges players to be smart about how they use, store, and assign resources, both short-term and long-term. Short-sighted resource management can easily fool you into thinking things are under control, until one particularly cold night makes you wish you had saved those pelts for a new pair of boots. Storing resources also adds a sometimes-frustrating but mostly fulfilling level of strategy to the resource systems. You can store items in your raft, on Aesop, or in your backpack. If you die, gear on the raft and on Aesop are transferred to your new character, but backpack gear is lost forever. This means you have to be wise about how you arrange and bank your gear, because while backpack items are available for quick access in an emergency, they're easily lost if that emergency doesn't go your way.
The game offers an "endless" mode, which procedurally generates scenery for as long as you can survive, and a campaign mode, which caps playthroughs at 10 areas. The campaign mode offers checkpoints as you reach each new area, but unfortunately this is your only option for saving your progress. As a result, you need to put aside several hours per session to close the distance between two checkpoints. This can be frustrating, for obvious reasons: despite the tension it adds to gameplay, it doesn’t seem worth it, considering how time restrictions can bar you from playing the game at all.