The Flame in the Flood is a survival game that just launched on Steam. It's not about building, or zombies, or pranking your friends. Just surviving and seeking civilisation. That makes sense, given its background. The Flame in the Flood may not strike you as the most realistic-looking game around, but it started from a very different seed than other games that wear the "survival" tag. The goal of designer Forrest Dowling and his ex-Irrational (BioShock) cohorts at The Molasses Flood? To create a game that captures the feeling of authentic wilderness survival, as opposed to the feeling of building an anti-dinozombie fort with friends and then running down to the beach to kick naked people. I spoke with Dowling about what he learned in attempting to accomplish that.
Kotaku: Flame in the Flood isn't like a lot of other survival games. It's single-player, and you're scavenging dandelions and cattails to stay alive while praying to the Deep South River Gods that wolves don't lacerate your kidneys in the night. What were your primary points of reference in creating the game?
Forrest Dowling: I love getting outdoors, and I grew up out in the country. I love running around in the woods. I have super hippie parents. We lived in a cabin that they built, and we lived in a tent while they built the cabin.
The influences, the original sources we were looking at, were things like Les Stroud and [TV series] Survivorman. Legitimate survival experts like Tom Brown, [who] was trained by his grandfather from a very young age. From puberty onward he was out in the woods learning to hunt deer with a knife, that kind of thing. [I also read] books on edible and medicinal herbs.
No survival book or expert is ever gonna tell you that if you're alone in the wilderness, what you should do is build a farm [laughs]. It's always, "Go downhill, travel along flowing water, try and find a road, try and find civilisation, just keep moving." The amount of building that you do is enough to try and survive the night, so you can keep moving the next day.
There are a lot of survival games, and one of the things that I felt made us different was a sense of movement — that you're always being pushed forward. That definitely moved us away from building and construction mechanics.
Kotaku: Why'd you end up digging into authentic survival stuff in the first place?
Forrest Dowling: We don't have the multiplayer thing or the twitchy combat to generate the fun, so to me it seemed like I needed to go a bit deeper into the survival side of things to make it not feel super thin as an experience.
Kotaku: What's an example of that in the game?
Forrest Dowling: If you look at the plants you collect in the game, they're all indigenous to the American South, and they all do pretty much what the plants do if you use or eat them in real life. Like, the devil's trumpet is a poisonous plant. I don't think I've ever seen it in another game, but if you spear a rabbit or something and have its meat, you can combine it with the devil's trumpet, and then you can use that to poison wolves.
That was important to me because I didn't want things that were just single-purpose, that ballooned your inventory. [Another] example of that is sumac. You can make it into tea, which has curative properties. But also, if you burn sumac, it creates a toxic smoke.
There's also yucca plants in the game. A while ago, a friend was telling me how much he liked that, because it's not in other games and it's the dish his mum made him when he was growing up. [Designing games this way] gives you inspiration to put things in that you might not if you were just looking at your most direct sources.
If I weren't looking at what plants were native to this part of the world and what they do, I wouldn't have come up with that. In survival there's so much richness in terms of things to do and decisions to be made. It would have felt foolish to not just look at what's out there.
That kind of moves away from legit survival a little bit in order to create more opportunities for fun. If you're being pursued by wolves in real life, you're probably just trying to get away. But it still draws on authentic survival techniques.
Kotaku: What else did you learn about authentic survival tactics in the process of making this game? What are the most interesting things you learned while doing all this research?
Forrest Dowling: A lot of it involved actual stuff people did while creating all this primitive survival. Like, I watched this YouTube series recently. It's just how to make a mud swaddle hut. It's a 20-minute video, and step one is just a guy with two stones. He's just chipping one with the other to make a knife. And then with that knife he starts to chop down saplings. With all of that, he makes a kiln from just… stuff out in the woods. He makes it from scratch.
Seeing what people can do with just the stuff they find in the wilderness is really fascinating… making a spring spear trap or something like that. Essentially, if you've got a knife, you can do it with stuff you'd find in the woods of the eastern and southern United States. As long as you can find some springy plants and something fibrous enough to be a tripline, you can make a pretty deadly trap.
There's a ton of stuff on YouTube of people keeping the art of this stuff alive, even though there's not really a need for it if you're, say, hunting or something.
Kotaku: Have you heard from any real-life survivalists who've played the game? Have you consulted any for feedback?
Forrest Dowling: Yeah, a few. That's something that emerged from Steam Early Access: we had folks drop by our Steam discussions or post reviews. One was a whitewater rafter, and while our game's not a realistic rafting sim, this guy was praising it for feeling right. You're at the mercy of the current. You can make choices within it, but you're not in power.
We just had a review pop up a few days ago, and the reviewer basically opened by saying that he can be pretty finicky about survival games because he's a wilderness survival instructor. He said our game models actual wilderness survival the most closely and accurately of anything he's played. That's great praise for me. That made me so happy, because that was the intent. When we hit it, people who know this stuff are like, "Whoa, I recognise this. They did it correctly."
Kotaku: Did any real-life survivalists critique the Early Access version of your game in ways that ultimately helped make it better? Did any of them say, "Hey, this is wrong"?
Forrest Dowling: Not really, although we certainly deviate from authenticity when it's necessary. For instance, there are snakes in the game — water moccasins. If you get snakebit, you can cure it in the game with dandelion tea. That doesn't work in real life [laughs]. You need modern medicine.
I tried to map every affliction to an actual cure while also keeping the array of things you can collect manageable. I didn't want to put things in the game that were, like, single use. You can make dandelion tea for a snakebite, but you can also eat dandelions for sustenance. They're multipurpose.
Kotaku: OK so, knowing what you know now, could you competently survive in the wilderness if the world ended? Or at least chill with Leonardo Dicaprio on the set of The Revenant?
Forrest Dowling: [laughs] No, no. I mean, I've learned a lot of book knowledge about it, but I'd be dead in minutes. I would probably eat poison oak or something. I think I could start a fire. I could probably start a fire. Definitely if I had a lighter.