The American South is full of flood plains, swamps, and marshes. In the summer, the air becomes humid, so heavy and wet it can feel deliberately spiteful. In literature set in the South, that base level of environmental hostility, combined with the complexities of an ugly, violent and racially-charged history, forms a mythologized sense of danger and mystery. In Southern Gothic literature, evil lurks everywhere. Natural beauty and inhumane terror are always interlinked.
The Flame in the Flood mythologizes that mood even further. It’s the first game by developer The Molasses Flood, a team drawn from major studios like Irrational Games, Harmonix, and Bungie. Out now on PC, Mac, and Xbox One, The Flame in the Flood takes place in a post-apocalyptic rendering of the South, one where a massive flood has destroyed nearly everything. As the name implies, it’s a game interested in finding the vibrancy—the life and joy—amid the churning rapids.
To find it, though, you’ll have to survive. You play as Scout, a young girl with a dog and a raft. The dog can help find resources, alert you to threats, and provide a measure of levity and companionship. The raft offers mobility, a means of following the currents downriver, through one broken former town after another. You’ll need both to find food, shelter, and hope.
Many games in recent years adopted survival as their subject matter, and they tend to feature similar objectives: find resources, use them, craft better tools, hide from anything you can’t kill, and live long enough to do it all again. In most of these games, this is the entire point. You endure until you die. Survival is its own reward in an existentialist sort of way. The Flame in the Flood has that mode, but the story-based campaign mode feels like the larger draw. As Scout, you begin chasing a mysterious radio signal. There’s something—or someone—at the end of the river, and you’re going to find it.
Here, tone and mood are king, and both are fantastically well-crafted. Scout meets a handful of survivors—feral children and half-demented old women dressed like 19th-century socialites. She always has two questions for them: 1) Can you help me? 2) What happened? To quote Mad Max: Who killed the world? Answers aren’t easily forthcoming. Instead, Scout tends to get folksy advice and elliptical patois. The characters talk and feel like they stepped out of a Flannery O’Connor short story, gesturing at but unable to speak to the bizarre realities of their world.
When no other characters are around, alt-country music compiled by musician Chuck Ragan trickles in and out of the background while the river flows with a hand-painted majesty. These careful aesthetic touches lend Scout’s journey the feeling of a sci-fi folk tale. Pressing ahead on the roaring water, I felt like a pioneer hero. My survival was noble, a metaphor for the human spirit pressing against the darkness of uncivilized destruction. Every fire I built was a beacon of re-built civilization; every church or crumbling gas station I took shelter in was a gift from God.
That attention to detail, and the ability of Flood‘s motifs to elevate mundane gameplay, also makes it easier to forgive the design’s more glaring failures. The PC build is disruptively buggy, crashing and frequently interfering with game saves, though I’ve been told stability fixes are rolling out as soon as this week. Like a lot of survival games, luck can be a huge factor, and sometimes Scout’s death seems entirely out of the player’s hands in a way that is more frustrating than thematically resonant.
And, while the setting is incredibly potent, its rendering sometimes feels too broad. Part of the charm of the narrative, as I said above, is in its mythic, archetypal nature. But that same quality clashes somewhat with the particular history of the region. The South has a mired legacy tied up in a potent confluence of high religiosity and a history of racism. The Flame in the Flood doesn’t touch these aspects of the region’s character to any degree—understandably so, given the scope of the project. But it would have been interesting to see what those particularities might have looked like in this imagining of the South’s future.
Still, Scout’s downriver adventure has a lot going for it. The Molasses Flood’s debut is a brilliant tone piece, drawing skillfully on an established well of symbolism and cultural preoccupations that rarely get showcased in games. The Flame in the Flood is a journey toward hope at the end of a long river, a journey worth taking.