With The Molasses Flood now up and running, they needed something to work on. Funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign backed by more than 7000 people, The Flame in the Flood is their first game and tasks the player with surviving the harsh realities of the world they find themselves in, as they travel down a river in search of their next meal while trying not to become one themselves for the ravenous beasts that roam the wilds.
Read part one of the interview here.
“Pretty soon we arrived at the idea of the journey, a travelling survival game,” says Forrest Dowling, designer and co-founder of The Molasses Flood. “We started thinking about, ‘what makes sense for travelling?’. Then we thought, ‘well, a river’s a really good vehicle for travel’. From the river came the question, ‘what kind of river do we want to do?’. That’s where we moved into the idea of the American backwater. It’s actually where a number of us are from and grew up, so we’re fairly familiar with it. It just snowballed from there.”
Set in an unforgiving and mysterious world, The Flame in Flood combines survival focussed gameplay with ‘rogue-lite’ elements such as permadeath and procedural generation to create a deep, replayable experience. “This isn’t something you sit down and you play through once,” says Dowling. “It’s something that we want to build up over time. Every playthrough is different. You’re not going to encounter everybody and you’ll only encounter some of the conversations that they can have with you. Next time you play, you’ll encounter different people, or the same person, but they have a different thing to say.”
With any new studio, nailing down the first project is always going to be a difficult task, one that The Molasses Flood were not exempt from.
“People usually want there to be a lightning bolt moment where you’re just like, ‘eureka’. But I guess I’ve never worked that way, and I’ve never known anyone work that way,” Dowling says. “Really, it came about from a couple of simple ideas. We wanted to do a game that was about survival and we wanted to do a game that was smaller scale than what we’d done before, one that a small team of people could reasonably do in about a year or so.”
As discussed in part one, The Molasses Flood describe themselves as “a company of AAA refugees,” formed from ex-members of Irrational Games — most famous for the Bioshock series — plastic guitar aficionados Harmonix and indie studio Moonshot Games. After settling on a concept, the next problem that faced the fledgling studio was how to fund their vision without a big name publisher behind them. They chose Kickstarter.
“We’ve had great fortune with it,” says Dowling. “It came in fairly early though. After Irrational closed, we had savings and severance, but we knew that wasn’t going to go far enough to make the full game.”
Kickstarter as a funding platform has received criticism for offering no concrete promises that backed products will ever be finished, but Dowling was quick to justify The Molasses Flood’s decision saying: “There’s a bunch of options out there. You can try and get an investor to invest in your company, you can find a publisher, or you can go to crowdfunding. We elected to go to crowdfunding because once you take somebody’s money, you’re working for them, and of the various bosses out there, we felt that going to the public was the most desirable. We could go specifically with the game that we wanted to make and reach the people who were into it and wanted us to make it, and then we could make that game as opposed to going to somebody else who might sort of like what we’re doing, but has their own ideas and their own business riding on what we do. This way it allows us to go to the people that we’re making the game for and ask them to support it upfront.”
The campaign finished on 7th November 2014 achieving $250,000 in funding, eclipsing its original goal of $150,000 within a week of asking. The extra cash unlocked stretch goals including endless mode, where the player pits themselves against the mechanics of the game and sees how long they can last, river raft customisation and a wealth of language options. The extra budget also gives the team some room to breathe and produce a game that meets the standards of their previous successes. “If Kickstarter didn’t work, we’d need to be looking at other options, but it did. So we’re in really good shape right now,” Dowling says.
Freshly funded, the next step for The Molasses Flood will be to build upon the foundations laid out in the Kickstarter campaign. A major component of this will be deciding how the game’s narrative will unfold. “We haven’t exactly nailed how much we want to leave mysterious and to the imagination of the player, and how much we want to get explicit about what this world is,” says Dowling. “I like dropping in hints and letting people drawn their own conclusions about it,” he adds.
“People are really good at seeing two things next to each other and assigning a narrative to it without there needing to be an explicit authored narrative. We’re looking at if we spawn this tractor here and we spawn this rope over here, and then we spawn these footprints over there and then we spawn a skeleton nearby, is there a story that can come out of this? It’s a challenge to work out how to make that stuff meaningful and not totally nonsensical.”
This presents a dilemma. In The Flame in the Flood, the player travels the world and meets various characters along the way, journeying towards a prescribed end goal, the mouth of the river, so not all of the storyline is left serendipitous. This creates an issue when combined with the rogue-lite elements of the game and multiple playthroughs. How do the developers stop players retreading the same ground over and over again, while still telling a cohesive story?
“There’s a couple of levels to it. I think the most important story is the one that the player tells through their own actions, the story that gets generated through play, through the mechanics of the world,” Dowling explains. “It’s procedural, but it’s not random, there’s always going to be an arc of experience that we’re building into it.”
The protagonist of the game presents a dilemma as well. Players take control of Scout, a woman adept at bushcraft and the art of survival, accompanied by her old dog Aesop, who offers not only companionship, but a hand (or paw) with the bags. Replayable and survival focussed experiences like The Flame in the Flood, in which failure and death are often inevitable, raise the question of how closely the player is meant to identify with the character they’re playing as. Is Scout her own woman or is she us in that world?
“We’re not building her to be a Nathan Drake kind of character that has lots of snappy dialogue,” says Dowling.
In a game, how much is the protagonist a character you’re playing as? Are they a cypher or are they a character that has their own personality?
“I think we’re landing somewhere in between. Scout is not somebody who’s speaking in the game or anything. She’s supposed to be someone you inhabit. But at the same time, she’s bringing her experiences and knowledge with her. The user interface is going to be pretty generous about letting you know what you can and cannot craft.
“And that’s indicative of the fact that Scout already knows what she can and cannot craft in the world and what she needs to do to survive,” he continues. “It’s a difficult problem to put a voice into the mouth of the player, because it’s likely that somebody, somewhere, isn’t going to agree with what’s said. I think it’s player-centric to let the character you control have some personality, but not be too much of their own person.”
The aesthetic of The Flame in the Flood is striking, dripping with foreboding atmosphere and menace. “We’re using Unreal Engine 4,” Dowling says. “We’ve all used Unreal for years, I think I’ve used it for eight years professionally making games. We knew the engine already, so it was pretty easy to make that decision. We also thought, of the options out there, Unreal just has the best rendering tech of anything that’s available for an indie team to be using. Art is a really important part of this game, so we thought, ‘we know this thing and we know it works really well’, so it seemed a natural fit for us.”
The art style compliments the post-apocalyptic themes in the story, with the deep colours lending a feeling of history to the environments. “We prefer ‘post-societal’,” says Dowling. “Apocalyptic implies some kind of mass extinction event and that wasn’t something that we wanted to go straight into saying. We didn’t want to go, ‘oh yeah, this horrible thing happened and everybody died’, it’s more like ‘well, it’s a mystery’.”
These design choices and setting are derived from a variety of sources, explains Dowling. “If there’s anything that’s consistent among us, it’s that we all pull stuff from all over the place. You just try and consume everything that is relevant to what you’re doing, or even things that’re seemingly not. A big visual reference is David Hockney, who’s done all these paintings of very flat trees. It’s a really good aesthetic reference.”
“There’s the classic river stories, there’s a few forms that they’ve taken, like Huck Finn or Heart of Darkness. Those are significant references,” he goes on to say.
“We’ve been looking at more contemporary stories. One of the cornerstones of our creative reference library is ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, a film from a couple of years ago that I thought had great art direction and a beautiful little story. It also has these small elements of mysticism to it. I’m personally a fan of fantasy realism as a genre, like Haruki Murakami’s ‘Wind-up Bird Chronicle’. Worlds that are very grounded, very recognisable, but have little twists that are fantastical, a half step away from reality.”
“There’s a lot of great examples of that kind of thing that we’re using as references,” he continues. “I think [Cormac McCarthy’s] ‘The Road’ is an interesting example, in that it’s fairly clear that there was some sort of nuclear event, but that’s never what the story is, that’s not what it’s about. It’s more about the people trying to survive in this world.”
Dowling also lists a few more unconventional references that have left their mark on the game. “We’re calling it, ‘Burma-shaves’. There’s instances where little bits of story are doled out through text on signs throughout the world, where as you pass by signs, they form a sentence. We call it ‘Burma-shave’ because that was an advertising campaign by the Burma-Shave company where they would put signs down the road that told a little story that ended with an ad for Burma-Shave.”
Another important aspect of the game is how players interact with the world and what players will actually get to do. “Moment to moment, there’s essentially two modes to the game, you’re on land or you’re on water,” Dowling says.
“When you’re on water, you’re choosing where you want to go. You’re on the river and you have a finite amount of resources and you need to go somewhere to get more. The moods we want to hit on the river are ones of arcadey intense action, when you’re in rapids and just trying to get through to survive.
“We also want ones where it’s very calm. The analogy we’re using is you’re driving through the desert and you realise that you should’ve stopped at that last gas station because you don’t know when you’re going to see the next one and your needle’s going on empty. On land, you’re choosing what you can carry because you can only carry so much. You need to make a lot of tough decisions about that. You’re also going to be crafting, you can find shelter to spend the night, you can rest by a fire to get warm or dry off,” says Dowling.
“The land you’ll traverse certainly isn’t empty however, players will encounter various scenarios to keep them busy,” explains Dowling. “The idea is to give players lots of tools that they can use to solve these problems however they want to, but these supplies will be limited, so it’s very much about evasion.”
“There’s predators on land,” he says. “We’re using the wolf example a lot right now. The idea is that you can use your supplies to evade, incapacitate, distract or shoo away. You don’t want to be fighting something, you never want to go toe-to-toe with an enemy, you want to avoid them. We’re giving players the tools to do that. Wolves are governed by fear and hunger. If they’re hungry, they’re going to come and eat you, but if you have a torch, they’re afraid of fire so the fear could override the hunger. But if there’s a few of them together, they’re braver, so just a torch is probably not going to save you. You could trap a rabbit and throw it into their path which would distract them, or you could find another poisonous animal and use it to lace a piece of meat to leave as bait for a wolf.”
“One of our goals is to keep the experience fresh constantly, it’s always jumping back and forth between different sorts of tactical thinking and strategic thinking,” Dowling adds.
Like the story, the gameplay of The Flame in the Flood has been influenced by many previous titles, says Dowling. “The jokey description of the game is, ‘It’s like Toobin’ meets the Oregon Trail’. For me, when I was younger at school, Oregon Trail was how you could screw around and play games in computer class and get away with it. And Toobin’ was the kind of arcade game you’d see at the local pizza place. We thought that’d be a funny way to put it. Imagine you’re tubing down a river, but you can get dysentery.”
“Coming up on the river is a church up on the right and a camp up on the left,” he continues. “In the church, I can usually find blankets or rags that I can use to insulate my clothing or start a fire, but the campsite might have old food that I could eat and a campfire I can use to get warm immediately or purify water. We want people to make decisions about ‘where am I going to go?’ and ‘what do I need right now?’, and how what I need influences my decisions.”
“If you squint at the game a bit, there’s a bit of FTL in it,” Dowling says. “The way that in the galaxy map works, where you choose which planet or nebula you want to go to, it’s kind of an influence for our river. You’ve got these mutually exclusive decisions to make with limited information as you go. ‘Don’t Starve’ obviously is an influence. It’s a super cool game.”
The Molasses Flood are a new studio with lofty ambitions, making a game that tries to ditch the tropes and crutches found in other games and create something that leaves a lasting impression on the player. There’s no zombies, no rocket launchers — as far as I know — but there are deep survival mechanics and a world filled with fine detail waiting for those who want to explore.
“The biggest challenge is that we keep it fresh. What our engineers are working on is how we make a location interesting every time you play through it,” says Dowling. “We’re going to focus on what’s in the world now, hint at everything that happened around it and let people assemble their own story and draw their own conclusions.”
The Flame in the Flood is expected to release in July 2015 for PC.