We're heading into another busy period of enticing releases on the Switch eShop, and The Flame in the Flood is certainly one to consider seriously. A 'rogue-lite' with a focus on survival in a post apocalyptic world may sound rote and by the numbers, but the game is more innovative than the description implies. From its visuals to its gameplay hooks and twists it aims to set itself apart, right down to an impressive soundtrack for which the composer (Chuck Ragan) immersed himself in the lifestyle of living in the country, alongside the American riverscapes that form the basis of the game.
It's an eye-catching game, and with its arrival on the Switch eShop we took the chance to pose questions to the game's designer, Forrest Dowling, to learn more about the release and the impressive team (The Molasses Flood) behind it.
First of all, can you introduce yourself to our readers and talk a little about your past work?
Hi, I’m Forrest Dowling, one of the founders of The Molasses Flood and the designer of The Flame in the Flood. I used to work in AAA as a level designer on shooters, including Homefront and BioShock Infinite.
The Molasses Flood was once described (by yourselves!) as a small group of “AAA refugees”; how did you come together to form a studio?
So after BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games closed and about 90 percent of the staff was laid off, including myself. Boston at the time was not a great place to be a game developer, as there had been layoffs at every major studio in the area recently. At that point it looked like the options for me were to move, or start my own thing. Fortunately, there were a lot of other talented people in the area that were also interested in starting an indie studio, so we were able to form a group from the ashes of Irrational.
The game was Kickstarted back in 2014; can you talk a little about the process of crowdfunding at that time? What were the biggest secrets to the campaign's success?
At the time we didn’t really see any other means of funding the game, so we just kind of waded into it. It felt even by then like the wave had crested a bit and projects were getting smaller returns. I think The Banner Saga and Hyper Light Drifter were maybe the last truly original titles to get over a half million, and they were both over a year old at that point. The process itself was a lot like pitching a project for any source of funding. Come up with a bunch of stuff that communicates what you want to do, make a trailer or images that sell the idea, and put it into the world. There is the added complexity of needing to figure out rewards, price things out, determine what shipping will be, all that, but it wasn’t too tough.
As far as why it was successful, I don’t really feel comfortable saying it was absolutely one thing or another, because I really don’t know. I think it was that we told a clear story of what the experience would be, and focused on the game rather than us as creators. I don’t think that helping some bearded game dev in his mid 30’s make an independent game is a very compelling pitch, so we focused on what we thought was, which was a new take on survival in a beautiful world.
TFIF is described as “a rogue-lite river journey in post societal America”. First of all, how did the original idea, concept and look come together?
The original idea was really a merging of two ideas, one from me and one from our art director. I wanted to make a pared down survival game about real world survival, and Sinc (the AD) wanted to make a game about exploring tiny worlds… basically top down camera, limited spaces to explore. We jammed those two ideas together and everything else came from there. The river, the region, the music.
As far as the look, that was all Sinc. When I approached him about working together my initial pitch was that I wanted to work on a game that looked like his original paintings brought to life. The look was just him interpreting his existing work.
Can you talk about the soundtrack by Chuck Ragan and why it’s important to the experience?
Early on in concepting, I was working on playlists of inspirational music to use as reference, with the thought that maybe we’d get a musician to record an original piece. I didn’t realize at the time that we’d luck out and get not only an original track but an entire album. I think it’s most important because it comes from the same place that a lot of the inspiration for the game came from. Chuck wrote it in the woods, by a camp fire, while boating and fishing during the day. He got what we were trying to do immediately, as it’s about a lot of stuff that he loves. I think it does a huge amount to help ground the player in the experience of being in the wilderness.
For those unfamiliar with the game, can you talk about the modes on offer and the main gameplay loops they can expect?
There are two modes: campaign and endless. Both are procedurally generated and have the same gameplay, the only differences are that campaign also has an easier setting, and there are a few story beats that the player will encounter as well as an actual ending. The gameplay itself is a mix of river rafting and exploration. You encounter islands, stop, gather supplies, camp, hunt, craft, all that sort of stuff, then get back on the river and look for another island where you can gather more supplies. It’s sort of a constant stop and go.
What were the biggest challenges when originally developing the game? Were any particular aspects of the design tough to balance?
I think from a design standpoint, that making a survival game that’s just about actual survival, and not really about combat, was tougher than I expected as it’s surprisingly mathematical. It’s all about the numbers of how much you lose energy, how fast you get hungry, vs the frequency of supplies, how much they help you recover, and all that. It’s really a razor’s edge to balance, as on one side it’s trivially easy, and on the other it’s impossibly hard.
It arrived on PC in early 2016; what were the biggest positives and negatives of the launch? How was player feedback?
I think the positives are that we largely accomplished what we set out to do, and did so within the budget and timeline we established for ourselves. Player feedback was good overall, but there was a lot we patched up pretty quickly as well. The biggest negative was probably a really bad audio crash that we didn’t find pre-launch which took a week or two to figure out.
You released the game on consoles earlier this year, but at what point did you know it’d come to Switch?
It was only recently that plans were finalized. Really the whole port has been in the hands of Curve (Curve Digital, publisher of the game on Switch), they handled all the work with Nintendo as well as the tech side of things.
Have you had to make any notable adjustments to the game to bring it to Nintendo systems? Does it utilise any of the hardware's unique features?
It’s really a straight port. We did need to do a bunch of UI work to make sure that everything was crisp and clear on both the portable and docked resolutions.
On a technical level, did Curve give much detail on porting to the Switch hardware in terms of its capabilities, engine support and so on?
I couldn’t really give a solid answer, but Curve was able to get the port up and running really fast. It seems like Switch support with Unreal is really great.
How do you think the game is best experienced, and how do you think Switch owners will play it? Do you see it as a game for longer sessions on TV, or dip-in play on the handheld?
One reason I’ve been excited to see The Flame in the Flood on Switch is because the pacing of it is such that it’s well suited for both short form and longer session gaming. You never spend too long on a single island or length of river, so it’s really easy to find a good spot to take a break.
Are you confident that the eShop audience will be drawn to the game’s concept and approach?
I am not, but I’ll couch that in saying that I’m not confident in my ability to predict anything. I hope so, and I think it’s a really good fit, but it’ll be up to the people browsing the eShop to tell me if it’s working for them.
Having now seen this project come to Switch, do you have plans to support the system again in the future? What are your broader personal thoughts on the device?
Personally I’m excited about it. I really love my Switch, and I think it’s really interesting that I hear the same sentiment from just about any Switch owner I speak to. I think that’s a good sign for the long term life of the console, particularly as it seems like it’s getting a lot of great support from 3rd parties. As far as doing a Switch version of future titles, assuming it continues to be a successful platform for 3rd parties we’ll definitely keep it in mind.
Finally, is there a big pitch you’d like to give out readers for TFIF on Switch?
A big pitch! I guess I’ll say that I think the Switch is a really great platform for The Flame in the Flood, and the ability to play a river survival game while maybe even surviving on a river is pretty compelling.
We'd like to thank Forrest Dowling for his time; The Flame in the Flood launches on 12th October on the Switch eShop.