The Flame in the Flood is an adventure set on a river. It's also a roguelikian journey through a very different take on the post-apocalypse, where much of America has been swallowed up or separated by water, and where society as we know it has broken down. It's such an atypical vision of life after the apocalypse that referring to it as such doesn't feel right at all.
Whether or not you'll warm to the perma-death gameplay or the high stakes decision making is going to come down to personal taste, but the occasionally punishing gameplay is almost soothed by the richness of the visuals and the gorgeous musical accompaniment, which coalesce to create a challenging but engaging experience that's genuinely unlike anything else we've played before.
After a time spent floating through the early access process, The Molasses Flood's debut title launched in early 2016 on PC and Xbox One, following thereafter on PlayStation 4. Finally, this quirky adventure is making its way to a new port of call: the Nintendo Switch.
We've revisited the game in the wake of our interview below with designer Forrest Dowling, and found it to be a fine fit for Nintendo's hybrid console, with the portability of the Switch suiting the gameplay. Like so many rogue-inspired titles you can have a complete experience in one sitting, complete with highs, lows, and a grizzly/hilarious/frustrating/glorious death, but the way the systems interact in The Flame in the Flood also promotes careful and methodical play, especially if you're going to get the most out of the crafting system.
Speaking of which, there's a lot of depth here and you won't explore it fully until your well into a run. Having said that, it'll take repeat plays to really familiarise yourself with how it all fits together. Over the course of early access, The Molasses Flood improved the UI quite a bit, and in this latest (final?) version of the game, everything just about squeezes onto the small screen of the Switch when playing in handheld mode. The isometric viewpoint also fits nicely on both the small and big screens, and once again the pleasing art style captured by the studio shines.
All in all you'd have to say it feels right at home on the platform, and if you're looking for something to play while you wait for Super Mario Odyssey, then The Flame in the Flood certainly has plenty to offer (for more impressions of the game you can head this way for our original review).
But now, without further ado, here's our interview with Forrest Dowling, with whom we discuss the title he designed, the Nintendo Switch, and some of the people and games that have inspired him along the way.
GR: It's been roughly a year and a half since the launch of The Flame in the Flood, how has the game evolved over time?
FD: We've really not done a huge amount of changes. Some fixes, some quality of life improvements, smaller stuff. We largely made the game we wanted to, we're happy with how it turned out, and haven't felt a strong need to continue tinkering.
You're launching on Switch; has that felt like a natural home for the game?
I think so. The Flame in the Flood is the sort of game that fits well with both longer-form sessions and shorter bites. I think being able to drop in, maybe loot an island, and take a break, is the kind of experience we offer that the Switch does so well.
What are your thoughts on the platform in general as more indies flock to Nintendos new console?
It looks like the Switch is shaping up to be an awesome platform to play not only Nintendo's own games, but a lot of the best indies as well. If that becomes its strength that'd be great, as indie devs are small players going toe to toe with huge games on other platforms. Having a successful platform with a little more breathing room could be a great boon for indies.
Lots of devs have taken roguelike features and worked them into different types of games. How have these features impacted the design The Flame in the Flood?
I think that a lot of smaller devs in particular are drawn to rogue-like features for the same reason we were. They offer a way to get a lot more mileage and gameplay out of your content as opposed to a single authored storyline or campaign. If anything, those that came before us really did serve to say that it's OK to include features that maybe a few years prior would have felt too hardcore.
While there are undoubted benefits to those kinds of mechanics, what do you consider to be the biggest drawbacks?
I think it's so contextual that it's hard to say in any broad way, and it really depends on the mechanic in question and the context where it's used. For one example, random generation of a level is one of the defining aspects of a rogue-like if you want to go by the book. That's cool, and can result in endless spaces that you'll never be able to master, but you also lose the sense of meaning in the simple exploration of space. Wandering endless random spaces doesn't have meaning in the way that exploring a space built by a person to communicate an idea does. Also, it's contextual in relation to gameplay. I used to be a level designer who worked on first-person shooters, and I've yet to see a randomly generated level that would serve as a great encounter space for an FPS. I'm not saying it's impossible, but any problem that hasn't been solved yet that's so obviously out there is probably pretty hard to tackle.
Your studio has plenty of triple-A experience, but you've been indie for some time now. How has the transition continued and do you miss the big team atmosphere at all?
I think it keeps going well. The longer I do it, the less I feel like I could ever go back to a giant AAA team. That being said our plan is to grow going forward, but not to anywhere near the scale of where we were in AAA even 5 years ago. I think maybe the only thing I really miss is some of the things related to larger scale. Immense resources perhaps, the ability to take on really huge problems, the ability to leverage global networks of QA and testing resources, that sort of thing.
What were your favourite kinds of games growing up, and is there one or two in particular that were really important to you and that informed your professional career?
As is typical of someone my age... I'm 37... I grew up playing the full run of home consoles. Atari, NES, Genesis, N64. When I was younger I just played whatever I could get or whatever I got hyped about reading Nintendo Power. I never really thought about making games as a career though. Like a lot of people my age I just thought games kind of magically came from Japan. I'd say that the most important games for me professionally that informed my career are pretty run of the mill answers. Deus Ex as it came at a time when I hadn't played games for a while and was just getting back into it, and I felt like in the few years I was away that suddenly games could be adult and serious and about big ideas. I also loved how much expression it allowed for, which informs my practice to this day. The other was easily Half-Life 2, for a lot of reasons, but most directly because I really learned how to make games using the source SDK, and wouldn't have the job I do now if I hadn't spent years after work building levels for HL2DM.
Similarly, are there any creators, whether in games or working in other media, that really inspire your work?
There's a lot of people I look up to. Outside of games, I have favourites like the Coen brothers, and inspirations that hit for specific projects. In games, there's almost too many to count. I'd love for people who work with me to talk about me the way people talk about Sid Meier. I'd love to be able to execute on a complete gameplay vision like Harvey Smith. I'd love to have the business savvy of Jamie Cheng. I'd love to have the almost superhuman production skill of Rod Fergusson. It's weird to think about, because my work isn't just game design these days, it's running a studio, pitching projects, predicting the future of the market, planning... all sorts of stuff, so I guess it makes sense that I'd look up to people from a variety of disciplines.
What was your first credit as a game maker and what did you learn during that development process that has stayed with you to this day?
Frontlines: Fuel of War. I feel like the foundation for everything I know about game dev was set on that project. Not every lesson was good, there are certainly some never again type lessons related to maybe workflow, or collaboration with art which wasn't super great on that project. This is boring, but one of the simplest ones that's been largely unmodified was just how to run and use the results from a usability test to get feedback on how to improve your game.
What's next for The Molasses Flood?
Top secret stuff for now. We are working on something new, it's just way too early to go into any details.