Quotes from T.S Eliot and Theodore Roosevelt aren’t the texts one expects to see in the middle of a video game, but “The Flame in the Flood” has literary ambitions.
Set in the American South, “The Flame in the Flood” is a journey of survival on a river. It takes place in the future – probably. The look is a bit timeless, with an art style that appears crafted from construction paper. The colors are muted, the world is rural and boney wolves are lurking in the darkness, their red eyes flashing in the shadows.
The game, the first from six-person indie studio the Molasses Flood, was shown at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas. It wasn’t the only game at the conference to boast a backdrop of cultural exploration. Whereas “The Flame in the Flood” is steeped in Americana, “Jotun” is focused on Norse mythologies.
Designers of each cite historical, scholarly works when discussing the games, indicative of an independent gaming universe that’s increasingly taking a wide-angle lens to game development. Both games look beyond the worlds commonly found in more mainstream games – those working on “The Flame in the Flood” stress the universe is not post-apocalyptic – and find there’s richness in history.
“I love the literary aspect of it,” says “The Flame in the Flood” developer Damian Isla, a veteran of the industry who worked on games such as “Halo 2” and “Bioshock Infinite” before going indie.
“What’s more Americana than a river journey? It goes all the way back to Huck Finn or Lewis and Clark. There’s so many influences there, and I’m susceptible to literary origins.”
Indeed, Isla said when studio founder Forrest Dowling first told him about the project, “he more or less had me at ‘river game.’”
Still early in development – the game will be released as a work-in-progress for PCs this summer – “The Flame in the Flood” is ultimately planned to make its way to the Xbox One. It will be different each play-through, as the river is randomly generated, and like “Jotun,” is part of a new wave of indie games boasting a female lead.
The star of “Jotun” is Thora, described by designer William Dube as a “badass Viking with a huge two-handed axe.” The anchor of “The Flame in the Flood” is Scout, who’s accompanied only by a dog (don’t worry, the dog doesn’t die) and a raft. She’s constantly in danger, though, described on the game’s successfully-funded Kickstarter page as “a sack of food wrapped in a buckskin parka and cute hat.”
As players explore the deep South, Scout’s face will telegraph what she needs, be it food, water or shelter. Isla says the team studied survival books and real-life survival tactics, as nature will be an unpredictable force in the game.
“There’s a tension between nature and people,” he said. So don’t, for instance, drink standing water. And try to avoid “toxic sludge.”
Though American society in the game is struggling to survive, Isla said the game is based on present-day locales.
‘The way we usually describe the setting is a post-societal American South,” he said. “I don’t really want to say post-apocalyptic as it’s not really about the end of the world. Already there are places that exist where society is only kind of there and people live on the fringes — the backwaters. That’s a place that exists in America today. This is sort of a story of exploring a whole world of that.”
The country tone will be informed by a soundtrack by Chuck Ragan, best-known for his work in punk band Hot Water Music. As a solo artist, Ragan’s work is more acoustic and roots-based.
“I think he very much expresses the geography we’re looking for,” Isla said.” He has roots in Louisiana and Cajun culture. There’s a rustic tone to his work.”
Playing through “The Flame in the Flood” reminded me of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean before the first drop, where a lonely cabin is spotted and a solitary banjo is heard. One could sense the humidity, if one couldn’t actually feel it.
In contrast, “Jotun’s” world is icy cold. Also successfully funded via Kickstarter, “Jotun” used Nordic texts as a jumping off point for a story in which main character, Thora, must redeem herself for dying an “inglorious death,” said Dube. The game is in development for home computers.
Dube said he wanted to create a game that would recall ancient works such as “The Divine Comedy” or “Beowulf.”
“I always thought they were really epic,” Dube said. “When I was doing research for the game I stumbled upon Norse mythology and the more I read the more I realized how crazy the stories are. You have cows with poison rivers coming out of the udders, Thor dressing up as a bridesmaid to smash giant skulls with his hammer — really cool stuff. The more I read the more I knew we had to make a game in this setting.”
The game promises to be challenging. The scene shown at SXSW pitted Thora and her ax against a giant. She was clearly out-matched, as was I. In three tries, the giant continued to get the best of me. Thora in the game is stuck in a purgatory, hoping to make it to Valhalla.
In each game the narrative is light, but the lore is steeped in past stories that have been handed down from generation to generation. Whether it’s the American South or a frigid afterlife, these are uncommon locales for games.
“I was really surprised at how many stories are unexplored,” Dube said. “Viking culture and Norse mythology are relatively underused in popular culture. That was the biggest surprise to me, to see how rich it was compared to how little it was used.”
We’re at South by Southwest until Sunday. Join us at latimes.com/sxsw for ongoing coverage of the festival.
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