One Perfect Moment in Gaming explores what makes games so special through examination of one moment that defines or shapes a game. These are moments in the story, gameplay, or experience that stick with you, and which could only be achieved in the medium of video games.
To me one of the most important ingredients of games that truly leave an impact is not talked about nearly enough: the music. Games have come a long way from sixteen-measure, looping chip-tunes. Some, like the Elder Scrolls or Halo series, have crafted orchestral suites that rival the best Hollywood has to offer. The games with music that truly stand out, though, use their soundtrack to create a world entirely their own, whose distinct feel and texture is as evident to the ear as the eye. When art and gameplay intersect in just the right way with just the right soundtrack, a single music cue can create an absolutely perfect moment in gaming.
Indie games especially have proven that it doesn’t take a big budget or a hundred-piece orchestra to create an unforgettable soundscape. Take Supergiant Games’ breakout hit Bastion, which dazzled with a unique and perfect blend of electronica and western frontier-inspired sounds anchored by a few gorgeous campfire songs on solo guitar. Then there’s Thomas Was Alone, which redefined what chip tunes could do with a soundtrack so lush and emotionally charged that it helped imbue an orange rectangle with a true personality.
Now add another to the list: Molasses Flood’s Kickstarter-funded debut, The Flame in the Flood. This is a survival game in which you play the titular “flame,” a girl lost in an apocalyptic flood with a torch, a faithful dog companion, and a makeshift raft. Your only goal is to survive, and since resources have become scarce in this world, your only option is to keep moving. You raft down the massive river as cars and houses float past, with only the hope that around the next bend is a landing where you can find some of the resources you need to survive (food, water, rest, and warmth).
This is a bleak situation, no doubt about it. You can only carry so much food and supplies on your raft, and if you fail to find enough food along the way, or you become careless and injure yourself, or you are beset by feral wolves, or you don’t find the clothing you need to survive the coming winter or—you get the idea—that could be the end of your journey. The friendly faces you meet along the way are few and far between, and most of them are pretty much cracked from being as alone as you are. What sets this game apart, though, is that it does not succumb to darkness and despair—this is a story about hope and the ability of the spirit to not only endure, but to thrive in the face of unimaginable adversity. In this world, you are not truly alone. You are accompanied throughout your journey by the subtle warmth of a guitar, the fiery peals of a fiddle, and the earnest, throaty lyrics of Chuck Ragan.
Molasses Flood teamed up with Chuck Ragan to develop the “alt-country” soundtrack, which I guess just means actually good country (shots fired!). The result is a full album of songs written for and inspired by your journey down the river in The Flame and the Flood. Ragan’s singing is like a subtler version of Logan Cunningham’s folksy, ever-present narration in Bastion. This game is overall a quiet one, as you explore a deserted world punctuated by the sounds of crows, wolves, or rainfall. But every now and then, as you push off on your raft and into the unknown, that comforting guitar starts strumming, and Chuck Ragan begins to sing. He acts as part Greek chorus, part guardian angel, helping you to endure as you brave the fast waters. His songs are reminders that even in the midst of disaster, there is beauty to be found in the world around you and freedom to be cherished in the moving water beneath you.
The Flame and the Flood is a game of ups and downs. The survival gameplay and visual art direction are great, but what makes this game sublime is a moment. When you are at your lowest, when the sun is down, the rain is falling, and you are slowly starving as you strain to keep your raft afloat in the rapids, when you need it the most, that’s when Chuck Ragan strikes up a chord and pushes you along with a song that reminds you that you are not alone, and you have the strength to carry on. Unless you actually do drown in which case…you can start over. But you get what I mean. This harmony between the bleak reality of survival and the vitality of the human spirit is what elevates The Flame and the Flood from other survival games out there, and it would not be possible without Chuck Ragan’s perfect soundtrack.