The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold.
— Jack London, “To Build a Fire”
Whenever I am teaching the philosophy of the American Naturalists in my literature classroom, this passage is the one that I try to focus my students’ attention on in order to exemplify the attitude that the naturalists held about man’s place in the universe. A lot of my students make the mistake of assuming that a writer who is a naturalist simply likes to tell stories about nature, which is, I suppose, easy to do if you are looking at stories like London’s “To Build a Fire” or something like Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” However, the term actually derives from the discipline of the naturalist, one way of describing a species of scientists of the nineteenth century.
Charles Darwin was a naturalist, what we more commonly would refer to these days as a biologist. The Origin of the Species was a text that made people rethink the relationship between man and nature, as the definition of a man changed from a creature made special by the divine to that of any other animal, subject to instinct, determined by his environment. This kind of thinking influenced the writers who would become known as the naturalists, who crafted stories that reflected not man’s unique place in the universe, but man as an organism functioning within systems much larger than himself, be those systems biological, natural, or social.
Some of these stories revolved around a conflict that could be defined in the most superficial sense as being stories about “man vs. nature.” However, in many ways, these are stories more about a conflict that man has with himself because he hasn’t yet come to realize the enormity of the universe and, thus, his powerlessness in it. The main character of “To Build a Fire” believes that he is smart enough to survive temperatures dipping below 50 degrees below zero in the Yukon. He isn’t and doesn’t.
I am reminded of the American naturalists as I play The Flame in the Flood, a roguelike and survival management sim. You take on the role of a young girl in the American South who is trying to survive by scavenging what supplies she can and rafting downriver in a region devastated by a catastrophic flood.
As I mentioned in my review of the game yesterday, certain aspects of the game, especially the need to monitor four basic needs, hunger, thirst, warmth, and rest, is a bit like playing The Sims, except The Sims is set in an environment that promises progress and success, white, suburban middle class America. Sure, your sims will struggle at times to juggle all of their needs and obligations, but eventually the circumstances of your “birth” into a rather well defined and safe system will permit you to rise, to get that promotion, to build that addition on your house.
The manner in which one’s class determines safety, health, and access to basic needs is reflected in the world of The Sims, being middle class makes it a heck of a lot easier to survive than not. The Flame in the Flood is something like The Sims, but features, instead, an environment that promotes only desperation and a realization that the you are a tiny dot on a planet. When the cold of space smites the tip of the planet that you are on, well, you are going to feel it, and it is ultimately wiser to realize that given the limitations determined by one’s circumstances and environment, you don’t have much say in the matter when it comes to determining your own fate.
The way that the game plays encourages this line of thinking, providing little to no real possessions to speak of, besides a raft and some scavenged saplings, cattails, and a mason jar full of dirty water to get your journey of “hope” for survival started, and unlike The Sims‘s model of a universe full of abundance and the potentiality of success in life, this is a simulation of subsistence living.
Just got some tiny lacerations while walking through some brambles? Oh, and you don’t have any rags and alcohol to combine to make a bandage? Don’t worry, it will heal in time, then you’ll have to deal with a staph infection. This is not a world stocked full of band-aids and antiseptic ointment.
The Flame in the Flood is a game of persistence, but, as noted, in the context of an environment that provides only subsistence at best — and deprivation at worst. I mentioned in my review that the game will seem very manageable for short bursts, but then one thing will go bad (like those tiny scratches), and then everything begins to spiral out of control. While the meters that represent hunger, thirst, warmth, and rest don’t diminish that rapidly when you are healthy, those lacerations coupled with an infection will make those meters plummet.
You will need more sleep, more food, and more water to fight the infection, but then you will discover that you don’t have any lumber to start a fire, so in order not to starve, you will need to eat raw meat to give your body the energy for that fight, which, of course, will lead inevitably to a belly full of parasites, and everything begins spiraling downwards once again, only even more rapidly.
This kind of naturalistic gameplay, though, is constantly reinforced by the river itself, the flood. Water is a force that we often don;t think of as being that big a deal, but every time you get on the river, you move in one direction. Your only choice is that direction. The river makes “decisions,” not you. Indeed, you might stop along one side of the river to scavenge in the wilderness. When you return to your raft, you spot a church (a place where that alcohol you might need as a disinfectant could be) on the other bank. Guess what? Despite choosing that direction to head in, the river will even more easily just sweep you on by it. It directs you. You do not direct it.
In a medium in which players so often demand more options, more abilities to make choices about who their characters are, about how they will play the game, the river in The Flame in the Flood (along with the fatalistic gameplay) relentlessly reminds you that you are one tiny blip of data in a much larger digital mechanism. Build a rudder, build a motor, you might have a few more choices in making it to some suitable scavenging sites. Still, though, you will always keep getting pressured down, down, down the river.
For someone who grew up in the arcade era, when every quarter led to an eventual loss in a game, three chances to die, I kind of appreciate the nasty and brutish qualities of roguelikes, and indeed, on top of all of these things, The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike. It offers the promise of permadeath in all but its easiest setting (and even then dying is consequential, see my review for more details). When playing in this way, a loss of progress and most items comes along with each lose-state, with each game over. The roguelike in some sense might be the most naturalistic form of the video game with its promise of death, failure, and the inevitability of loss.
However, while I miss the days when winning wasn’t inevitable (modern games with their continues and checkpoints often feel like they have no lose-state at all), a time when success was transient, nevertheless, achievement or success, accruing points, surviving for as long as possible contain some kind of heroism, as these are things governed by skill and practice, something seemingly to admire. The truth is that a game without any possible win-state or something to at least evaluate some measure of success really isn’t much of a game at all. A purely naturalistic game would not be much fun to play.
So while I’m comfortable with the idea of having my choices made limited in the context of a roguelike, I still do measure my success in the fact that I have to be more adaptable to prove my mettle. The roguelike is naturalistic in tone, but the “rules” of naturalism are that you, the individual, will lose. Thus, while The Flame in the Flood and roguelikes more generally can allow one to muse over determinism and fate at times, that kind of realism just can’t abide in video games. Because games have rules, because games promise win-states as part of those rules, games (even The Flame in the Flood) always return to naturalism’s opposite, some kind of idealism, some kind of romanticism.
The Flame in the Flood does have a purely naturalistic mode. It’s called Endless Quest, in which you merely survive for as long as you can. Failure will ultimately be the only ending that mode has, but with its campaign mode, which has a goal, a win-state defined as “reaching the end of the river,” well, it is called The Flame in the Flood.
Emblematic as the Flood is of limited choice, deterministic ends, and inevitablity, video games are, these days, unerringly examples of romanticism. When a man shakes his fist at the universe in a naturalistic text, the universe doesn’t even notice, as that man is ground to dust by its mechanisms. But when a man shakes his fist at the universe in a video game, there always remains the promise of possible victory.
Video games need flames in the face of floods. In the end, the real inevitability is that video games always adopt the philosophy of romanticism because it is a philosophy that leaves open the possibility of reward and the certainty of purpose. Video games always side with hope.