Poverty & Powerlessness Part 2 – Little Inferno

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work, or scared of losing their job and every day is colder than the last. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep guns under the counter. Punks are running wild into the street. There’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe, and our food is unfit to eat. We sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster over the smoke stacks tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes and that thick snow clouds are rolling in from all directions as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

We know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore, we just stare into the fire for hours and days. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is ‘Please! At least leave us alone in our living rooms! Let me have my toaster, and my TV, and my steel-belted radials and my Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace and I won’t say anything. Just leave me alone’ Well I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to turn around! I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest, I don’t want you to riot, I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the streets and the smoke stacks. All I know is that first, you’ve got to turn around! You’ve got to get mad! You’ve gotta say: ‘I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value!’

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs, I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

You can find the first part of this essay here.

That wasn’t as seamless as it could have been, I know. Still, I contaminated one of my favourite speeches of all time with quotes from Little Inferno, because I think the game is a softer, less aggressive (and less ambitious) version of many of the same arguments of that speech, and of the film The Network as a whole. In particular, the theme of awakening, of seeing things for what they really are and moving outside of our comfort zone, beyond entertainment, in order to act in the ‘real’ world is common to both works. The main difference, though, is that while the film is preoccupied with socio-political action first and foremost, Little Inferno speaks primarily to the individual. The plot arc, on a first reading, concerns the ethical choice of what to do with our life and our time, and the recognition that some things hold us back from achieving our potential, no matter how comfortable and cosy they may feel.

Little Inferno is about 3 hours long. For the first 2 hours and a half, it makes a very specific and circumscribed argument, and only during the last 30 minutes, when the game opens up, it extends the same argument to other structures and systems. Therefore, before we can interrogate the game on the theme of social powerlessness we have to follow it on its own terms and explore what it says about the relationship between ourselves and the entertainment we consume.

Escapism

(For a quick rundown of the game, I recommend Errant Signal’s video. I don’t agree with a couple of his arguments, but I’ll also be repeating a few of his observations.)

Little Inferno uses its cute graphics and its playful mood to make its central argument palatable to people who’d otherwise call it “preachy” or “pretentious”. I’m not its primary audience – and indeed I’d never have played it if it wasn’t a subversion of its core mechanics – because the healthy response to the game’s first section is feeling bored, quitting the game and doing something else, and LI acknowledges that. We buy things. We wait for them to be delivered. We open them. We burn them. We get more money to buy more things. If we burn certain combinations of objects, we get an achievement. If there weren’t successful games based on that grind, you wouldn’t think such blatant Skinner Box manipulation would work on anybody. It does work. It works on most people, actually, myself included. But that’s old news.

In the first section of the game, we sit in front of the fire, going through that grind. Only three people communicate with us: Miss Nancy, the creator of Little Inferno, the weather man and our neighbour Sugar Plumps. Miss Nancy is a lot like her creation: she wants us to feel loved and protected. Occasionally she gently reminds us that we can’t sit there forever but above all she wants us to enjoy ourselves. “Do you know what’s cozier than a crackling fire?” A hug, from a real human being, she answers, as she gives us a hug coupon, a strange mix of human warmth and corporate impersonality that characterizes both her and her toy. Most players will burn their coupon like they’re invited to burn everything else. Later on, she asks: “Have you enjoyed yourself? Little Inferno was designed to be a warm and safe toy… but what happens after that?”

The weather man acts as a counterpoint to Miss Nancy: he makes her invitation more alluring by reminding us, like the news, that the outside world (the ‘real’ world) is scary and undesirable. “Every day colder than the last…” and “It’s been snowing for as long as anyone can remember”, he repeats. The warmth of the Little Inferno is made all the more valuable, then, by emphasizing how cold it is outside. And there’s nothing else, outside, nothing but the cold and the snow. We don’t receive any other news from anybody else, it’s as if nothing is happening, so, really, why should we go anywhere?

Both Miss Nancy and the weather man keep reminding us that “there is bound to be an end” to our time with the Little Inferno, and keep alluding to some unspecified danger that, in retrospect, we could sum up as wasting one’s time and one’s potential, remaining stuck in the loop of the game’s mechanics, not being able to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t etc. However, their warnings are not particularly compelling, and they’re not interested in whether we take their words seriously; they don’t urge us to change our behaviour based on what they say. Their main concern is to be comfortable, inoffensive. They never interfere with the player’s pleasure, they never disrupt the player’s status quo and worldview, even when they disagree with it. Unlike the opening speech I quoted, they warn us, but then they do leave us alone. And in practice, despite their good intentions, they end up reinforcing the same mechanism they’re warning us about.

The situation at this point is like the one we see in the trailer: the kids are invited to turn their back to the cold and scary world and stare into the fire, which slowly ends up consuming not only their toys, but their house and even their bodies. The surreal twist of the ad is at once funny and uncanny, and the cheerful music just keeps playing in spite of everything.

And then we have Sugar Plumps, the player character’s neighbour. She is lively, energetic, curious. She enjoys her Little Inferno (“It’s so warm I could stay here forever”, “I can stare into the fire forever”) but she exceeds it: the LI is not enough for her, she seeks out other human beings. And here is already the first major difference between the Player Character (PC) and Sugar Plumps: she writes to the PC, but the PC never writes back. She is active, we are passive.

SP is a little disappointed, but she keeps writing. Good-natured and a little naïve as she is, she makes positive assumptions about the PC, which she comes to consider a friend. Soon, in one of her letters, SP shows us another worry of her: “Are you still there…? You’re reading all my letters really carefully, right? You’re not just skipping through them and burning them up are you? One day I might say something really important.” She is preoccupied with meaning and the communication of that meaning. In conversation, our answers and our body language provide feedback as to how receptive we are of what we’re hearing. Lacking any kind of response from the player, Sugar Plumps feels compelled to ask: are we still capable of distinguishing between what’s valuable and what isn’t? Are we still capable of listening to another human being, of caring about what they say, or have we become so engrossed in the game’s mechanics that we are skipping through all the bits of human content? Have we lost our empathy to the Little Inferno?

Look at her. Look at her smile. She’s sooooo happy. How can you not love her? ❤

Sugar Plumps finds value in relating to other human beings: “I want to visit everyone and ask billions of questions!” But the Little Inferno is holding her back: “where does all the time go?” At one point, she notices she can’t turn around, she can’t look away from the fire, even if she wants to, and neither can we. She feels so compelled to keep playing that her dreams remain unrealized.

Inevitably, her excess of energy means she ends up setting her house on fire. For a moment we suspect she may be dead, but then she writes again. At this point the game borrows heavily from imagery of Plato’s cave: “It hurts to open my eyes”. Sugar Plumps, liberated from the shackles of the Little Inferno, looks at the real world, and comes back to us with newfound insight. “The toys we burned don’t matter. They were designed to not matter. Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace was designed to not matter”. Only a few things matter, and those have acquired their value through the friendship between the PC and SP. The key to being liberated from the Little Inferno is paying attention to what matters: we have to remember the gifts we have sent her, and burn them together. “Some things are more special than other things. It’s time to burn down your house”

Through the violent, traumatic act of burning down our house, we gain freedom and we turn to the world. But what were the roots of our enslavement? Well, partially the Little Inferno is to blame. And most of all, we are to blame, for seeking comfort to the point of forgetting truth, and meaning. The player kept playing even though the game wasn’t interesting or engaging. I’m convinced entertainment and art (the line separating the two is blurry, these days) should serve one’s life, and improve it. What happens in the fiction of Little Inferno (and what often happens in real life, with the kind of games Little Inferno is parodying) is that our entertainment doesn’t improve our lives, but replaces them. It chokes them by taking all our time away, eliminating human contact and stifling our potential, our growth, holding us back from the people we could be, with the excuse that the world is cold.

But in a very real sense, no one is to blame. No one actively set out to imprison us by means of addiction to an entertainment product: like Zizek (in “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”) observes about “They live”, to turn away from truth and fall into comfortable acceptance is our natural state, not a manipulation. “We, in a way, enjoy our ideology.” And if it hadn’t been the LI, we probably would have found something else to put in its place. Miss Nancy was well-intentioned in creating Little Inferno, and it’s hard to blame her. The weather man was only doing his job, and it’s hard to blame him too. We actually received multiple warnings from them both. There is no capital-e ‘Evil’ to be found in any one character. [1]

At the same time, no one really did enough. No one cared enough to shake us awake. If it wasn’t for Sugar Plumps’ vitality and curiosity, we would still be playing, like everyone else. Only SP insisted not to leave us alone in our small, comfortable world: she disrupted our status quo and saved us.

Be Human

After our house burns down, the game turns into a short Point & Click adventure. In this section we meet 5 characters, and we also hear back from Sugar Plumps one last time. Immediately, the black and white aesthetic provides a striking contrast to the colourful fireplace we were used to.

Firstly we stumble upon the mail man, who has been delivering toys for us to burn all along, without us even noticing. (“Excellent, discreet service!”) He is polite, but ultimately unsympathetic to the fact that we’ve lost our house and we’re clearly under great shock. He almost comes across as brainwashed: the ways marketing lingo creeps into his language is unsettling. When we tell him that our house burned down, he replies: “Don’t forget to file a Change of Address Form with your local post office!” In a way he cares about us enough to remember us among all the people he must be delivering to, but that doesn’t seem to be genuine human care as much as the manifestation of his business’ customer service ideals, which he has completely internalized. We’re all going to be fine, he repeats, but he doesn’t seem to be really believing it as much as he seems to be sweeping any kind of worry under the rug.

He leaves us SP’s last letter, in which she reminisces the past with a touch of nostalgia (“We thought we’d never run out of toys… we thought we’d never run out of time”) before moving on: “There’s a whole world out there. You can go as far as you want, but you can never go back”. This refrain will mark this entire section.

We then meet the Lever Operator of Tomorrow Corporation, who proudly announces that “The gates are secure!” Again, marketing lingo and slogans creep into his language (“Excellent networking opportunities” “You might recognize Tomorrow Corporation toys as…”) but above all, he has romanticized and mystified his job to the point that he cannot recognize his disposability as a worker and his insignificant position within his workplace and within society as a whole. When we ask him if he used to be a bus driver, he replies: “Do you recognize my work? Yes, I seem to have made quite a name for myself in the Lever Operating Business”. There is even a “Future Innovations in Lever Operating Technology Conference”, where he’ll be giving a seminar. Eventually we ask him to open the gates (“The one thing I do better than anybody else”), but he needs us to “ask again with drama”, and, when he’s finally satisfied with our request, he wonders: “Let’s see what happens this time”, as if he hadn’t done it a million times already. Admittedly, opening the gates is an elaborate ceremony with lots of button pushing involved, but, again, that’s another level of mystification engineered to hide the prosaic nature of what he is doing.

Inside Tomorrow Corporation we find the secretary: she speaks the way automated answering machines speak, and like everyone else, she lacks any kind of human empathy. When we tell her that our house burned down, she asks us to fax the documents (“I don’t have a fax machine; I don’t think anybody does”) we were supposed to have in that very house, or they cannot do anything about it. She is also writing an autobiographical novel while working, “In each brief pause. Between. Each. … … Word.” We cannot go up the elevator, but we do anyway. She doesn’t notice us, and doesn’t seem to care.

We meet Miss Nancy. Unlike the other characters, she doesn’t express herself entirely in corporate language. On the contrary, she is very emphatic and expressive. But even though “you look like you could use a HUG!” she won’t hug us unless we have the coupon from before. She explains that “The whole city is slowing down, and then one day it will stop. Frozen!” She laments that time flies, and many of her dreams remain unrealized, but still she invites us to never lose our vitality, never remain fixated on something, but always “DREAM BIGGER!!!” She leaves on a rocket, chasing her dreams.

Finally, we exit Tomorrow Corporation. We explore the world and we find the weather man: “Breaking weather forecast: a clear horizon. […] I can take you UP UP UP out of this city. But then you’re on your own [and] you’ll have to pay as you go.” We accept his offer and he flies us away: “This is the beginning of something… brilliant!”

Escaping Escapism

The player is in a privileged position: they escape the prison of their house, and then they escape the city entirely. The Mail Man, the Lever Operator and the Secretary are people who haven’t escaped, or haven’t been saved. Remember how Sugar Plumps was preoccupied with the player reading her letters carefully, and understanding their meaning? Those three characters are incapable of listening. They’re not even selfish, they simply lost their capacity for empathy to the point that they don’t feel human. Nobody cares that our house burned down. Nobody helps us. Nobody can hear us over the slogans they regurgitate all the time.

The Mail Man is a cog in the machine, the Platonic ideal of customer service made flesh. But he has lost everything else about him: he is not a person who works as a Mail Man, he is just a Mail Man. So is the Secretary: the fact that she is writing a novel in a way is laudable, it means she still has some energy within her that exceeds her day job, but she completely ignores the real human being in front of her in the process. The Lever Operator has lost any kind of perspective on what he does, he has romanticized his position and created a whole grand narrative about lever operators, together with his colleagues, and their conferences, to make his work look like something meaningful when it isn’t. He is hiding from himself how mundane and banal his job is, how replaceable, irrelevant and powerless he is.

Three Fourths Home’s starting point was poverty, and it articulated the consequences of poverty, including fear, depression, emotional costs, the shrinking of opportunities and being pushed towards perpetuating structures of oppression in order to survive. In Little Inferno, the starting point is fear, and escapism. Nobody is coerced, but, gently, everyone is pushed towards whatever reality is most comfortable for them. For the player character it was the Little Inferno, because the world outside was cold. For the Lever Operator it’s believing that his job is particularly meaningful. For the Mail Man it’s compulsively repeating that everything is going to be alright and to focus short-sightedly on delivering excellent customer service. For the Secretary it’s focusing on her novel while giving everyone a standardized reply, like an answering machine. Everyone is perpetuating the system uncritically, apathetically – we feel that because no one deigns to help us or even listen to us – because it gives them meaning and security. Once you have a job, you can focus on the task and forget about how cold and scary the world is. You can shut down and become a machine, and just go through the grind. The mechanism is the same as the one that makes the Little Inferno fireplace “warm”, outside of the metaphor of the fire: the grind is comfortable. And of course, these three characters have practically no influence in the structures they work for: they’re at the bottom of the hierarchy. And these structures, like the Little Inferno, stifle their potential as human beings, they keep them from being the people they could be.

We left Kelly hoping to be hired for a position much below her qualification, out of necessity. Let’s say nothing bad happens with the Tornado, and she gets a job as a secretary, or as a Lever Operator. She has achieved economic security for herself and her family, and that’s great. But she probably feels dissatisfied, because her job is unfulfilling, and yet it takes away all of her energies and most of her time. Maybe it even goes against her morality. She can’t quit, though, she needs the money, her family needs the money. So, either she spirals into severe depression, or she tries to feel more fulfilled. That’s what the Lever Operator is doing: by mystifying his work, he gives it a meaning and an importance it doesn’t have, and feels better with himself. The secretary probably hates her job, and maybe she doesn’t like having to answer us the way she does; but she’s trying her best to do something fulfilling with the time she has.

And Miss Nancy can invite us to dream bigger, but the fact is, some people cannot afford to dream bigger, they cannot afford to pack and leave in a rocket to chase their dreams.

The weather man is the only one who keeps looking at the city for what it really is and doesn’t flee it, although he doesn’t try to do much about the apathy and isolation that dominate it either. And when he offers to fly us out, he warns us: it may be the beginning of something brilliant, “but then you’re on your own [and] you’ll have to pay as you go.”

All the people we meet, except Miss Nancy of course, have humble jobs that cannot possibly pay much. And LI’s society is one in which individuals are isolated from one another, much like in Three Fourths Home only the family existed. Sugar Plumps bridged that distance thanks to her vitality and curiosity (“I want to visit everyone and ask billions of questions!”) but that’s not the norm. Apathy is a defence mechanism: it’s attractive because the alternative can be extremely painful. What if the secretary had to feel guilty for every kid whose house burned down because of the Little Inferno that she can’t help? What if the Mail Man thought that the ‘excellent customer service’ he has to provide in order to keep his job had a negative influence on the lives of other people? What if the Lever Operator constantly reminded himself that his mundane job keeps him from living a fulfilling life, chasing his actual dreams? And what if Miss Nancy realized she is at the top of this chain, and that the toy she created is having a negative effect on kids, and the warning she put in the instructions to clear her conscience is not enough?

Little Inferno’s resolution consists in removing oneself from society, rejecting its systems and its false comforts, and assuming a critical perspective from the outside. It’s a painful, personal revolution: not only we leave its shackles behind, we leave our home and our toys and our friends behind, and we venture into the unknown, alone and scared, only motivated by the belief that it’s going to be worth it, somehow. That it’s going to be “brilliant”.

The next game we’re going to examine, A Postcard from Afthonia, has a more concrete and detailed vision of what it means to reject society’s oppressive systems, how it can be done, and what kind of hope we can allow ourselves.

[1] That view is more charitable than I’m willing to concede: while many perpetuating harmful systems are in fact innocent, or better yet try to fight those systems from the inside, quite a few people working in entertainment are perfectly aware of the consequences of what they’re doing, and I’ve argued before that entertainment is often used as a weapon of mass distraction. Sometimes wilful, cynical manipulation is the most appropriate description for what is going on. In the middle, the line blurs into wilful ignorance: when one doesn’t know, but also chooses not to know or think about what one is doing.

This essay also lives at Blackman’n’Robin.
You can find part 3 here.

Thank you for reading. You’re a lovely human being.
Probably.
(I’m kidding, I’m sure you are)
Meow ❤

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