Concerning Little Inferno

by tigermanifesto

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I’ve got these old toys
I’ve got this box of memories
We’ll shove them in the fire
And breathe in the flaming potpourri
It’s little inferno just for me

“But I thought playing with fire was dangerous.”
“Well you’re right
But up out of your chimney
Way up in the sky
It’s been snowing for years
And we just don’t know why
Our world is getting colder
But there’s no need for alarm
Just sit by your fire
Burn all of your toys
And stay warm.”

Little Inferno’s cleverness is to a great extent summarized in the eerie advertising jingle you see above. I should probably give the game a more thorough introduction before getting too far ahead of myself. Playing the game is simple enough. A fireplace rests in front of you. You browse a catalog of items, buy the items, and burn them in the fire. Every item takes a certain amount of time to ship, and burning an object will give you more money than it originally cost to order. You take these profits and invest them in more stuff to burn. The upshot is that you stay nice and warm while getting cheap, digital, pyromaniacal thrills. Inside the fireplace cynicism rules without question. Everything from family photos, personal letters (your only contact with the outside world, at least at first), and ragged toys to modern lamps and cheap thriller novels are fodder for the fire. And if your house burns down? Well, let no one say that you weren’t warned. Besides, everything just floats up the chimney into the cold world outside. What makes you any different?

At a certain point, even a hardened predator like myself felt almost sickened by the sheer amount of wreckage I created in the fire. All of it seemed empty and pointless, and indeed the game tips its hand in this regard. The fire is pointless. Before its ravenous mouth all things are equal. It is only once you complete most of the game’s objectives that the world outside the fireplace begins to open up, and that world is an utterly different place. Out there, the world is slowing down and freezing over, the victim of some environmental catastrophe. The rich can escape for real, while the poor have to subsist on the Little Inferno, keeping their children unaware and warm in their houses. That is, until the houses burn down one by one. At that point, what is a child to do? The game’s answer to this question is not entirely satisfactory. Resonances with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax abound, but Little Inferno lacks most of that work’s didactic punch. Most of its narrative power derives from the absolute contradiction between the world inside the fireplace and the world outside of it. Inside, nothing matters. Outside, everything matters a great deal. Though most of what you do in this game turns out to be utterly frivolous, it serves as a mere prelude to game with far more on its mind than throwing plastic consumer crap on the fire.

Part of the game’s genius is how closely it connects the apparently opposite poles of sentimentality and cynicism. Don’t mistake me: I am not saying that the outside world is a sentimental one. Rather, the sentimental world of kitsch and manufactured pleasures–the catalogues, the bouncy mall music, the shiny–generate and sustain cynicism. Everything is interchangeable for everything else, just different means of earning more money to burn more stuff. It’s through constant repetition that the game insinuates its larger points for the player. The first dozen products are entertaining enough when burned, but after awhile pursuit of gold and little stamps that make shipping go faster become all-consuming drives. Nothing feels real, and it’s not until the world outside appears that you might begin to grasp the consequences of all the smoke you’re pushing into the air. It’s primarily a pretty nifty toy for burning things, but it manages to overturn its own frivolity by calling attention to it. Not bad for a glorified fireplace.

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