By coincidence of a liberal arts education I discovered “The Cave” (1920−2) by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, best known for his dystopian novel We, in a class on Russian science fiction two years before striking sparks in Kyle Gabler’s game Little Inferno (2012). After toasting before digital flames my thoughts draw me back to Zamyatin’s story of a couple trying to survive an ice age locked over the city of St. Petersburg. The comparison between these two narratives, 92 years apart, confronts longstanding problems of human relationships and choice. Within Gabler’s charming gothic world is an ideology of oppression that stands alongside radical struggles of Russian literature. Understanding these stakes suggests that human empathy and meaningful relationships developed by video game narratives must work to resist the objective, mechanical structure of the medium.
“The Cave” begins with “glaciers” and ends with a “mammoth”, symbols of the gargantuan changes Communism brought to Russian life. Stuck in one of the many apartment buildings-turned-caverns, Martin Martinych and his wife, Masha, worship at the altar of their “short-legged, rusty-red, squat, greedy cave-god: a cast-iron stove” (409). Waiting sacrifices of furniture, books, and sheet music (Scriabin’s Opus 74) lie strewn around the heat source. These items have been stripped of any cultural value and simply wait to be burned.
The similarities to Little Inferno are already apparent in the setting and scattered objects. The weatherman constantly warns of the falling mercury and the mammoth Tomorrow Corporation roams the outside world while common folk barely manage inside gray rows of houses. As the video critic Errant Signal describes, Little Inferno’s catalog represents toys, games, books, food, and everyday tools relabelled as fancy kindling. A majority of the population stays inside their homes and burns cultural artifacts for entertainment and warmth. The sleeping face at the back of the fireplace parallels the stove god, omnipresent but gentle, because it knows you have no other choice but to burn. Despite capitalism priding itself on the tenet of consumer choice, the hearth god revels in its monopoly over the game mechanics. The only actions it permits are ordering and burning. Only after the climactic last pyre is the player liberated with actions not sanctified by Tomorrow Corporation: walking, talking, and listening.
The terrifying obsession with burning also leads to consuming and destroying relationships. Unlike the Martinychs, who maintain fragile, face-to-face communication with their starving landlord and and neighbors, the mechanics of Inferno encourage the protagonist to sacrifice evidence of human interaction. For want of limited shelf space, all letters beg to be tossed to the flames to make room for more expensive firewood ordered from the catalog. Ironically, the most difficult “challenge” of the game is saving Miss Nancy’s coupon you receive in the mail redeemable for one free hug when you finally meet her at the game’s conclusion. But there’s no such thing as a free hug, in order to embrace Miss Nancy at the end of the game you must sacrifice shelf space to store the coupon; shelf space that would otherwise be used to store items you queued from the catalog. Human interaction only becomes valuable when monetized as an economic incentive of long term reward. Within Little Inferno’s order-wait-burn mechanic cycle the player must cynically accept that human intimacy will slow them down.
In comparison, Zamyatin challenges human love against communal morality. To celebrate Masha’s birthday by making tea, Martin goes to his neighbors and asks for more firewood, but the family denies his request. Nevertheless, the freezing husband swipes several logs by the door and escapes back to his own apartment to light them:
two Martin Martinyches grappled in a struggle to the death: the one, of old, of Scriabin, who knew: he must not-and the new one, of the cave, who knew: he must. He of the cave, with teeth grinding, trampled, strangled the other-and Martin Martinych, breaking his nails opened the door, struck his hand into the firewood‑a log, a fourth, a fifth,-under his coat, in his belt, into the pail.
Fans of dystopia can recognize how Zamyatin lays out the fundamental trope of post-apocalyptic culture: “civilized” humanity versus barbaric survivalism. Martin’s dilemma captures the post-Revolution plight of scarcity and rations. Zamyatin demands the readers ask themselves, “should he burn?”, “should he steal, and unravel society and morality to stay warm?”. Halfway across the world, the myopic consumerism we view in the fireplace of Little Inferno trifles with the thought, “How can you not burn?”, “How can you not want to reach the next catalog?” “That’s where all the fun is”.
The singular (non)option lends itself to many metaphoric interpretations of Inferno as a one-way trek. Analogy to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave insists on the singular path of knowledge, that one can only move from darkness into light (Jubert). At Pop Matters, Nick Dinicola suggests the game is an uplifting tale of childhood, a path guaranteed to end in maturity. Even The Ontological Geek’s previous piece on the game by Jackson Wagner suggested it was a meditation on entropy and the unstoppable trickle of heat out the chimney. All these diverging responses to Inferno compel my own structural comparison of the two texts. The game wants to be just like the mailman, placing each package “right beside you, right beside the fire” so you never have to turn your head. I reject his “excellent, discreet service”—no single interpretation can capture Inferno. The evidence for one interpretation lends itself to another, forever charging the player to remain critical of a system that wants to remain inconspicuous and let us keep on consuming.
The final act of Little Inferno gives us the pleasure of escaping the system and finally connecting with the other characters. The sudden new option of dialogue gives voice to both the neutered player avatar and the many people who make the Little Inferno operation a reality. Nick Dinicola’s second article, “We’re More Than Our Job”, explores how the game creates empathy for its non-playable characters. Dinicola observed that each character appears in the fire simulation but then reappears in the end game to develop their own motives. The Gate Keeper, a pair of Once-ler-like hands, first appears as the maniacal driver of a toy bus but later returns as the gatehouse operator of the Tomorrow Land Corporation with a noble affinity for pulling levers. In the next scene, the player meets the secretary and author of a book titled The Terrible Secret, she now works on the sequel and one can only wonder if it the fiery fate of her books was a direct order from her higher ups. For a majority of the game these characters were objectified by the fireplace catalog but now, outside the rules of burning, they can express themselves and receive respect for their labor. In a true Aristotelian fashion, Inferno ends with absolute reversal as the protagonist stands in the weatherman’s balloon and experiences the dynamic scenery in the company of another human. In place of consuming, we are actually living.
In conclusion, I do not propose the designers of Little Inferno had Zamyatin in mind, nor am I so naive to suggest “The Cave” was the seminal work of Ice Age dystopia. The value derives from structure not intent. Both works use urban tundra to represent the conflicts of their respective societies and then explore how the environment places tension on traditional human relationships. The routine burning is catastrophic, yet there seems to be no way out. For Zamyatin, zero-sum survival comes at the cost of culture and relationships for characters whose only option is to feed the fire. Furthermore, Inferno’s self-aware procedure interrogates the very act of developing a ubiquitous system of rules so often hailed by critics such as myself as the foundation of the medium. Such systems will inherently commodify the world to their own measure of value at the cost of ignoring the characters who inhabit the world.
If we are to say there has been any progress between the narratives, perhaps it lies with the hug coupon. The option to embrace the corporate figurehead and mastermind behind a planetary blizzard is a radical choice of storytelling. The game’s mechanics suggest Miss Nancy is the evil incarnation of Zynga, freemium games, and microtransactions; due to her oppression the player lost everything to fire and finds the world to be an icy shell. Nevertheless, the narrative has the gall to reject the rules of play carved out by the god-like designer—our own pot-bellied stoves with LCD screens—and let kindness surmount design.
Dinicola, Nick. “There is Bound to Be an End: Life With ‘Little Inferno’ ”. Popmatters. Popmatters Media Inc. 8 March. 2013. Web. 28 May 2014. <http://www.popmatters.com/post/169095-little-inferno/>.
Dinicola, Nick “We’re More Than Our Job: The Characters of ‘Little Inferno’. Popmatters. Popmatters Media Inc. 1 April. 2013. Web. 11 July 2014. <http://www.popmatters.com/column/169422-were-more-than-our-job-the-characters-of-little-inferno/>.
Jubert, Tom. “Little Inferno & Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.” Plot Is Gameplay’s Bitch. Blogspot, 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 May 2014. <http://tom-jubert.blogspot.com/2013/01/little-inferno-platos-allegory-of-cave.html>.
Tomorrow Corporation. Little Inferno. Tomorrow Corporation. 2012. Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, Wii U.
Wagner, Jackson. “Entropy, Austerity, and Little Inferno.” The Ontological Geek. N.p., 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 May 2014. <http://ontologicalgeek.com/entropy-austerity-and-little-inferno/>.
Williams, Robert C. “The Russian Revolution and the End of Time: 1900–1940.” Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas 43.3 (1995): 364–401.JSTOR. Web. 27 May 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/41049522?ref=search-gateway:eeb5476aef2389ba14324718c8f07f1c>.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. ““The Cave”” Trans. Gleb Struve. Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction. By Alexander Levitsky and Martha T. Kitchen. New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007. 408–16. Print.
Errant Signal- Little Inferno. Perf. Christopher Franklin. Errant Signal, 2012. Online Video Montage. Web. 27 May 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8nwRCW-tJU&feature=kp>