The Literary Embers of Little Inferno 1

By coin­ci­dence of a lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion I dis­cov­ered “The Cave” (19202) 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​.pop​mat​ters​.com/​p​o​s​t​/​169095​-​l​i​t​t​l​e​-​i​n​f​e​r​no/>.

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​.pop​mat​ters​.com/​c​o​l​u​m​n​/​169422​-​w​e​r​e​-​m​o​r​e​-​t​h​a​n​-​o​u​r​-​j​o​b​-​t​h​e​-​c​h​a​r​a​c​t​e​r​s​-​o​f​-​l​i​t​t​l​e​-​i​n​f​e​r​no/>.

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​/​l​i​t​t​l​e​-​i​n​f​e​r​n​o​-​p​l​a​t​o​s​-​a​l​l​e​g​o​r​y​-​o​f​-​c​a​v​e​.​h​tml>.

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://​onto​log​i​cal​geek​.com/​e​n​t​r​o​p​y​-​a​u​s​t​e​r​i​t​y​-​a​n​d​-​l​i​t​t​l​e​-​i​n​f​e​r​no/>.

Williams, Robert C. “The Russian Revolution and the End of Time: 19001940.” Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas 43.3 (1995): 364401.JSTOR. Web. 27 May 2014. <http://​www​.jstor​.org/​s​t​a​b​l​e​/​10​.​2307​/​41049522​?​r​e​f​=​s​e​a​r​c​h​-​g​a​t​e​w​a​y​:​e​e​b​5476​a​e​f​2389​b​a​14324718​c​8​f​07​f1c>.

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. 40816. Print.

Errant Signal- Little Inferno. Perf. Christopher Franklin. Errant Signal, 2012. Online Video Montage. Web. 27 May 2014. <https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​f​8​n​w​R​C​W​-​t​J​U​&​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​=kp>

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