Incrementing Towards Finitude: Playable Portraits of Late Capitalism Part 1
I’ve always been fascinated by artistic production that takes on the guise of corporate culture, from Andy Warhol’s The Factory studio in New York, to post-punk bands and labels like Public Image Ltd. and Factory Records in the U.K. to conceptual art collectives like General Idea and N.E. Thing Co. in my home of so-called Canada; this idea of “playing” capitalism. If there is a corollary in the indie games development space of the 2010’s to this 1960’s and 70’s phenomenon, it would have to be the Tomorrow Corporation as founded by Kyle Gabler, Allan Blomquist and Kyle Gray. In interviews the members of the Tomorrow Corporation occasionally take on the position of company employees rather than owners, situating themselves as performer-entertainers even in paratextual contexts. Meanwhile in their debut game Little Inferno, the fictionalized Tomorrow Corporation plays an important yet understated role in the game’s plot.
To lend in my analysis of Little Inferno and other games which explore similar themes, I am borrowing Cameron Kunzelman’s three aesthetic categories of finitude: bleakness, post-apocalypse and annihilation. While Kunzelman plays these out in linear temporal logical fashion, I will be applying them on a case by case basis. Additionally, my use of the term “late capitalism” is less derived from any particular thinker and more from how it has been taken up in the popular imagination in recent years. To me late capitalism presents a duality: both the fear that capitalism will never end and the knowledge that it is bound to, as all things are.
Little Inferno is often described as a puzzle game. Its gameplay revolves around the player burning objects in different combinations according to word clues within the titular Little Inferno “entertainment fireplace”. In practice the game shares a lot of similarities with the incremental/idle game genre, as much of the interaction centers around waiting for timers and accruing resources that invariably increase. Throughout the game the player corresponds with three characters via letters — Sugar Plumps, The Weather Man and Miss Nancy — the last of whom works for or perhaps runs the Tomorrow Corporation. The burning of objects continues until the player has solved every combination and cleared their inventory, at which point the Little Inferno malfunctions and burns down the graphical user interface along with the player’s house.
From then on the game switches from first person to third person perspective, as the formerly faceless protagonist–a small presumably male child–makes his way through the streets of the city towards the Tomorrow Corporation headquarters, getting into conversations with characters along the way. Here the burning of the protagonist’s house is an apocalyptic break in both the visual and ludic regimes of the game, as the colourful click-and-drag gameplay of the interior is replaced with adventure game-style wandering through a black-and-white exterior. While the city itself survives for the time being, Little Inferno’s endgame functions as post-apocalypse within Kunzelman’s aesthetic categories.
The protagonist finally arrives at Miss Nancy’s office, who tells him that the drops in temperature are “slowing down” the city and that one day it will be “Frozen!…Like a family photo.” Of course what she neglects to say is that this climate change is being caused by the ash clouds produced by the Little Infernos, taking on the denialist position of “It’s nobody’s fault. We can’t control the weather.” Miss Nancy then tells the protagonist she is leaving, prompting the following meandering rant:
“There was so much more I wanted to do! Where did aaalllll the time go??[…]I remember when I wanted to be an astronaut! And explore the cosmos! And compose a symphony! And dive to the bottom of the ocean! And discover lost cities! And build new cities! And become a model! But before you know it…”
Her parting words come after the protagonist asks “what should you do when you’ve got everything you ever dreamed?” to which she responds “DREAM BIGGER!!!”. She then walks offscreen to quickly board a rocket ship that takes off in front of the protagonist’s view, her silhouette seen waving goodbye in its middle window. Leaving the Tomorrow Corporation and walking to the edge of town, the protagonist then makes his own departure via The Weather Man’s weather balloon.
In a 2017 volume of the academic journal Ecozon@ dedicated to green videogames, Little Inferno received two considerations from Josef Nguyen and Lauren Woolbright respectively. While I think both readings add value to the game’s discourse and share some overlap, I focus primarily on Nguyen’s due to an attentiveness to the game’s materiality. Nguyen argues that “Little Inferno reveals to the player that they have been an eco-criminal who has inflicted harm on the environment in order to play all along” (25) and that this manifests as an auto-critique of the energy consumption of videogames, for him the game “models how one should become conscious of environmental degradation by dramatizing the need to recognize and investigate how all digital devices are fundamentally little infernos.” (30) However I don’t read the game as being so severe in its messaging, and my overarching criticism of the game is the same as my criticism of Nguyen’s analysis: neither accounts for the structuring role of capitalism beyond the “nonsensical cycle” (27) of “consumption and combustion” (25).
As Madison Schmalzer notes in her ontology of incremental games, the genre often satirizes both videogame conventions and the processes of capitalism which produce them, however the latter is nearly completely absent from Little Inferno. In the endgame one of the few discernible buildings the player encounters is a “Tomorrow Bucks” bank, and while it is presented cartoonishly it is ultimately without commentary–it is not even enterable. Likewise the player’s final encounter with de facto capitalist Miss Nancy is neither condemnatory nor aspirational in tone. In fact if the player happens to keep a coupon from the beginning of the game there is a special dialogue option that triggers a cutscene where Miss Nancy will give the protagonist a hug (though this Easter egg is more of a joke on the majority of players who will have likely burned their coupon). Given this I don’t agree with the idea that players should take personal responsibility for a climate change that is occurring at an industrial scale.
What, then, is Little Inferno really about? Well, the game is implicitly in conversation with thinking through finitude, as Nguyen points out a constant refrain in the game is that things “can’t last forever”. Another phrase that the player is told repeatedly within the endgame is that they “Can’t” or “can never go back”. However during my playthrough I read this not as a profound statement about the fleetingness of time, but a condescending corralling of player desire. Because I actually wanted to go back to before the endgame, having been drawn in and enchanted by the (for lack of a better word) warmth and novelty of the game’s detailed and bespoke physics simulations. I’m not alone, as Nguyen points to several Steam reviews that express similar viewpoints, with one person who even makes it a Christmas tradition to replay the game. If Little Inferno is indeed an auto-critique then it simply fails on the basis that its pre-endgame is too compelling and well-constructed, especially compared to its rather dull and static endgame (that is nonetheless fantastically scored).
According to some the game is mocking me for having this opinion, despite me being very much in on the joke. For while I believe Little Inferno can be read as a meditation on game design, it is perhaps more accurately a meditation on life itself. In its final moments Little Inferno subtly (and some might say cowardly) pivots from a story of communal finitude to one of personal finitude; it is a memento mori more than it is a metaphor. If Little Inferno has earned any resonance as satire in the subsequent decade of cryptocurrency, NFTs and the billionaire space race, it is merely due to our present reality becoming stupider and not the game rising to the occasion.
Overall both Nguyen and Woolbright are critical of the game’s ending, the former saying that it “curtails its potential for encouraging environmental responsibility, since it closes with a scene of escape from the responsibility of ecological devastation” (28), and the latter agreeing that “the gravity of the questions the game posed with its persistently unsettling tone were far too easy to settle with an ambiguously airy escape.” (97) As Kunzelman warns about post-apocalypses, there is nothing to stop Little Inferno’s cast of characters from recreating the detrimental conditions of the past elsewhere. While the player may no longer be a consumer of Tomorrow Corporation products, late capitalism still persists despite what Woolbright describes as an “implie[d…] accessible ‘out-there’” (Ibid.), as The Weather Man says “You can go as far as you like! But you’ll have to pay as you go.” The real-life Tomorrow Corporation meanwhile have moved on to making games about “thinking like the computer” as Schmalzer would phrase it–namely the visual programming puzzle games Human Resource Machine and 7 Billion Humans that carry over Little Inferno’s comedic/business trappings but lack its narrative drive.