Friday 11 January 2013

Little Inferno & Plato's Allegory of the Cave

I played Little Inferno just before Christmas. Like others I found the simplicity of the gameplay a little underwhelming compared with the ingenious developments of previous Kyle Gabler offering, World of Goo; unlike some others I found real depth to the game's fiction. This post is about that.

Little Inferno isn't just a simplistic game of burning amusing objects in different combinations to score points - it's one in a very familiar mould. Perhaps I've been reading too much Plato recently, but that seems to me rather like the point. Let me explain.

I Think Little Inferno is Plato's Allegory of the Cave
In The Republic, Socrates asks his audience to imagine a cave in which slaves are incarcerated. They are held in place by shackles, forced to stare at a wall. Their captors stand behind them, using puppets and firelight to cast shadows onto the wall. All the slaves know of the world are the shadows before them.

Socrates then asks what would happen if one of these people was to be released and allowed to look upon the puppeteers. The slave would be shocked and confused at first; but in time they would come to realise that the shadows were mere illusions, and that the real cause of them was the puppets. Next the freed slave emerges from the cave and, though blinded by the light, learns another level of truth - the puppets were themselves only copies of real animals which the puppeteers were mimicking. Finally the slave looks up at the sun, and realises that every object perceived so far is reliant upon it, both for their continued existence and for the slave's ability to see them.

The idea is that the slave's journey mirrors our own intellectual journeys as human beings. We begin life taking the information from our senses to be the ultimate truth. Some never leave this state. Others look around and realise that there are greater forces at work which themselves explain the information received by our senses. As the slave leaves the cave and witnesses the real world, human beings are able to engage their rational thought and begin reasoning out the truth from the lies. Finally, we are supposed to come upon the ultimate truth, or the Form of the Good, which is analogous to the sun, and represents ultimate enlightenment for Plato.

And in the Game
Major plot spoilers from here on out.

Little Inferno sees you play as a faceless, nameless character who stares at a fireplace and burns things. Everything you know about the world is arrived at through letters which are opened in front of the fireplace and then burned. You engage in a repetitive, simplistic activity which - while amusing - is ultimately demeaning. As a player you're engaging in a format designed to waste time; as a character you're burning up all your worldly possessions just to stay warm, all the while being reassured by the manufacturer that what you're doing is fun.

The parallels are pretty thick. As the game progresses your nextdoor neighbour - who so far has only been present in letters - becomes more and more physical. Things she does affect your game and make you aware for the first time that you're not staring at a gameboy screen, you're staring at a wall, in a house, next to another house, in a town... There's a whole world outside this cave!

When the denouement comes it's unexpectedly different to the last 4 hours. Everything you learnt in that time becomes useless in the broader context. Despite never having thought about it before, you learn that those letters were being delivered by a postman/puppeteer you could never actually turn around to see. You're told you can do whatever you like, but that you can never go back. Then the skies clear, the sun comes out, and the weather man takes you up in his balloon to see it all.

The Difference
There's one quite radical difference between Plato's version and Tomorrow Corporation's, which is that Plato's philosopher is supposed - once enlightened - to return to the cave and to govern it using all that acquired wisdom. I suppose in a sense that's what the weather man does, though by blowing up the player character's house the game does rather put an exclamation mark on the no returns policy.

Perhaps the journey depicted here is that of the developers - starting out in the dark, struggling to make ends meet, then joining a huge corporation and finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Little Inferno as a product is analogous to the enlightened one returning to the cave and translating their new knowledge into something those still shackled to the wall can understand; or maybe that's going too far.

Perhaps Tomorrow Corporation aren't entirely sold on Plato's metaphysical and political manifesto, and the allegory of the cave is just a resonant metaphor for people waking up and taking charge of their lives instead of wasting them.

After all, you don't need to believe in philosopher-kings, ritualistic group marriage or god to believe in that.


  1. A quick google search reveals I'm not the first person to see this parallel, but how about you? I'm particularly interested to hear what people who weren't familiar with Plato beforehand thought of the game.

  2. I'd wager Gabler et al. were aware of the parallels with the Cave. Personally I don't see Little Inferno as being about an apolitical journey of self-discovery except at the most superficial level. The actual text of the game goes to some length in order to describe the social context of the hero's journey : a whole population cloistered into solitary repetitive entertainment designed by a corporate Mommy all the while the climate is going awry. Not exactly innocent.

    In this context the self-help message of the Tomorrow Corporation : "Go for your dreams! (screw the rest of the pack)" is easily seen as the self-justifying neoliberal pap it really is. The city is smothered in snow and idiocy while the corporate executive is shown escaping in a rocket ship.

  3. So maybe more in common with World of Goo than with Plato?

  4. Ooh, I definitely see the Allegory of the Cave connection!

    Especially interesting (and sad) how Little Inferno's point-and-click adventure ending has nothing to do with everything the player has learned while sitting in front of the fireplace.

    I saw the game's ridiculous cycle of buy-and-burn as talking about entropy and consumer culture (an article I wrote got mentioned alongside yours on a games writing roundup column:, plus criticizing the particular genre of farmville-y games. But thinking about the ending, it seems like Little Inferno is being pretty harsh on all games, as a medium.

    The whole idea that games could ever be artistic or worthwhile seems founded on the belief that simulation rules can have meaning relevant to real life (just like the stories of books and movies have important meaning that carries over to real life). That the ending of Little Inferno has nothing to do with the structured mechanics of an Entertainment fireplace, that it emphasizes how useless the player's knowledge and skill at the game system ultimately is...

    it's a pretty intense attack on the idea of games ever being meaningful. A little paradoxical, too, since that attack (and the allegory to Allegory of the Cave, and ideas about entropy, and etc...) is communicated partly through the rules of the game.

  5. The massive gameplay change at the end, in accord with the narrative, is one of those superlatively meaningful "game-as-art" moment. It puts to shame the merely narrative plot twists of games like Bioshock. In Bioshock the "would you kindly" reveal screamed for a gameplay departure in order to show the player suddenly capable of less constrained interactions with his environment; instead, he merely hit/shock/burn a few more moving targets before the credits roll.