US: 19 Nov 2012
Little Inferno is ostensibly a puzzle game, except when it’s not. It’s also an adventure game, and like all great adventure games, much of its appeal and lasting effect comes from experiencing its characters. It seems strange at first to be talking about characters in Little Inferno since there are so few of them and your conversations never last more than a few minutes, but in that short time, the game manages to present us a group of shockingly unique and well-developed people. Despite the fact that none of them are voiced and some don’t even show their face, they all ooze personality and charm. Little Inferno pulls off this feat thanks to its deft writing that quickly establishes two sides of each person: who they are at work and who they are outside of work.
The Mailman is a strict professional, keeping track of exactly how many packages and letters he’s delivered to you: “Through snow or rain! But mostly snow.” He immediately knows your house has been “de-listed” and reminds you to fill out a Change of Address form. Then he delivers one last letter and leaves to continue his job.
However, throughout your short conversation he tells you multiple times: “We’re all going to be fine.” This could be interpreted as reassuring—that he’s talking directly to you about your sudden loss of home—but it could also be personal reassurance—that he’s talking to himself about his job, the state of the world, or any number of things. Regardless of the meaning behind his words, they don’t fit the professional mailman persona.
Ironically, in attempting to hide his personal feelings, he betrays some of his personal feelings: Here’s a man who likes to keep his professional life separate from his personal life, but in this moment, he’s having trouble maintaining that separation. Whether that’s because of you and your story or because of him and his own story, we’ll never know, but the cracks in his persona prove that there is more to him than his job. He has other things on his mind.
The Gate Operator
The Gate Operator is nothing but a pair of hands hovering over some levers. He loves his job, however menial it may be, and this is in fact his central trait.
He treats the gate like it’s a special object of symbolic importance, adding to the surreal tone of the game. Depending on what you say to him, he’ll admit that he’s made a name for himself in the Lever Operating Business. He’ll be giving a seminar at the upcoming Future Innovations in Lever Operating Technology Conference, and he even invites you to attend since he can introduce you to some excellent networking opportunities.
We usually ignore NPCs as part of our natural suspension of disbelief, but the Gate Operator represents the idea of the NPC taken to its logical narrative extreme. Here is a character fated to spend his life (or at least as much of his life as it takes you to beat the game) in a single spot not because the game forces him to—but because he wants to. He lives for this job, and his joy is infectious. He demands that we give the gate the same dramatic respect that he does. When we ask him to open the gate, he responds, “My one single job…the ONLY job I was hired to do…the ONE thing I do better than ANYBODY else…is OPEN THOSE GATES. So if you’re going to ask, ask again with DRAMA!” He clearly takes pride in his work, and he keeps urging us on until our only conversation option is: “GATE OPERATOR, OPEN THE GATES!” Then, when the gate opens with a spectacular musical number, it suddenly becomes easy to see why he loves his job.
At first, the Gate Operator is just a joke. After all, who in their right mind would love being a gate operator? But then he’s transformed into someone we can relate to, someone we agree with: The gate is awesome.
His love for his job even circles back to the overall optimistic theme of Little Inferno (see my essay “There is Bound to Be an End: Life With Little Inferno”, PopMatters, 8 March 2013). Adulthood may seem like a sad, cold world at first, but there’s still joy to be had here. This is a guy who has found something he loves to do, and by damn, he’s going to do it as best as he possibly can.
The Protagonist and the Gate Operator from Little Inferno (Tomorrow Corporation, 2012)
The Receptionist completely ignores you at first. Whereas the Gate Operator spoke up as you walked by, the Receptionist doesn’t acknowledge your presence until you click on her. Even then, she talks like an automated telephone operator, going so far as to ask, “How may I direct you call,” before listing off your options. She seems oblivious to her surroundings. Even after she denies you entrance to the elevators, all you have to do is ask to use the restrooms and she directs you…up the elevators.
Obviously she doesn’t really care about you or her job, but her indifference isn’t born out of the monotony of customer service. Instead, we learn that she’s distracted because she’s writing a novel in the little moments of silence between every spoken word. And it’s not just any book, it’s a sequel, a followup to her last novel, The Terrible Secret.
You burned The Terrible Secret earlier while playing with the Little Inferno fireplace. At the time, the book seemed (to me) more evidence that there was something fishy about the fireplace, given its title and the smokestack on its cover, I couldn’t help but think of the Little Inferno fireplace, wondering if the terrible secret in The Terrible Secret might be real and staring me right in the face. The fact that the author works for the Tomorrow Corporation (who produces the Little Infernos) makes me even more intrigued. Is her book really a subversive takedown of her employer? Or it is just a trashy piece of pulp fiction. As she describes it, “it’s a smoldering work. A mystery. A romance. A forbidden affair. A murder. A heart burns. It’s pretty much an autobiography.”
Either way, it’s clear that the Receptionist has ambitions beyond being a receptionist, and she’s living out those ambitions as best she can. While the Gate Operator lived for his job, the job is just a means to an end for her. She’s not just a lazy office worker, she’s a lazy office worker who is living her dream in between fulfilling the obligations of her day job. What’s more impressive is that she’s not just a repeat of a character that has come before: She’s not just another NPC that loves her job, but an individual with unique wants and desires.
Miss Nancy is the head of Tomorrow Corporation, the creator of Little Inferno, and the closest thing the game has to a villain. When you stop to think about her role in this world, it’s quite disturbing. She’s simultaneously killing the world and then profiting from the damages. She acknowledges that the world is getting colder, but she doesn’t make the connection between the weather and the pollution from all her Little Inferno fireplaces. Instead she sees the weather as just another excuse to buy a fireplace. Despite this, it’s hard not to like Miss Nancy.
Previously, the Gate Operator told us that we might find a monster with a heart of gold inside the Tomorrow Corporation tower, and that’s a good description of Miss Nancy. She’s responsible for the sad fate of the world, but she isn’t demonized as a greedy, elitist CEO. She’s a very caring person; she has genuine empathy for everyone in the city. Her whole motivation for creating the Little Inferno fireplace was to help people stay warm. She’s not evil. She acts with the best intentions and simply doesn’t realize when those intentions go awry.
Miss Nancy looks and acts like a comic character, but she still exudes an important trait that makes us understand why she’s a CEO and not a gate operator or receptionist: Ambition. She asks you, “What should you do when you’ve already got everything you ever dreamed?” Then she answers for you, “Dream bigger!” Unlike the others, she’s not content with her position in life—and not because her position in life is bad—but because she’ll never be satisfied if she’s not actively trying to achieve something more. She holds her current job as a direct result of her personality. One gets the sense that for her there’s no such thing as work. She just moves from one project to another, and any success is accidental.
She may be obsessively, dangerously ambitious, but she’s also a genuine and caring person. If she truly is the villain of Little Inferno, she just may be one of the more complex villains in any recent game.
The Weather Man
The Weather Man is an interesting deviation from the other characters because we never actually get to know him off the job. We do, however, see him working two slightly different jobs.
For most of the game he’s just a weather man, as his name implies. He reports the weather through letters that are delivered to your hearth while you play with the Little Inferno fireplace, and he occasionally reports on breaking news as well, like when a house burns down.
Then we meet him in person at the very end of the game when we’re standing at the edge of a cliff. He hovers in front of us in his weather balloon and tells us, “I can take you UP UP UP out of this city. But then you’re on your own! You can go as far as you like! But you’ll have to pay as you go. And you can never go back.” In this moment, he’s not a weather man, He’s a ferryman offering us passage to someplace new. He goes from having a realistic job to a mystical job and that gives his realistic job a hint of hidden grandeur: He’s watching over the city, literally and figuratively, from his weather balloon.
There’s more to the Weather Man than just being a weather man. While we never get to know him personally, we still get to see two sides of this character.
Little Inferno is a game about finding your place in the world, and each character represents that in their own way. The Mailman keeps work and life so separate that we barely get a sense of who he is outside the job. The Gate Operator is happy to keep doing what he’s doing. The Receptionist has found a way to chase her dreams while still keeping a normal job. Miss Nancy has made a living based on her natural ambition. The Weather Man moonlights as a mystical guide. They’ve all found their niche. They’ve all found something to do with their lives, and each one is a possible future for you.
By establishing these two sides of a person, these figures immediately become rounded characters. It’s not a lot of extra information, but it’s more than enough to make these brief encounters memorable and to see the importance of what the game is all about: the future and its possibilities.