The Christmas season inspires its own unique brand of stockpiling goods. In the name of peace and goodwill, we buy gifts for one another, asking for and cheerfully delivering Christmas lists, all the while providing documents of our explicit covetous expectations. An onslaught of consumerism dominates our minds and lives as we spend our time shopping, making lists, and worrying about the things we don’t have. You know. Like video games.
The first sound effect heard when playing the most influential video game of all time is the sound a coin makes when head-butted out of a block. It’s a not so subtle reminder that the player is growing richer. The sound is satisfying because it represents personal gain. Besides being completely absurd, Super Mario’s encouragement to collect as many coins as possible took advantage of a universal understanding about what it takes to succeed: more money.
Games get a lot of flack for being about little more than killing things, but they’re just as much about collecting things. While outsiders freak out about games that seem to encourage rage and murder, video games have been indulging our impulse for greed since the dawn of the industry.
Sometimes we collect things that have practical functions. Sometimes they’re necessary, giving us special abilities or special insight. Other times they’re superfluous, aiding us in attaining a more fashionable avatar. And sometimes, we collect things simply because they are there, and we want all of them.
All of this doesn’t have to ruin us, but it may, if we don’t acknowledge the struggles with greed and expectation that Christmas often thrusts us into. Lucky for those of us who play, there are a few games out there who take it upon ourselves to remind us of the missteps and horrors of consumerism. It’s time to face the truth.
Let’s start with Recettear (available on Steam), a brutally honest look at the personal impact corporate greed can have on individual lives. Recette Lemongrass, the sweet-natured daughter of a shopkeeper, finds herself strapped with the debts of her father. In his absence, she’s forced to run a shop by herself, a childhood that could have been spent playing and socializing with her friends. Instead, it is devoted to stocking the shop and serving customers. But work is all Recette knows, and she loves the work, repeatedly cheering up the player by proclaiming her catchphrase, “Capitalism, Ho!” Of course, her blind optimism is nothing in the face of reality. When she fails to miss a deadline for paying off the debt, Recette finds herself cast out and living in a cardboard box.
By offering up a likable and hardworking heroine and putting her through the meat-grinder of capitalism, we’re treated to a functional contrast between the best and worst of our financial reality. Inevitably, Recette is taken advantage of, despite the sardonically happy face put on her situation. In the end, when the store is paid off, Recette has learned to take joy in her job – but there’s a nagging question of whether she even knows what joy or fulfillment is.
While Recettear articulates the problems of capitalism by providing us with a sympathetic picture of a devoted worker, the iPad game Sweatshop takes another approach. Sweatshop swings wildly from giving the player glimpses into the throngs of humanity that work in sweatshops and then inviting us to take part in the specific ways sweatshops dehumanize their workers. The boss may be an unapologetic and inarguable asshole, but it’s hard not to see his point. Maximizing profits means maximizing score, and if winning this thing is the point, those little guys are going to work their fingers to the bone.
In between levels, we’re given increasingly unwelcome opportunities to care about individual workers. They are unassuming and hopeful, until the work becomes too much, at which point they become depressed and exhausted. While clicking and dragging workers and water dispensers, their tendency to die becomes downright annoying. Of course, it’s in between levels that the player understands the horrific nature of that reaction: a preoccupation with quantifiable results inevitably overshadows the crucial but unquantifiable ways the workers are affected. Step by step, by requiring just a bit more of the workers, and by telling ourselves we are being “fair,” we ruin the lives of many.
Work can certainly be warped and perverted to the point that it begins to slowly eat away at our lives. But then again, so can play! That’s the idea behind Little Inferno, the latest game for PC and Wii U by 2D Boy, the developers who brought you the darkly sinister World of Goo. 2D Boy may have diverged mechanically from the bridge-building gameplay of World of Goo, but fans of the uncomfortable and satiric tone will revel in Little Inferno’s even more scathing critique of real-world excesses.
The game’s mechanic is simple: buy toys from a catalog, and then burn them. Once you burn them, you’re given money, which can then be used to buy more toys. And so on, and so on. The game has ways of making the repetitive mechanic interesting, but the impact almost never wears off. Little Inferno manages to drive home the troubling nature of the game industry’s focus on novelty and escapism. I’ve shot a lot of guys in the face in a video game, but I’ve never felt as bad as I have setting some of these things ablaze: a teddy bear, a note from my neighbor, even a photograph (imported from Facebook – neat!) of my girlfriend and me. Like World of Goo, Little Inferno inspires the player to do horrible things for the sake of progress, or novelty. Each new level is a new catalog, full of exciting new stuff! By the time you reach the section with all the video game themed toys – including a Gameboy-inspired handheld system called the “Handheld Fireplace” – the game has made itself clear and implicated the player.
Little Inferno doesn’t merely shine a light on video games’ use of money as a metaphor for success. It blows apart the entire industry. Playing the game calls to mind the constant sequels and gimmicks introduced every year, the way games are forgotten after their initial release window, and the way gamers often write off and trade in games way too soon in search for the next big release. But most damning, it illuminates the dearth of games that are worth remembering at all. Rather than working toward artistic innovation or inspiring personal reflection, far too many games settle for mechanical perfection and addiction-inspired feedback loops. Little Inferno has both, but a lot more on top of that. You won’t soon forget it.
Let’s face it: so much of what we buy for and receive from others goes forgotten in the years that follow. We might as well be buying things for one another out of Little Inferno’s catalog and throwing them into our fireplaces. But if we keep in mind the the Recettars and Sweatshops workers, maybe we’ll be able to force ourselves to take incremental steps toward redeeming the holiday, and surprising one another with gifts that will are less damaging to others and infinitely more lasting.
Mario might often find himself preoccupied with acquiring coins, but by the end of the game, the only thing that matters is that he and the princess are back together again. That’s when he knows he’s succeeded.
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.
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