Little Inferno, PISS, and Doing Real Things

In December of 2012, I played a game called Little Inferno. My purchase followed that of my friend Iceman’s, and both were due to Chris Franklin’s video on the subject (warning, total spoilers):

(By the way, if you aren’t familiar with Chris Franklin’s work, I highly recommend you rectify this situation.)

The game isn’t perfect and one can argue over the price point for a 3-hour experience you’ll probably never revisit, but it stuck in my mind and left me thinking. The obvious reading of the game is an attack on freemium games of the time-and-money-sink variety. I think one could make a pretty strong argument that its themes apply to games or trivial entertainments in general. But for me, the game is about growing up.

It’s about existing in a safe, warm, comforting, structured, but ultimately meaningless world. It’s about deliberately leaving that world behind for a dangerous, cold, unpredictable place where you have to find your own path and walk it alone, but where you can do things that are real.

Like many works with this sort of message, Little Inferno conveys an obnoxiously vague moral. It tells you to stop wasting time, there’s a great big world out there, go do stuff, seize the day. But then it doesn’t tell you how, or give you any idea what to do.

There was a time in my life when I was utterly sick of doing things that didn’t matter. I wanted desperately to do something real. But I had no idea where to start. I cast about for quite a while, frustrated and depressed, before I started to figure it out. Back then, a work like Little Inferno would have struck quite a chord with me - but would have left me in no better position than before. Telling me, back then, to stop wasting time and do real things - I would have responded with something like, “YES! I really want to do that! Now can you please tell me how?"

It’s part of the point, of course, that nobody can hold your hand with this stuff. Little Inferno is very clear on this. But that’s a bit of a cop-out, really. I think there’s some legit tools and guidance that can be taught to help people set off in the right direction without trying to guide them by the nose. (My own entry in the “stop wasting time” genre has a few tips, though I acknowledge it’s only a start and something I may return to better flesh out in the future.)

In an odd way, the same topic is covered by a very different game. One I found out about via Rock Paper Shotgun, and which you can download free for Windows here. And it’s called PISS.

PISS screenshot

It’s an off-putting name, yeah?

PISS is a short point-and-click adventure game set in a fascinating world. Here’s one tidbit: the gods grew tired of dealing with mortal affairs, so they granted some of their powers to their priests to serve in their stead, with the result that religion has become fully commercialized as the churches charge for miracles. I’d have loved to learn more about this setting, but the game really just serves as a prologue to a full story that will probably never be completed. The ending occurs when you finally uncover the nature of the terrible secret of the player character’s past, leaving unresolved the exploration of why it happened and what must be done to set things right. I’d love to see the creator put this up to tease a Kickstarter campaign to finish the full story.

But the reason this game stuck in my head had less to do with the setting and more to do with the central theme. A theme which, believe it or not, is actually captured in the name, and is explained in-universe by a bard writing a poem with the same title. When pressed as to why he’d call a poem “PISS”, he says the following:

“You know the feeling late at night, when you are desperate to urinate? When your bed is comfortable and warm, and the rest of the world is cold, and you want to stay in bed? That’s how writing poetry is for me sometimes. I am so full of ideas, absolutely bursting with them, and I really want to share them with the world. But they’re comfortable inside my head, and to pen them into verse is like getting out of the warm blankets. I know I’m not going to be able to rest until I have gotten out of the warm, comfortable place, but I still put it off. That really frustrates me sometimes - I know it is my own laziness holding me back, but I still lay there, desperate to piss, but unwilling to get up. So in a sense, I guess my poem is about writing poetry, even though it’s about taking a leak.”

Just like Little Inferno, PISS is about finding the courage to leave behind the comfortable-but-unsustainable in favor of the risky-but-rewarding. But by tying in creativity, it offers a major hint as to the true solution. Take the half-baked ideas you have and follow through on them - bring them into the big scary world where they may fail, but where even failure begets growth and learning. Build something - anything. Put it where people can see it. And you will become stronger.