All Things Must Burn

The fire is my friend, as much as anything can be. Our goals aligned, we work in tandem, until there is nothing left to burn and we can finally be free.

Nothing else in Trash Panic matters. The conveyor belt revolves endlessly, providing a constant supply of items divorced from their history, devoid of their meaning, every object defined purely by the ease and the manner in which it can be further broken down. I release the pencil above a computer monitor, knowing it will shatter upon impact. I don’t care what words it may once have written. Why should I? It’s all just trash now.

Trash Panic offers no such place for sentiment, no place such for reflection. Essentially a riff on Tetris, the trash keeps coming from above, and it is up to the player to break it down before it overflows. However, Tetris allows the player to create their own breathing space, to find their own rhythms of play, to enjoy the act of playing Tetris rather than the act of winning Tetris.

No such luxury is allowed here. Trash Panic’s systems are oppressive, the difficulty coming not from the speed at which the player must work, but the increasingly stringent limits within which they must perform specific goals. The player is never in control, always at the mercy of the system, one mistake away from failure. The most satisfying moments come not from successful strategy, but when the game deigns to bestow a fire-ball, allowing a momentary respite from the constant stream of objects, and giving the player some breathing room. Whilst it is up to the player to ensure paper lands correctly and manipulate the lid, the fire itself is still gifted to the player at pre-determined moments. The game is at its most enjoyable when it allows you not to play it. The emotional reward for being good at Trash Panic is not triumph, but relief.

Many games convey their mechanics through the language of capitalism, simply as it is the dominant ideological mode within the world they were developed. Games ranging from Sim City to Assassin’s Creed to Ninja Gaiden Black, alongside being tools of self-expression and mechanical exploration, can be engaged with as systems to exploit, systems that function as problems with a single most-efficient input in order to garner maximum output. Games such as this represent a view of capitalism that is core to the power fantasy at the heart of so many a game: these systems exist for you to exploit and not the other way around.

In Trash Panic, not only are you unable to utilise those systems for your own ends, you are merely a cog within them. A goal must be reached, but that goal is both arbitrary and ever-present. Gone are the means for self expression and mechanical exploration, finding that single most-efficient input is now the non-optional method for succeeding at the allotted task. Trash Panic is a perverse antithesis of gaming’s capitalist power fantasies; a simulation of labour.

Trash Panic’s closest analogue is Little Inferno, a game which makes narratively explicit what was previously thematically implicit. You sit in front of a fireplace, and are given items to burn, and are rewarded with more items which you can burn, and so on. It functions primarily as a commentary on the skinner box nature of mobile and facebook games at the time, with a meaningless grind leading to an even more meaningless grind. There is no drive, no reason to progress with the game’s inane systems aside from the fact there is nothing else to do. Trash Panic mechanically creates a hostile atmosphere whereas Little Inferno mechanically creates an apathetic one, both drawing attention to the ultimate meaninglessness of the task at hand.

Little Inferno gives the player the time to discover, to poke and prod, to see what burns best with what, to see the sizes and colours of the flames that can flicker in your fireplace. At first glance, it is a playground of self expression and mechanical exploration, but once its rote tasks are introduced to give structure to the proceedings, all context slowly fades away until all that is left are the numbers and the system. An item called “someone else’s family portrait” goes up in flames and the only thing that matters is the strength of the blaze.

In both games, I watch as items with meaning and value crumble into dust and start to think of them only in how they help or hinder the progress towards my goal, the dehumanising process of capitalism in full effect. Little Inferno narratively tackles this theme with a beautiful optimism in its final stretch, as the need for human connection overpowers the call of this skinner box, and I burn my fireplace down to enter the real world. The first thing I see is the mailman, who’d been delivering all my toys, another cog in the machine that I’d never considered to be human.

I proceed to the headquarters of Tomorrow Corp, and talk to the CEO, who’d been making these time-wasting machines with only the desire to create things that would be enjoyed. She tells me the planet is freezing, and there’s nothing to be done, before wistfully listing all her unfulfilled desires that slipped by with time as she takes off in her rocket to places unknown.

“What should you do when you’ve already got everything you ever dreamed?” she asks, and seconds later answers: “Dream bigger.” Little Inferno ends making the connection between the mechanics of games and the mechanics of capitalism, the ending an idealised dream where all characters are able to cease engaging with these systems and move onto more human, fulfilling endeavours.

Trash Panic allows no such catharsis. When I have proven myself skilled at one task, I proceed to the next, and am rewarded with a thinner margin of error. The size of the trash increases to ridiculous degrees, until eventually I must break down the Earth itself within my bin. But my role remains the same. The profit makes no difference to a cog in the machine, the process unchanged, the goal constant.

All things must burn.