Is The Little Match Girl my favourite fairytale? There are other fairytales that have better, more interesting stories. But ever since I was a kid, The Little Match Girl has had a special place in my heart because it makes me cry. Not that it’s that hard to make me cry. In fact, dear readers, it’s (in)famously easy. When in Piglet’s Big Movie Piglet realised that the other animals were really his friends, I cried. And I was 40 years old when I watched it. When I and my wife have a spat, I usually end up holding back my tears while my wife complains that it’s no fun being angry with me because I cry too easily. But most fairytales don’t go for the tear ducts. Except, of course, for The Little Match Girl, which goes for it in the most direct and melodramatic way possible. What can I say? It’s not great art, but I love it.
Although The Little Match Girl 4 is ostensibly by Hans Christian Andersen, it doesn’t have much to do with the original story. Not having played the previous instalments, I rely on the in-game background to tell you that the original little match girl, instead of dying in the Copenhagen snows, found that the she could travel through time and space by looking intensely into a fire. She then became a sharpshooter and vampire hunter, as well as the adopted daughter of Dickens’s Scrooge, who christened her Ebenezabeth. All of which makes little sense. Luckily, however, Ryan Veeder has a talent for taking something that makes little sense and then handling it as if he had no inkling about its senselessness… and then it starts making sense. Throwing together crazy ideas and then revelling in their craziness tends to get old pretty fast. But throwing together crazy ideas and then moving forward as if it’s all perfectly normal, well, that is a way to generate unique and memorable settings. And I don’t know if there’s anyone in the IF scene who has developed that technique as much as Ryan has.
TLM4 is a light puzzle parser game with all the impeccable writing and smooth gameplay that one expects from a Veeder game. It’s supposedly inspired by Metroid Prime, which I haven’t played, but I gather that the basic idea is that you get new powers as you move forward, and these powers open up new passageways in areas you have already visited. In this case, your list of powers is simple: the ability to transport through fire, shooting flaming bullets, turning into a mouse, scanning things, and unlocking anything. All the puzzles in the game require you to use one of these powers, so it’s fairly easy to get through everything without using the hints. You’ll visit a wide variety of locations, which are heavily interconnected, and all of which correspond to one or another standard genre trope: dinosaurs, vampires, pirates, the Old West, spaceships. But Ryan brings enough charm and slight twists to each of them to make them feel fresh. The vampires are trapped in a terrible endless meeting; the pirates are, if I’m not mistaken, straight from Gilbert & Sullivan; the spaceship is being looted by space pirates who are more interested in vague mischief than real harm; and the journal you find near to an abandoned mine is… not what you expect. It doesn’t cohere into a single setting, but all of it is fun.
The most intriguing thing about TLM4 is its tone. So much about it screams ‘light-hearted fun’ that I’m tempted to say that this is a game of light-hearted fun. The off-beat genre takes. The smooth, simple puzzles. The standard video game trajectory of getting more and more powers. The basic treasure finding plot line. And yet… it is quite obvious that at least one person is not having fun, and that is the little match girl herself. She is, if not quite a tormented person, at the very least troubled; even, perhaps, a little dead on the inside. We are told repeatedly that she no longer has the ability to be astonished at the majestic grandeur of the universe. She claims to make friends in all kinds of places, but she doesn’t make friends at all, and the only person she has an emotional connection with is a guy she cannot forgive. And then there’s a brief scene where we are transported back to Copenhagen, to the snow, to the hovel where she, as a child, is suffering with her brothers and sisters, waiting for salvation. It’s all there in the game, but it’s never really thematised; it’s not hidden, but still never allowed to take over from the light-hearted fun.
I’m tempted to read all of that as a parable of Ryan Veeder’s creative activity. If you follow him, you see a man who creates fun in many ways: elaborate RPG campaigns, highly polished IF games, cute plush toys, music tracks. But there’s a darkness there too, never allowed to take over the work, but never quite absent. Like the little match girl, Veeder is shooting his flaming bullets around for all of us to enjoy – but who knows how he feels on the inside?
Which is probably terrible psychologising. But hey, that’s a parable for my creative activity; always trying to bring that darkness to light, get it out in the open, put it at the centre of attention, and then, if I really indulge myself (which I usually try not to), go for the tear ducts. What can I say? I love it.