Small Fries and Large Thoughts: An Essay on the Symbolism of an Online Game
(Written 7/3/08. Not to be reproduced without my permission)
You may think I'm loony to write an essay about the symbolism of an online webgame. After all, games are made to be played and enjoyed, not to be studied philosophically. But aren't we all a little loony in one respect or another? We all have our idiosyncrasies. Mine is analyzing things that aren't meant to be analyzed. And I can find lots of symbolism in a few things.
Small Fry is a game made by Nitrome at [www.nitrome.com]. It revolves around dragging and dropping characters called Small Fries around to guide them safely to the exit, a house carved out of a tree stump. It's very reminiscent of Lemmings-style games. Different Small Fries have different abilities which are crucial to finishing each level.
When I played Small Fry, I immediately spotted an interesting pang of symbolism in the main theme of the game. To me, Small Fry is a game about life. The Small Fries are children, and you and your cursor are their loving parents, whose job is to nurture and guide them so that they can grow up and live a clean, prosperous life.
Each element of Small Fry has its own symbolism. Examination of each of them can reveal more evidence that supports my metaphor. The first step should be to touch upon the four different categories of Small Fries that you raise. No two of us grow up in quite the same way, and we grow up with very different strengths and weaknesses.
SKELETON - This is the first Small Fry that shows up in the game. It survives any and all hazards that it encounters along the way. Those of us who are Skeletons can endure any task, and shrug the problems of life off our shoulders much more easily than others can. A Skeleton never gives up, no matter how hopeless things become.
SPORTY - The Sporty Guy is the fastest, and he can climb walls, swim across water, and jump gaps. The Sporty Guys among us are the courageous ones, the ones who aren't afraid to rush into trouble. A Sporty Guy has the courage to take on and pass obstacles that the rest of us wouldn't dare go near.
BRAIN - The Brain turns around right before falling into most hazards. It, obviously, symbolizes the smart ones among us, who have the foresight to look out for potentially catastrophic situations. Its ability to interact with flowers to open paths remind us that the brainy ones among us can find opportunities in things that the rest of us wouldn't think twice about.
WARRIOR - The Warrior smashes blocks and takes out enemies in its path. There are plenty of Warriors in the world, people who can ram headfirst into problems to clear them away. The mental fitness of a Warrior is invaluable when you've got plenty of problems to worry about.
Me? I'm not sure which Small Fry I am. I'd say I'm a Warrior. I tend to be pretty good at tackling problems in a way that'll get rid of them effectively, and I can remember how I solved them so I can easily trounce 'em again later.
But I digress. There are other things to analyze. It's time to take a peek at some of the level elements that appear in Small Fry.
CAVES - When a Small Fry enters a cave section, they cannot be guided with the mouse, and must be left alone until they exit the cave. There are many parts of life when you have no choice but to leave your children to fend for themselves; you cannot guide them every step of the way. As sad as it is, it's all a part of growing up.
ENEMIES - The caterpillars and other monsters that appear throughout the game represent the many problems one faces in life. A Small Fry who doesn't have the mettle to handle a difficult problem (as only a Warrior does) can easily be crushed by it.
HAZARDS - There are many choices you have to make in life. Water, thorns, and the like represent the many ways you can land yourself in trouble by making bad choices. Brains know how to watch out for these bad choices, and Skeletons have the endurance to keep going no matter how many times things go wrong. Nitrome is setting some very good role models for us!
TREE STUMPS - Growing up is a long journey, and on any long journey one needs to stop to take a rest. A tree stump is a very popular place to sit and rest, as is also evidenced in Shel Silverstein's book "The Giving Tree". When a Small Fry walks onto a stump, it stops and doesn't move again until you tell it to.
SWITCHES - Step on a switch to open a door, raise a bridge, or cause something else to happen. Switches represent the many opportunities throughout life. Find and take advantage of an opportunity, and you open the door to a new path in life. There are some opportunities (the flowers) that only the brainy ones among us will notice.
TURN AROUND! - Small Fries cannot turn around until they run into a wall, and in some cases, not even then. Life is a one-way journey. You can only grow up; you cannot grow down. (I'll admit, though, there are plenty of people out there who seem to disagree with that notion.)
HOME - To finish each level, you must guide as many Small Fries as you can to the tree-stump house at the end. When your children have grown up enough to make a home for themselves and live independently of you, your job as a parent is (supposedly) complete.
As should be obvious by now, almost every element of Small Fry can be interpreted as a piece of the great metaphor for growing up. But I'm not done yet. Some of the levels themselves intrinsically teach valuable lessons about growing up. Allow me to explain a few levels I've chosen.
LEVEL 7 - This level is where the Warrior is introduced. He and the Brain have to take turns up front to take out the various obstacles. This level reminds us that neither brains nor brawn can suffice alone to clear the path to a successful life; one needs adequate quantities of both.
LEVEL 17 - There are many switches throughout this level, and while some of them open the way for the Small Fries, others block their way and make it impossible to progress. While most opportunities pave the way to a successful life, one should not jump at every opportunity that they see, or they might end up worse off than if they had simply ignored them.
LEVEL 19 - Early on in this level, the player has to turn Sporty around by making him run into the block that smashes up and down right before the thorns. Sometimes the only way to get anywhere in life is to run right into almost-certain danger.
LEVEL 20 - It's impossible to finish this level without sacrificing the Skeleton. As sad as it may seem, not everyone can live a successful life; some of us will have no choice but to admit defeat, though this is rare.
LEVEL 21 - This level is about guiding five Brains to the exit in turn past all the enemies and hazards. Even the most brainy of brainpower (and five of them!) needs lots of guidance to succeed in life.
I'm sure there are more moments like this, but as of this essay I have yet to get any further in the game than Level 21, so I cannot add anything else.
You probably still think I'm nuts for showing how similar Small Fry is to helping children grow up. And maybe I am. But so what? Anyone who sticks their tongue out when their picture taken can't be completely sane, and Albert Einstein did that once. Just remember the valuable lessons this game taught you when you become a parent and raise your own Small Fries...