In the past we’ve seen cartoons that are engaged in conversation with video games — Adventure Time, Steven Universe. We’ve had cartoons that take mechanics from video games, such as OK KO!. But Infinity Train might be the first time we’ve had a mainstream cartoon be explicitly about making and playing video games.
Infinity Train, which debuted earlier this week on Cartoon Network, can be thought of as Snowpiercer but with video games. The show stars Tulip, a young girl who loves to code. Her dream in life is to make a kick-ass video game and, to that end, she wants to attend a coding camp. One problem: her parents have a mix-up, and can’t take Tulip where she needs to go. Frustrated, Tulip runs away from home and stumbles across a mysterious train that is apparently headed to camp.
Spoilers: the train wasn’t headed to camp.
Instead, Tulip finds a bizarre world that changes with every new car, just like in the 2013 Bong Joon-ho film. One moment she’s in a wide-open field, only to find herself in a cockroach-laden hellscape once through the next door. She has no idea what this place is, why she’s there, or why she suddenly has a ominous glowing number on her hand. Tulip gathers that she needs to “solve” a game — opening a new door always requires her to do something special — but she’s not quite sure what the rules are, or why she’s going through this train in the first place.
Like any good video game, Infinity Train gives Tulip a traveling party to join her on her adventures. First, Tulip finds a robotic ball with a British accent that can split into two, appropriately named One One. One One is looking for its mom, though you never really get the feeling that One One truly knows what a parent is, or what it might look like. Later on, Tulip is accompanied by a Corgi king who has all the mannerisms — and charms — of an actual dog, belly rubs and all. In the five preview episodes provided to Polygon by Cartoon Network, the trio make for an odd team, but you can’t help but root for them. Even as One One is a total nuisance, for instance, he’s Tulip’s nuisance, and damn if she isn’t going to cross the finish line without him.
It helps that Infinity Train’s world is a total enigma. Sometimes, an episode begins with Tulip leaving fantastical worlds that you can only see for a split second, or she runs through cars with amazing scenery without stopping. You’re always left wanting more. And when Tulip does stop, the universes she explores have a dream-like quality.
In an early episode, Tulip meets a mischievous merchant, a cat who is trying to sell a priceless rusted pipe to a sentient water blob. The next thing you know, Tulip is walking into the ocean to meet the rest of the water blob society. In any other situation all of this might seem random, but in a video game? Hey, anything could happen. Infinity Train is a microcosm full of idiosyncrasies, and it’s all the more memorable for it.
Underneath the randomness, there’s also a touching, complicated tale of what it’s like growing up when your parents are going through a divorce. Tulip obviously has a lot of feelings to work through, and the train gives her a good outlet to do so. Who hasn’t used a piece of fiction like a video game to cope with something? Absurd, silly moments are bookended with intense self-examinations that give a concrete sense of character growth.
And, as it turns out, not everything has a logical solution — not when you’re riding on train where anything could happen. Tulip, being a programmer, is dead-set on trying to solve problems and game systems. It’s a skill that comes in handy from time to time: at one point, Tulip builds a complicated vehicle using her engineering know-how. This doesn’t save her from being tricked by malevolent forces, however. Tulip comes to understand that her gamer tendencies, which demand quick and logical solutions to every puzzle, can’t always save her. Instead, Infinity Train seems intent on teaching her how to have patience and empathy, even as things try to kill her or impede her progress.
Having watched only five episodes, it’s hard to say if things in Infinity Train shape up well or have a good payoff. With the end of Adventure Time behind us and OK KO!’s cancellation, however, Infinity Train fills in the video game-y void left behind — and so far, I’m along for the ride.