Pros: Addictive gameplay, engaging story
Cons: Short, not a lot to it.
Little Inferno is a game about pointlessness. It is a game about doing something over and over with no ultimate purpose in mind. It is about obsessive repetition, it is about giving up your life to a frivolous pursuit.
It is about playing video games.
Published and developed by: Tomorrow Corporation
For ages: 13 and up
Platform: Wii U (eShop only)
Release Date: November 18, 2012
The Basics: Burn Stuff!
An indie-made eShop title, Little Inferno is ostensibly not about playing video games at all. The game instead is about burning things. For most of the game, the player stares into a fireplace into which items can be tossed; posters, magnets, plush dolls, batteries, fireflies. You buy these items from catalogs and they arrive in cardboard boxes. You open the boxes and throw the items into the fireplace. As items burn they leave a residue of coins which you can use to buy more things to throw into the fire.
You can’t get more pointless than that, which raises an important question: why did I obsessively play the entire game in a single, six-hour sitting?
The Little Inferno of the title is a fireplace for children in which they can burn their toys. It might seem preferable that these children go outside and play until you learn that the outside world is, for unknown reasons, perpetually cold and gray and snowy. It is, in fact, perfect weather for staying inside and burning things.
The controls are very simple, the game using either the gamepad touchscreen or the Wii remote to pick up objects and light fires. Occasionally spiders wander into the fireplace and you can quickly set them on fire as well.
Things burn in various, sometimes entertaining ways; burn an ear of corn and the kernels pop out then catch fire, burn a Polaroid camera and it takes a picture, which also soon burns. Some items rise into the air and pull other items towards them, while other particularly cold things might freeze everything in the fireplace, putting out the fire.
The Gameplay: Mild Puzzle Solving and Cute Animations
The gameplay of Little Inferno involves burning particular items together. There are 99 possible combinations of items with names like Movie Night and Deadly Fish and Elderly Couple. Some combos are pretty easy to figure out - Time Bomb involves burning a clock together with a bomb – while some require thought and some made no sense to me even after I found a site listing them all.
After you have discovered a certain number of combos you get a new catalogue with new items and new combo possibilities.
Ordering from catalogs is simple, as long as you have enough money. Click to buy, then go back to your fireplace where you’ll find a cardboard box. Each box has a timer telling you how long until you can open it, although if you’re in a hurry you can earn coupons that allow you to open things instantly.
As you progress, you receive letters from Little Inferno’s manufacturer, a weather man, and a little girl who, like you, is burning things. These letters are quirky and often mysterious, and unspool a story in a similar way to World of Goo, whose developers are part of Inferno’s team.
The lure of further objects and further letters is the driving force that keeps gamers immersed in the game. As primitively simple as it all is (so simple that some critics argue this isn’t a game at all), the experience is weirdly compelling.
The Game with a Moral: Go Outside and Play
The strangest part of the game is the last chapter, in which you leave the fireplace to explore the city. After hours of staring into a fireplace, you are suddenly confronted with streets, buildings and people to talk to. There is no gameplay at all in this last chapter - you’re just reading voice bubbles and walking along streets - but it still kind of works. Still, a little more actual gameplay would have been nice.
As the game progresses, it increasingly reminds you of its essential pointlessness. One letter says “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace was designed not to matter,” while a later one disparages living life by the fireplace, saying, “There’s a whole world out there.”
The symbolism is not subtle; this is a game about the utter pointlessness of video games. The game even attacks itself; the company that sells the fireplace has the same name –Tomorrow Corporation – as the company that developed the Little Inferno. It is circular form of criticism; to receive the messages that you should quit playing the game and go do something with your life, you have to keep playing the game.
The game’s attitude can best be summed on FAQ on the Tomorrow Corporation website:
What?! You throw things in a fire to get money you use to buy more things? That doesn’t make any sense what’s the gameplay?!
You can fix this by performing the following steps: 1. Open a command window and type “format c:” and press ENTER on your personal computer keyboard. 2. Go into your kitchen, turn on all your stove’s burners. 3. Walk outside, and keep going, towards the horizon.
Verdict: Interactive Art Masquerading as a Video Game
Taken strictly as a game, Little Inferno is problematic. It’s a bit short for the price ($15), has limited replay value, and has rather spare gameplay. As a piece of satirical art, on the other hand, it is pretty impressive, a critique of the industry from the inside. But if the game is meant to persuade us to go outside and live life, my six solid hours of playing it would suggest it is an utter and complete failure.