Little Inferno Review
Available on PC, Wii U, iOS, Android
Buy on Steam
The world is getting colder. Up past your chimney, the snow is coming down thick and fast. It’s been this way for years, but nobody seems to know, or really care, why. Whatever the reason, weather like this…it can’t possibly last forever. So why bother trying to figure it out?
Why bother going outside at all when you’ve got your very own Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, courtesy of Tomorrow Corporation? It’ll keep you warm and entertained forever, or as long as you’ve got stuff to burn, which is basically saying the same thing. Thanks to the many letters and catalogs that keep arriving mysteriously on your fireside mantel, it will be a long while before you run out of stuff to burn. Of course that, too, can’t possibly last forever. But why worry about the future, or the past, when you can live in an eternally incandescent present?
The aptly named Tomorrow Corporation is more than just a faceless, philanthropic corporate entity within the world of Little Inferno; it’s also the name of the independent game development studio made up of former World of Goo developers Kyle Gabler and Allan Blomquist, along with Henry Hatsworth‘s Kyle Gray. Combining elements of Seussian satire, Tim Burton-esque morbidity, and religious awe, Little Inferno (now available on multiple PC and mobile operating systems, as well as Wii U) delivers a harsh but winking upbraiding of the gaming industry, the wider entertainment, and industry as a whole; so harsh, in fact, that many critics at the time of its November 2012 release just couldn’t stomach it, finding the game unplayable and impossible to recommend. As the most important selling season of the year reaches its climax, however, and the various app stores flood with millions of Christmas and post-Christmas shoppers, this weird, cozy anti-game is worth revisiting—if nothing else, as a cautionary tale.
I call it an anti-game because, while there are moments of effervescent joy to be found in the playing, Little Inferno‘s best elements sit just outside the frame of its purposefully limited gameplay canvas, which tends closer to “toy” than “game.” To describe Little Inferno‘s design philosophy as “one note” would be to severely underrepresent its monocular POV and single-minded sense of purpose. In a rare example of truth in advertising, the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace does exactly and only what the packaging suggests. The player is offered only three ways of interacting with its cheerfully bleak world: click through Tomorrow Corporation’s various themed catalogs to send items to your mailbox, drag items out to stack them just so in the fireplace, and click anywhere within the fireplace to ignite that pile of old toys, correspondences, binding contracts or personal memories. And until its horizon-expanding conclusion, Little Inferno provides you only one view of the world, staring into the bright heart of the fire itself. As your neighbor, Sugar Plumps, writes, “I can stare into the fire forever, but not backwards… .”
Letters from Sugar Plumps and a few other key characters, including Miss Nancy, CEO of Tomorrow Corporation; and The Weatherman, “reporting from the Weather Balloon, over the smoke stacks, over the city,” form the core of Little Inferno‘s narrative—a narrative that seems at times absurd, at times ominous, but always serves to reinforce the critiques leveled by the game’s structure. Textual elements, such as the refrain of “it can’t last forever,” repeated references to a relentless, irreversible march forward (Sugar Plumps’s typography is idiosyncratic at best; the reason, as we find out later, is that her keyboard has lost its Delete key, so that “The possibilities go FORWARD forever! But can’t ever go back.”), and the forbiddingly cold weather (Sugar Plumps writes in another letter: “The city is fillllled with people! … I can see theeeir chimneys…and smell the smoooke! … But even though they are everywhere…they are far away like leeetle burning galaxies…with leeettle smoking chimneys on their heads! Ooooo it makes me cooold!”)—even if their meaning is not immediately clear, these all form the emotional backdrop for the player’s activities…which, as mentioned previously, revolve almost exclusively around burning things.
As any young pyro can attest, combustion is an exciting but brief event; like everything else in this game, it can’t last forever. And once you’ve burned something, it’s gone; you can’t ever go backwards. This element made Little Inferno a difficult game for critics to review. On the one hand, all burnable objects react in often surprising and always entertaining ways. Heavenly bodies (in miniature, naturally) exert a very localized gravity that causes other objects to orbit around them; “Kitty Kitty Poo Poo” releases massive quantities of fast-burning cat excrement; mysterious wooden idols sing in three-part harmony; and a floppy disc containing the Little Inferno beta causes the fire effects to briefly tranform into blocky, low-resolution pixels. Combining these objects in different ways can cause chain reactions and emergent situations, increasing the entertainment value further.
December 23rd, 2013 / 11:05 am