Posted on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 at 9:00 AM by Joseph Butler-Hartley
I don’t like burning stuff, and I’m not a huge fan of fire. I suppose it arises from the very rational fear that if I stand too close to the fire it might singe my eyebrows off, and nobody wants that. It’s particularly impressive then that I loved Little Inferno, a game primarily about burning stuff, with a sprinkling of sinister, post-apocalyptic ambiguity to spice things up a little.
Little Inferno is an indie game developed by ‘Tomorrow Corporation’, (who also appear in the game as an ominous and ubiquitous toy company), and is available on Steam and the Wii-U e-shop. As I articulated in the opening paragraph, Little Inferno is a game in which you burn stuff; however, it manages to master that deceptively simple premise whilst also being so much more. You are a customer who has at some point purchased the ‘Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace’, into which you can throw all your toys and possessions to keep yourself warm, because in and around the city you live in, it has been snowing for as long as anyone can remember and nobody knows why. The implication is that the fireplace has been marketed at children as a toy in an attempt to cover its true purpose as a means of keeping the children, with suspiciously absent parents, from freezing to death in the persistent and encroaching cold.
I have to admit, I bought Little Inferno because of the trailer (which I will include below). Normally, I take game trailers that show little gameplay to be the pointless and uninformative timewasters they are, but my curiosity was pricked enough by the fantastic trailer that I purchased it immediately after viewing it. A job well done, I suppose. It portrays the friendly but shadowy ‘Tomorrow Corporation’ selling its dangerous toy to the doomed children, who throw their toys onto the fire with unknowing glee. I couldn’t whip out my credit card fast enough.
The majority of gameplay consists of placing items into the fire place and then setting them ablaze. Burning items earns coins, and you use coins to purchase more items from the catalogues available. It is impossible to fail, and the only objective you are given is to solve certain ‘combos’, which involve burning certain objects together at the same time. For example, if you were given the clue ‘atomic kitten’, then you’d have to burn the cat doll and the mini nuke together, and you’d be rewarded with more coins and stamps, which speed up the time it takes for items to arrive. It might sound too simple for all you clever clogs who have just finished BioShock: Infinite, (I’m murderously jealous), but solving the combos rewards the player with the same smug satisfaction that adventure games offer, and like adventure games, some of the combos are a little obtuse. There were one or two occasions that I flung my Wii-U gamepad down onto my bed and trudged over to my laptop for an answer because the answer made no sense, but most of the time the riddle-like combo hints are solvable. The game has a mindlessly addictive quality about it. I found myself an hour after I’d intended to play it for five minutes thinking ‘where did all the time go?’
Little Inferno has a real charm about it, and its running theme of ‘seemingly cute and friendly but with increasingly menacing undertones’ made me genuinely laugh out loud on occasion. The many items you burn are varied and interesting and have unique reactions to being burnt. There’s the Starbuck’s style cup of coffee that suddenly opens its eyes and screams as it burns in agony; there’s the Valkyrie doll that sings a sorrowful note as rose pettles drop from the ceiling. There is some repetition though; there are four or five objects that simply freeze everything on screen, and this becomes particularly obnoxious late in the game when you get a combo clue that hints towards something being frozen like ‘Ice Planet’ and you basically have to use trial and error to discover which of the freezing items will lead to the solution. Any frustration however, is subdued by the general charisma that oozes from the screen in the form of the humorous description of the items and the sleeping, Studio Ghibli-esque face that ominously sleeps with a smile on its face in the centre of the fireplace.
When I said the game is about more than burning stuff, I meant it. Through-out the game, you receive letters from several correspondents, which you’ll probably burn as soon as you’ve read them. There’s your inappropriately chirpy neighbour Sugarplum, there’s the head of Tomorrow Corporation and there’s the Weather Man who talks in beeps and hovers above the city in a hot air balloon, consistently informing you that it’s getting colder and colder. Your interactions with the three NPCs broadcasts a grim, possibly post-apocalyptic city in which the only available pastime is to sit in from of the fire burning your items; that is until the fantastic ending anyway. There were moments that truly affected and disturbed me, as Little Inferno’s grim sense of humour, combined with the gradual and troubling realisation that everything is not as chipper as it first seemed, made for a fairly unnerving experience when my habitual burning of stuff was interrupted and questioned by the occasional letter like an addict having a moment of clarity. But still, I burned on regardless.
Much of Little Inferno is ambiguous and left to the imagination of the player, and although I could be very wrong, Little Inferno seems to be anti-gamer! The message seems to be that instead of sitting in front of a screen, repeating the same pointless tasks over and over again without reward for some contrived reason, there is a world out there to be explored, and you’re not going to see it if you sit in front of your screen. If this is the message, then let me be the first to tell Little Inferno to piss off, as exploring the world requires me getting out of my chair, and I’ve just gotten comfy.