A slow burn, but worthwhile
Release date: Nov 18 (US), Nov 30 (AU, EU) Platform: Wii U, PC
A cursory glance around the internet at reviews and impressions of Little Inferno reveal a pretty large breadth of opinions, ranging from the highest praise of literary elitists (“a triumph in the argument for games-as-art”) to the scorn of action-addicted zealots (“more of a toy than a game”), hitting on many differing conclusions along the way.
Both extremes and many in between fail to capture the exploratory puzzle game that lies at the heart of Little Inferno, an experience encased in some very charming visuals and sound design, existing playfully against a gothish propaganda narrative which has something fun and interesting to say. If you’re the kind of gamer who enjoys spending a few hours being intrigued by a well-told emergent narrative, if you don’t mind a slower pace of gameplay consisting mainly of discovering all the little delightful surprises and easter eggs the developer has thrown in, and if the below trailer whets your appetite, I suggest you go download Little Inferno now while you still have relatively few preconceptions. If you still need convincing though, read on.
The story of Little Inferno is by no means the main appeal, but it does set up and explain the gameplay mechanics in a way that allows what is essentially a fairly repetitive puzzle game to stay interesting throughout. The gamespace is dominated by a huge brick fireplace, the titular product that appears to have been distributed to all children to keep them warm during a period of unprecedented cold. The powers-that-be are desperate that all children remain by the fire, burning anything they can get their hands on, and above all else not even taking a look outside.
The flow of gameplay, then, involves using your mouse pointer, Wii remote or Wii U gamepad to drag and drop items into the fireplace before setting them ablaze. The gradual and entrancing consumption of the items (and occasionally the exploding of their molten contents all over the fireplace) is one of the most viscerally appealing game mechanics in recent memory. New items can be bought through catalogues and each burns in a unique way. Some are fairly predictable – the corn explodes into a cascade of popcorn – while some are a little more inventive – dry ice freezes other objects, a heart-shaped metal fan inhales small objects and fire into its core before overheating and melting down. It’s a joy to simply put new combinations of items into the fire and see what happens – the fire effect, sound and physics are pretty spectacular – and if you want to make more money to unlock and purchase more exotic items you’ll need to work your way through a list of set combos to discover particularly satisfying eruptions. A good part of the minute-to-minute appeal of Little Inferno is looking at the list and thinking “now what two items am I going to need to activate the ‘generations’ combo?”
In this regard the game feels very much like one you might find on a mobile app store, hinging on endless purchases that are immediately burned to nothing and spurring the need for more purchases. This is an aspect many have highlighted as a negative, but there’s enough depth and charm to Little Inferno to differentiate it from so much shovelware (plus you don’t actually pay for the items with your own money) and I’d go so far as to say this constant chain of consumption (literal and figurative) is a conscious part of the design that ties into an arguably anti-consumerist sentiment throughout.
You won’t be far into the game before you notice the uncomfortable reality of a child who literally only has one thing he can do with all his possessions – burn them to get more. Even when some kind-hearted person mails you a coupon for a free hug early in the game, the comfort and good-feeling that hug could provide is immediately rejected in favour of the coupon’s obvious end-use – being burned in the fireplace for coins.
The catalogues are filled with imaginative and well-designed items, some cute and some creepy, and all with humorous little back-stories and descriptions attached. Some are adoreable enough that you won’t really want to burn them at all. But then you kind of will. There is even a catalogue filled with video-game inspired items designed to directly tug on the nostalgia strings of us as gamers. Don’t get too attached to them though, they obviously won’t last forever. Sections of item burning are punctuated with letters from another child and reports and propaganda from the powers-that-be, making sure the intrigue of the narrative will keep you burning for a good long while.
Little Inferno is a deep and unique experience from a great pedigree – developer Tomorrow Corporation comprises some of the minds that brought us the excellent World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth. Its slow pace and high-concept semiotics certainly aren’t for everybody, and in some places it feels like the gameplay mechanics could have been a little more fleshed out if they weren’t tied to a limiting narrative / argument, but most people should find quite a bit to giggle at and ‘hmmm’ over if they give this game half a chance.