Playing with Fire
Now and then you come across a title that despite having at its core a set of elements that seem too bare and simplistic to make up a full game, still manages to do something rich and compelling. I remember it being the case with Rock Band Blitz, I remember it being the case with a whole slew of mobile games, and it’s definitely the case with Little Inferno. Little Inferno is a product of the Tomorrow Corporation, a three man indie team consisting of Kyle Gray who previously worked on “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure”, and Kyle Gabler and Allan Blomquist who helped put together “World of Goo”. The game oddly takes its inspiration from a television channel consisting of nothing but a looping clip of a fireplace, which the team reimagined as a kind of F2P nightmare of the Facebook and smartphone generation. Then they went and actually made that game, but with the intent of injecting some genuine fun into the experience. And so in 2012 they released Little Inferno, a game almost entirely about a virtual fireplace.
Why burn things all day and night? Well, for the citizens of Little Inferno’s world, it’s always snowing. Outside your house the town is in the midst of a crippling winter and it’s getting colder every day, but you need fear not as the Tomorrow Corporation have given you the Little Inferno entertainment fireplace, designed to keep you warm and engaged as long as you keep burning toys and other belongings. The macabre humour of presenting an open fire as a children’s toy sets the stage for the comedic and occasionally dramatic sensibilities of Little Inferno.
The gameplay itself consists of a simple cycle: Using the in-game currency to purchase items from your catalogue, placing them in the fireplace, lighting them with your cursor, watching them crackle away, collecting the money that falls out of them, and purchasing yet more items for your stay-at-home combustion. There is however an end goal to all this pyromania. The key to completing the game is to quite literally burn your way through all the catalogues, but each catalogue can only be unlocked once you’ve obtained a certain number of medals. Those medals are earned through discovering “combos”, combinations of items which you must burn together. Occasionally, you’ll stumble across a combo purely by accident, but most of the time you’re trying to work out which items you need to set ablaze from the combo names. For example, for the “Time Bomb” you need to ignite the Alarm Clock and the Mini Nuke at the same time, or for the “Dinnerware” you need to toast the Fragile China and the Wooden Spoon together. Punctuating your controlled arson are letters that you receive from a few other characters of the town, although the large bulk of them come from your scatterbrained, hyperactive neighbour Sugarplumps.
The most consistent joy found in Little Inferno is that it’s just plain fun to set things on fire. There’s something invigorating in this kind of destruction and its captivating to watch the flames glow and dance. There’s even a kind of pacing to it, with your virtual ignitions starting off as fierce, roaring blazes, and dying out into almost relaxing embers. The basic experience is also coloured by most items from the catalogue doing something when they’re burned, doing something before they’re burned, or just by virtue of what it means to burn them. They can be a pleasant, innocent surprises like burning a corn cob and watching it turn into popcorn or something as unsettling and grotesque as burning a school bus and listening to the screams. While not every single item is overwhelmingly interesting, there are a lot of really imaginative objects in here which push the basic framework of the game to its limits. The interactions with the other characters also help break up the gameplay a little and are entertaining in their own right, even if Sugarplumps has a tendency to stick around and just play on that one personality quirk much longer than she’s really equipped to. It probably wouldn’t survive without that combo system though, which provides you with the same kind of comfy satisfaction you get when you solve a crossword clue and keeps the game moving forward purposefully. Now and then this system will hit a bump however, when it seems like a combo’s name is hinting at certain items but they aren’t actually part of that set. Think the “Polar Bear” combo involves the Freeze Bomb? That’s completely logical but nope. Think the “Manly Man” combo involves the Protein Powder? Rational, but you’d be wrong.
In addition, remember that this is a game whose initial pitch starts with “What if there was a really awful F2P title, but…” and that foundation infects it. You see, when you buy an item it’s not instantly delivered to you, there’s a designated amount of time you must wait for it to get there. This starts out being a few seconds, but it’s not long before you can start buying items that take upwards of a minute to arrive, and by the end of the game you’re sitting around for several minutes for individual objects. Now and then you receive “Stamps” for burning items which you can use to skip that wait time, but of course if they could nullify every waiting period they wouldn’t be in the game. In a good video game there is always something happening, even if that’s something as low-key and quiet as clicking through a menu or walking up a hill, but Little Inferno deliberately goes out of its way to have complete dead zones. It’s made worse by there being a limited number of items you can have waiting to be delivered to you at any one time. These are mechanics that F2P designers purposefully build into their games to try and bore people into spending real money, but here they are in a game where you’ve already paid the price of entry. You end up fiddling with more interesting media outside of the game like iTunes or YouTube to try and supplement the experience, and what are meant to be some of the great, culminating moments of the whole experience become monumentally uneventful
And that could be Little Inferno. A slightly unfortunate free-to-fireplace game with some cute characters and fun puzzles, but there are some more important overarching themes at play here. There’s a message behind this game and one that’s greater than just “Fire is cool”. There are periodic moments where you come to realise the slightly disturbing implications of only ever being able to burn anything you own, right down to the precious letters from your only friend, but it’s more than even that. A lot of the title’s overall intent is driven home by late game events that of course I won’t discuss here, but throughout it you can see a criticism of over-indulgence in mindless entertainment and meaningless consumerism.
There are clear parallels here between the fireplace and the screens of our entertainment appliances, the catalogue is presented in a cheap shopping channel style complete with tacky marketing speak, the items you buy are frequently gaudy or ugly, and when you do buy something you get little meaningful enjoyment from it and certainly no long-term enjoyment. Your entertainment products are nothing more than that, products, and whatever you buy you just end up poking around for a few seconds of semi-engagement before you’re diving back into the catalogue looking for more items to fill your consumer lust. You start off buying a few items and that’s not enough so you buy a whole catalogue but that’s not enough and so on it goes, with you as the player character only ever ripping your gaze away from product listings or your fireplace to look at in-game menus. It’s not a healthy lifestyle, but the fireplace makes it a comfortable one.
It feels like a pertinent message, especially considering that there are various corners of the gaming community which have a tendency to heavily invest themselves in video games and similar entertainment in ways that aren’t entirely self-beneficial. The game doesn’t dive into great detail and nuance with its message but it does manage to place it front and centre without it feeling like it’s too heavy-handed in its approach, and manages to ultimately deliver it in a warm and loving way as opposed to a hateful and harsh one. All in all, Little Inferno can almost purposefully bore you and has a few rough edges in its puzzles and character interactions, but its simple riddles, bizarre effects shows, and its gentle reminder to not just live your entire life in front of The Shopping Channel make the short time you spend with it something to treasure.