Usually with a game review, I write up a neat little preview piece. It gives me more real estate to properly cultivate my thoughts into the lush shrubbery you’re used to. However, just as I fired up Little Inferno from Tomorrow Corporation (ye’ olde 2D Boy from World of Goo fame), it was over. It is a short, short game, being finished in less than five hours and fully completed around about six. But that doesn’t stop it from being a wonderful, emotive title worthy of anyone’s time.
Because of this, I give you the anti-review. In some rare cases a game functions not just as a game, but as a piece of art. Where the confines and rules of review refuse to fit snuggly. This is where Little Inferno sits, stubbornly existing in between the two ideals. After scrapping hundreds of words trying to bang a square peg into a round hole, I gave up. Here it is. Little Inferno: The Anti-Review
Just mentioned, this is an especially difficult game to review because of the size, execution and priorities of the game. For all intents and purposes, there is no gameplay and there is no progression. The vast, vast majority of the game comes down to three things: rifling through catalogs for specific items, reading letters and burning everything. Coming off of the huge success of the uber-structured and uber-gamey World of Goo, this is a bit of a shock. Nothing will ever stand between you and the end. No puzzles, no resource management and no leveling anything.
There is no challenge or difficulty curve either. You cannot lose, only progressing in terms of volume, not complexity. Sure, there are combinations of objects to burn that net you stamps — literal stamps that only serve to expedite the already resistance-less process — but these are completely optional as you will get stamps anyway. There is only making fire, and fire will always make you more money. (Trying to convey the fact that there is no gameplay is proving quite difficult.)
So, what the heck do you do?
Well, you can hunt these combos as you burn if you want a pat on the head for a job well done. But, that’s not the point. The point is to think about how and why you’re doing all this. The buy-burn-earn, buy-burn-earn cycle is not just the gameplay, it is the commentary. The fundamental crux of the piece as a whole. Little Inferno almost directly asks you if you’re living or simply watching things burn to feel something warm.
To juxtapose these ideas, your foil to the constant burning is Sugar Plums, your always-watching never-seen neighbor. She sends you letters of sincere intimacy desperately crying for human interaction, not to be cordoned off and isolated. See, as you will pick up from the details artfully gleaned from the letters, broadcasts and descriptions of items, the world is a cold, lonely place. To paraphrase, you never need to look around or behind you, always forward into the furnace.
Likewise, as you begin to become attached to Sugar Plums, you begin to question the very world about you. Is the weather really getting perpetually colder or is The Weather Man corrupt? Is the Tomorrow Corporation, the in-game company, peddling addiction, furnaces and misery to the city? Who knows. All you know is that you’re totally ignorant about the external world, the game solely fixating on the Little Inferno before you.
To that end, the game is perfect. Such a strong authoritative hand is exerted over every aspect of the title. Its minimalism is deliberate and the isolated, frigid, emotionally-starved world masterfully realized by the three man staff. References and winks are there but, in the end, the burden of wondering is left to the player. And, bluntly, I respect the hell out of the staff for it. The idea of making an endlessly replayable, massively massive world with RPG elements never entered their minds. The world of Little Inferno is specific and powerful because the voices of the people working on it are so easily heard.
As a game — a video game videogame — it comes up short, though. In the end, it is a refreshing package to be certain, the boney gameplay tied to the immense weight of this inferred dilemma. It’s quite an odd pair; the heady propositions and the non-existent gameplay. Even though the production is top-notch, sporting beautiful, indicative graphics and easily one of the best soundtracks of the year, it fails as a game. As I said before, after making such a traditionally excellent game, Little Inferno is certainly too skimpy by comparison.
But, there is so much more there. So much craft and care. So much mental lubricant. So much to weigh and think about. In that regard, it is a stellar example of gaming as a medium for emotive storytelling. Little Inferno is a game to make you feel things and — perhaps — think about the things we lose in the pursuit of entertainment. Those are the things we throw into the fire.