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Little Inferno (PC) artwork

Little Inferno (PC) review

"Baby, it's cold outside."

I didn’t download Little Inferno expecting it to be an “experience.”

You know what I mean. One of those games with no scores. No times to beat. No fail states. I was expecting a puzzle game, based on its pedigree. Little Inferno was developed by Tomorrow Corporation, a three-man team consisting of Kyle Gray (Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure), Allan Blomquist, and Kyle Gabler (previously from 2D Boy, of World of Goo fame). Gabler’s influence is the most apparent in the project. Much like World of Goo, Little Inferno thrives on atmosphere, with a Burtonesque aesthetic, complete with a soundtrack that could convincingly be passed off as the work of Danny Elfman.

Little Inferno opens in front of a fireplace. Inside of the fireplace is a sign that says “Touch & hold anywhere to make fire,” and what better way to break in your new firebending abilities than to burn said sign? After you listen to the satisfying crackling sound while the flames dance and the sign burns to nothing, you’ll receive a letter from Miss Nancy, CEO of Tomorrow Corporation, the company that built the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace you’ll be spending the majority of the game in front of. She urges you to read the manual, but burning things is more fun than reading things, so you drag both the manual and the letter into the fireplace and set them alight. Now you’re out of things to burn, so you open a catalog and start ordering.

Catalogs contain a wide range of burnable items, from dolls to china to robots to tiny planets. Each item reacts to fire differently. A battery will explode, for example, or a spider egg sac will hatch, or a marshmallow will... scream. As items burn, coins fall out, and you’ll always end up with a bit more than you spent on the item. Money simply grows. The more you spend, the more you’ll have.

And that’s basically the game. You burn things. For no reason except that it’s strangely satisfying and hypnotic. The Little Inferno fireplace is marketed as a toy, and the video game about said fireplace is basically a toy as well. The closest thing there is to strategy or challenge is a list of 99 “combos.” You earn stars by guessing what the name of a combo means and then burning the two or three things from the combo together. The “Poker Hand” combo, for example, is solved by burning playing cards with a wooden hand. Some combos are more obvious than others. Hint: the Yellow Brick Road combo has nothing to do with yellow road signs and bricks.

The point of Little Inferno is not its gameplay. As I said earlier, the game is all about atmosphere. Items from catalogs take a certain amount of time to arrive, ranging from a few seconds to several minutes. This leads to down time when you’re not burning anything, and those moments feel strangely cold. You can hear the wind outside, there’s no warm glow from the fireplace, and suddenly your unseen character’s reasons to simply sit around burning things make sense. There’s a story with a proper ending, told through letters from a handful of characters, including weather reports from an unseen weather man (the forecast is always snow, and apparently has always been snow for as long as anyone can remember) and your neighbour, Sugar Plumps, who is as stuck in front of her fireplace as you are in front of yours.

These characters will occasionally call attention to the fact that you do nothing but burn things and stare at your fireplace. Little Inferno is perfectly aware of what it is. The lack of gameplay and short length (the game will probably only last you a few hours if you don’t try to create all 99 combos) are fully intentional. It’s all part of the message, and may make us, as players, call into question why we spend so much time doing simple, unproductive things. A sense of ambivalence pervades the whole experience. The setting is simultaneously warm and comforting, and cold and unsettling. Story events and writing are humourous and creepy. Tomorrow Corporation CEO Miss Nancy somehow manages to seem loving and kind, but there is also the implication that she’s greedy and uncaring.

On one hand, it’s a little disappointing that a company with such a strong puzzle background decided to make a toy instead of a puzzle game. On the other hand, it’s a pretty interesting toy with a great atmosphere and a story that may actually make you think. (More ambivalence! How meta.) Don’t play Little Inferno if you’re looking for something in the family of World of Goo in gameplay terms (aesthetics are a different story, though, since both games share a similar style). It has more in common with The Unfinished Swan and Dear Esther than Henry Hatsworth. Little Inferno is something you should play if you appreciate weirdness and humour, with a well-crafted atmosphere… no matter how unsettling it can sometimes be.

Roto13's avatar
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (November 19, 2012)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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