by Tyson Giffard (themightyme)
When Nintendo launched its WiiWare digital download service in 2008, World of Goo quickly became its flagship title, and deservedly so. I instantly fell in love with its developer, 2dBoy, and have anticipated their next project ever since. While Little Inferno is not from 2d Boy, half of that two-man team was indeed involved in its production. Little Inferno comes to us from Tomorrow Corporation who, besides Kyle Gabler of 2d Boy, includes talent from the team behind EA’s Henry Hatsworth. (All of these guys were buddies and formed the Experimental Gameplay Project together before they became famous.) So, it is safe to say that Little Inferno has pedigree; but is it even a game at all, or is it merely a toy?
Little Inferno is, in essence, a fireplace simulator. Buy stuff from a catalog, burn said stuff, get coins to buy more stuff. Though the concept might inspire a yawn and a skeptical frown, the game itself does not. Little Inferno keeps you interested with its humor, its letter-based storytelling mechanism, and an integrated combo system that gives you a feeling of progression. By burning various combinations of items, you can achieve combos (a subtle jab at Zynga’s badge system that ironically proves the effectiveness of its approach). Combos earn you more coins, and advance you closer to more letters, and new catalogs in which to buy an even greater variety of items to burn. The items you burn react in darkly hilarious ways as they melt down, and the burning itself is hypnotic with gorgeous fires that spiral up the chute sending ash into the bleak and frozen outside world.
When you start up a game of Little Inferno you are placed before a fire place with the simple instruction to burn things by touching them. In my inventory is an instruction manual for the Little Inferno, an instruction manual that you cannot read… only burn. Soon you get letters from Tomorrow Corporation (the fictional entity, not the developer of the game itself), as well as a young girl who is burning things in her Little Inferno fireplace, just like you. After reading a letter, you burn it, just like everything else… everything must burn. Soon afterwards you acquire your first catalog of toys and everyday items… to burn. Make enough combos and new catalogs become available for purchase, each pertaining to a theme such as video games, plush toys, and even food. The first combo I solved was the easily identifiable “Bike Pirate”, which is achieved by burning a bicycle and a pirate toy simultaneously. Thankfully the combos become more challenging as you play on, but they never quite become clever puzzles. There are no points, there is no score; you just burn things, get coins, buy more things, and burn those things. There is a list of one hundred combos to unlock, an array of catalogs, and shelf extensions that allow you to hold more items at once. When you order new items you must wait for their delivery; you can use stamps (acquired in the same way you earn coins… by burning things) to expedite delivery, but with no time limit it serves only to combat your own impatience. Some toys contain properties that affect other items in the Little Inferno fireplace. Some create their own gravity field, some shake violently around the screen destroying everything they come in contact with, and some even create sudden flash freezes and snow storms. All of which are merely ways of toying around with the game’s physics engine.
What really makes Little Inferno shine, however, is the art and music which fed my appetite for all things Tim Burton, and Ren and Stimpy (gotta love that catalog music). 1950s mass consumerism inspired toys and items are accompanied by music that ranges from Danny Elfman-esque Brassy gloom and wonder to homages of mass produced jaunty production music. The tonal mix of cartoonishly cute nostalgia and dour dystopian bleakness had me enthralled. I soon found myself playing until my gamepad’s battery died out, and then playing some more while it charged. The ending of the game is so gorgeous and well executed that I found myself wishing the whole game was just a build up to further adventure to come (fingers crossed).
Despite all my praise, there are questions this game needs to answer. Is excellent presentation enough to justify a $15 price tag when applied to gameplay most comparable to a free smartphone game like Alchemy? When your games primary advancement mechanic is the same as that used by a publisher you are parodying, are you not at some point arguing against your own value? Is your experience in itself just pornography for pyromaniacs? It is the questions a game brings up that tell us who it is for. While I might prefer a more gamey experience, Little Inferno offered enough for me to play for hours on end without being bored. Which brings us to the most important question of all: Do I love this game?
Yes, yes I do.