Little Inferno is one of the least marketable games ever released. It's about sitting in front of a fire place, putting objects in the fire place, and burning them. That's pretty much it. Your average person hears that and thinks "Well, that's not worth my time or money. I want to go to places and do things."
But do you really? If you wanted to go to places and do things, wouldn't you ... go to places and do things? That's just one of the many questions that Little Inferno was designed to ask.
Little Inferno (iOS, PC, Wii U eShop [reviewed])
Developer: Tomorrow Corporation
Publisher: Tomorrow Corporation
Released: November 18, 2012 / January 31, 2013 (iPad)
There are very few games like Little Inferno, which offers very little frame of reference for you, dear reader, to assess whether you "like this sort of thing." It's also a game that, if over-explained, will lose a sizable amount of its impact. That's why I'm going to spend a little time talking about the only other game I've ever played that's remotely like Little Inferno.
Cow Clicker (by Ian Bogost) was made as a statement about how terrible Facebook games are. There is a cow on the middle of the screen. You click it. Then you wait for the meter to refill so that you can click on it again. If you don't want to wait, you can pay actual money to force the meter to refill more quickly. That's it.
It was supposed to be a throwaway joke, to be ingested and discarded by those that got it, ignored by those that didn't. That's not what happened. Instead, people started to love the game. Some of them loved it from the start, completely missing the point. Others liked the game ironically at first, but after a while, that irony turned to genuine affection for their cows and the game that brought them to "life." What started as a "troll post" of a game had developed a genuine following, which transformed Ian Bogost to a guy who was making fun of Facebook-style game design, to a guy who was profiting from it.
Little Inferno is like Cow Clicker on steroids.
The game starts with a letter introducing you to your new purchase from the Tomorrow Corporation -- The Little Inferno home entertainment device. After reading the letter, you are encouraged to burn it. Thanks to the expert craftsmanship of the games visual and technical design, burning the letter is surprisingly satisfying. The graphics, sound effects, and physics are all extremely detailed and convincing. Just as how Rhythm Heaven Fever makes kicking a soccer ball more fun than it should be, and Gears of War makes virtually decapitating a stranger feel important, exciting and "visceral," Little Inferno makes burning stuff feel like an event.
From there, you are offered at catalog that allows you to buy more items to burn. Like in your average Facebook game, you'll have to wait for a meter to fill before your items arrive in the mail. This wait time gives the items a false sense of importance, as anything you have to wait for and pay for must be worth something, or else why would you bother to wait and pay for it?
The only way to get money to buy these items is to burn items and dig for coins in their fiery deaths. There is a huge variety of items to burn, each with their own specific and highly detailed burn events. For instance, light a school bus on fire, and you'll be treated to the slow, realistic burn of metal and rubber as you listen the crackling snaps of flaming car parts and the screams of children being burned alive. Fun!
If you want to see everything the game has to offer and maximize your profits, you'll try to go for combos. Taking one, two, or more items and burning them together can result in unexpected animations and sound effects, a huge payload of coins, and a congratulatory stamp of approval. You are given a list of names of combos, but it's up to you to figure out what they mean. For instance, the "Movie Night" combo can be scored by burning a television and an ear of corn at the same time. There is something very special about watching a TV on your TV ignite into flames while burning popcorn darts around your screen. Also, it's a profit deal. Win/win.
While your primary focus is bent towards buying and burning, you'll also get letters, pictures, items, and videos from time to time from outside entities. The two parties you'll be hearing from the most are the Tomorrow Corporation themselves (usually working to promote their items) and a young woman named Sugar Lumps, who is a part of the "Little Inferno online community." She's taken an immediate liking to you, as you are also a fan of Little Inferno home entertainment, and in no time at all she'll start sending you personal letters, pictures of her cat, and even some home made artwork.
Problem is, you only have so much space in your inventory to hold more items to burn. Sugar Lumps' gifts are sweet, but they also get in the way of your very important self appointed job of burning things that you bought in a catalog. Being forced to choose between holding on to genuinely charming keepsakes from a stranger that present an attempt for a real emotional connection with the player and making room to burn more crap will be sure to illicit emotions in the player. It's just one of the many ways Little Inferno works to get you asking questions about yourself, your interest in videogames, and the reasons you feel they are important.
The game will be over for most people in a few hours. Depending on your decisions, you'll see one of two endings, which offers a bit of replay value. On the Wii U, you can play either on your TV, or the Gamepad, and with Wii Remote pointer controls or Gamepad stylus controls. It's a fully fleshed out package that offers just about everything you could possibly want in a interactive satire of videogames/virtual fireplace.
Some may complain that the game is too short or is overpriced. They'd be missing the point, which is arguably part of the Little Inferno concept. As for me, I feel that the game is a bargain at $15. It's the only game of its type on the market today. I can't think of the last time that a game has made me think, feel, and laugh at such a consistent pace. It's mix of high-concept messages and simple, more-fun-than-it-should be "gameplay" make it a must buy for anyone who likes thinking about videogames and/or burning things.