Little Inferno: Burn Bright, or Burn Out?
I imagine that when our primitive ancestors (I’m on some sort of caveman kick this week, aren’t I?) first discovered fire, the scientific method was invented right alongside it. Having made fire (or captured it from some other source, maybe by carrying a burning stick from a forest fire or a lightning strike or something), and hopefully having figured to ring it with stones or keep it away from dry brush, the first thing I assume they did was try to figure out what to chuck in it. Certain things worked — dry sticks, grass, furs (“Thanks a lot” grunted the one whose furs they’d tossed in, and thus sarcasm was invented too); others resulted in less pleasing effects — water, boulders, mastodon dung.
Little Inferno from Tomorrow Corporation, which consists of the same indie darlings behind the much-lauded World of Goo, deals largely with that lizard portion of our brains that compels us to acquire stuff for the sake of burning it up. Literally. Like with fire, not metaphorically. But does the game itself burn bright, or burn out?
Little Inferno begins with you seated in front of your newly-purchased Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace from Tomorrow Corporation. A paper placard tells you how to make fire, which you use to burn the placard. A letter appears, thanking you for purchasing your brand new Little Inferno, along with some Terms & Conditions documents. All are instantly relegated to the flames, unless you’re amazingly obtuse, in which case I’ve now given you an excellent strategy guide to the first puzzle. Not that there are any actual puzzles. The gameplay comes down to buying items from catalogs (toys, chinaware, foodstuffs, game references, photographs, etc.), waiting for them to arrive, and then burning them in the fireplace. Now and then you can burn two or three items together to create a combo, which will earn you special stars that don’t seem to have any use. The game soon informs you that there are no scores or points, no goals or objectives; just buying and burning. It also informs you of the general background, of an increasingly frozen outside world and the need to burn everything in order to stay warm, hence the catalogs that list items to burn. Man, they can corporatize anything.
And that’s about it. It costs coins to buy items from catalogs, and when burnt they will spill out more coins than they cost to purchase. As you buy more items, others unlock for purchase. Eventually you’ll earn new catalogs, which pave the way for more items, on and on.
I can’t imagine the pressure the designers must have been under to create something as wonderful and strange as 2008’s incredible World of Goo, which managed to be nigh-perfect on every level. And I’ll say it right now that Little Inferno is wonderful and strange, and even affecting at times. The process of figuring out what each object does when set aflame has a primal enjoyment to it, and Tomorrow Corporation has some nifty tricks up their sleeves as they reveal more of the backstory through letters from the fireplace company, the Weather Man who is reporting on the perpetual cold front from a high-altitude balloon, and a mysterious new friend. Oh, and these have got to be the best 2D fire effects in existence — setting up an immense bonfire just for the sake of the tickling flames is as much a mad joy as actually burning your toys out in the garden.
However, the magic lasts about an hour. Tomorrow Corporation’s official website mentions that the game is “Zero Waste,” and is “short, polished, perfeccct as possible.” In one sense that’s true — the game is immaculately focused, and it’s certainly the absolute best fireplace simulator in the world bar none. However, contrasted with World of Goo, which reinvented itself over and over again in the course of its fairly short playtime, it feels rather one-note. And while no-frills was certainly what Tomorrow Corporation was going for, it mostly left me hungering for frills. It took me about three hours from start to finish, during which time I figured out 69 of the game’s 99 combos, and by the end I was still hoping something would happen to shake things up. Aside from the amazing fire effects, good upbeat music, and pleasant cartoon visuals (which strike me as very Dr. Seussian), it feels like I’ve had similar experiences playing free flash games.
One of the reasons the first hour felt so much more enjoyable was thanks to the restocking and delivery times. When you purchase an item from a catalog, there’s a short wait before it’s delivered to you. You even need to wait for the item to be restocked before you can buy another. Delivery takes a scant few seconds early on, but after a while I found myself sitting around for minutes at a time. You can make shipments arrive immediately by spending stamps, which are earned sporadically or by figuring out combos, but those are sometimes in short supply, and seem to exist to justify the pointless combo system (unless there are multiple endings, though I doubt it would matter much. The ending I received wavered between trying to be comedic and trying to be profound, and ended up flatlining between the two).
Looking back over what I’ve written, I realize perhaps I’m being too harsh. The first hour I spent with Little Inferno really was enjoyable, even if I was questioning why the entire time. Maybe it’s meant to be ingested in smaller bites, rather than by my usual gulps and swallows. Even so, I don’t see much to recommend here. Mostly I hope for a demo, because even half an hour with Little Inferno is indicative of the entire experience.