Little Inferno Asks that You Not Turn Around, Just Burn, Baby, Burn

It’s called The Humble Indie Bundle, now in its eighth iteration (and having taken a few detours down more commercial paths), but the concept is simple: introduce a bunch of price-averse shoppers to a pack of diverse games that they might not otherwise have considered playing, or might not have had the resources to purchase, and hope that those increased downloads lead to future sales and warranted attention for the developers. This iteration’s offering a series of much-buzzed-about titles, from Hotline Miami to Dear Esther, but I feel the need to comment today about Little Inferno, a game that literally just sucked up the last three hours and fourteen minutes of my life. I didn’t expect to keep playing, especially since Little Inferno is sort of an anti-game, and yet I felt compelled to soldier on, as I once did through a similar title (Doodle God), which asks players to make increasingly abstract combinations of items in order to move up the evolutionary (and ideological) ladder of thought-creation. Despite being nothing more than a series of tapping exercises, the game made you think at least a little about the ways in which things could be connected or interpreted. Much like the act of creation itself, one imagines, it ultimately involved a lot of trial-and-error and random mash-ups: fun was beside the point.

Little Inferno operates on a similar principle, only more sarcastically. You are a young child (the sort you might see in a Don Hertzfeldt cartoon) left to make your own entertainments in an increasingly frozen city. (You can read into this as a warning against climate change; I prefer to take it as seriously as a Twilight Zone premise.) Tomorrow Enterprises suggests that you take all your belongs, toys, hopes, and dreams, and pitch them into their fireplace, gaining both sustenance and perhaps joy from the heat such destructive acts generate. Doing so, for some gameified reason, also produces coins, which you can then use to buy new (and ultra-flammable) objects, as well as new catalogs, filled with ever-more expensive gear. It’s not entirely free-range: you begin with three unlocked items in your first catalog, and each new item that’s purchased and/or burnt unlocks a new one. Once you’ve cleared out one catalog, you’ll have access to a new one–but only if you’ve discovered a certain number of pyrotechnic combinations, and this is where the mechanics reveal their bite. The names of each combo are vague, some more than others, and the later combos increase in size from two objects to three, as well as requiring you to recall the contents of previous catalogs. For instance, the “Someone Else’s” combo requires you to burn Someone Else’s Credit Card and Someone Else’s Family Portrait; “Movie Night” asks you to pair up Corn on the Cob and Television; and “Framed” is asking you to find three different portraits to burn. Additionally, these items don’t just appear: after purchasing, you’ll have to wait for them to arrive, a task that can take anywhere between 10 to 180 seconds, but which can be sped up by using the stamps you collect from sussing out these combos. (With about 140 items, this is slightly more complicated than you’d imagine.)

One way to play is to casually burn things and watch what each one does: the blowfish explodes, Pluto sucks everything into its gravity and turns it into ice, the smoke detector causes jets of water to fall from the ceiling, and a television goes meta as it broadcasts its own fiery demise. But there’s also a loose narrative, which comes in a series of letters that arrive from a person who is revealed to be your neighbor, and goes by the name Sugar Plumps. As the world continues to ice over, she sends you warm kisses and promises of a better tomorrow, and when she abruptly vanishes mid-game . . . along with the sounds of a burning building . . . there’s an uneasy sense that this game isn’t as innocent as it makes itself out to be. Your “character” is asked to sit still, to not turn around, and to absorb himself entirely in burning things up; so too are you, the gamer. Just as you never question the point of a game, neither does your character; you just continue to burn, and it’s almost disappointing to find that there is something at the end of that seventh catalog, a sort of moral warning — not about climate change, but about laziness and addiction, the very traps of the game that you’ve just been playing and likely would have continued playing had it not itself chosen to move on.

It’s certainly easier to simply burn things than to think about the fact that you’re burning and buying virtual gear (and this, actually, seems like a valid critique of online marketplaces and e-currencies for, say, the scandal-filled Diablo III); it’s a lot harder to idly play a game — no matter how self-referential, joking, and jovial it gets — once it’s called you out on the fact that you’re simply distracting yourself as the world outside freezes over. You’re complicit in that, it says; I’m actually surprised the game even offers you a choice to reload your game or to start a new one. I half-expected it to immolate in cyber-flames, to erase itself from my hard drive. (I understand, for commercial and legal reasons, why it doesn’t go that far.) But ultimately, that’s the point: you have to choose to stand up, to go outside, to turn around from your flickering computer screen — something that I could have, but did not do today. Perhaps I will . . . or perhaps I’ll continue to let it all burn down, and to all those congressmen who have harped on the dangers of video games, you might want to look here, first, for the signs of active inactivity that may be tolling the end of society.

Can I, in all seriousness, recommend that anyone play Little Inferno? No. But if the tenor of my words does nothing for you, perhaps you should experience it. And to those who continue to assert that games are not art, I demand that you give Little Inferno the attention its flames suck, like oxygen, out of the room; anything that can destabilize a player like this, for better or worse, is more than a mere game.

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