Burn, Baby, Burn: Little Inferno

As always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

I’m way behind on this one. Little Inferno, released in 2012, is the second game by the creators of the acclaimed World of Goo. Well, sort of. World of Goo was made by 2D Boy, consisting of Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel, but only Kyle Gabler was involved in Little Inferno (along with Allan Blomquist and Kyle Gray). He was the designer, artist and composer for World of Goo, however, so most World of Goo fans were excited to try Little Inferno.

And most were disappointed, judging by the reviews I saw at the time. By all accounts, Little Inferno was a smaller and less interesting endeavor, which is probably why I skipped it at the time (looking now, however, it looks like it got a lot of praise; is my memory faulty?). Having acquired it since in some bundle or another, I gave it a go, and liked it more than I expected. I think it was simply ahead of its time.

I used to employ the term “indie games” a lot on this blog, but I have since stopped employing it. This is because the games landscape has changed since I began the blog back in 2011. At that time, independent developers had established themselves as something of a community, a movement in opposition to the traditional big publisher model of game development. Seminal games like Braid, Super Meat Boy, and, yes, World of Goo featured high production values and interesting design, and felt more polished and larger than many of the games that had been available from independent designers before. The development teams for these titles wanted to prove that high quality and interesting games did not need huge teams and big publisher backing to get made, and did not need to suffer for their absence. United by this common goal, indie developers sought each other out, formed collaborations, helped promote one another’s games, and even included references to each other’s work in the games themselves. “Indie games” came to refer to games made by members of this community, a community that arguably began with World of Goo, one of the first high-profile indie releases.

Today, things are different. Digital distribution has truly taken off, and with it barriers to game creation have crumbled. Game engines and other game-making tools are easily available, and funding has evolved due to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding avenues. The larger number of games being made, as well as the increasing popularity of mobile games, means that smaller and simpler games are often seen in a more favorable light than they were in the past. There are now all sorts of independently developed games available, ranging from shortform experimental works from a single author to huge games made by teams of experienced developers, often veterans or even entire studios formerly associated with publisher-funded development (see Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity or inXile’s Wasteland 2 as examples). The term “indie game” no longer means what it used to; it has been diluted to encompass this huge range of games. Personally, I love the fact that there are so many different types of games available, but it does mean that describing a game as an “indie game” is no longer particularly useful. Now they’re all just games.

Some of this was already starting in 2012 when Little Inferno was released, but the original community of independent developers was still going strong, and players had learned to expect a certain type of game from them. I played World of Goo along with everyone else when it was released in 2008 and loved its core physics-based building puzzles, and was pleasantly surprised to find it managed to satirize contemporary society and weave a touching story through it all. But World of Goo was also the start of the indie movement, a statement of intent that was followed by all manner of excellent indie games from a variety of developers, many of which I’ve written about on this blog. So the news of a new game from one of the original developers was tremendously exciting. People were expecting something akin to World of Goo, with sublime puzzles, arch commentary and wonderful music. But Little Inferno is a different beast.

The premise of Little Inferno is simple: the skies over the city of Burnington will not stop snowing, and no one knows why. Children are encouraged to use their Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace to burn all their toys to keep warm. Players can order all manner of toys or other consumer goods and then set them ablaze in the titular fireplace, earning more money with which to buy more things to burn. It’s clearly satirical, mocking consumer culture and “time-waster” video games among other things, but unlike World of Goo there aren’t any tricky puzzles to figure out. It’s just about burning things. The closest things to puzzles are the various “combos”, which are awarded for burning certain items in combination. The titles of the combos provide (often cryptic) hints as to which items to burn, and players must deduce the correct combination. But these combos are totally optional. Really, it’s just about burning things and seeing what happens.

Fortunately, the flame effects look fantastic. Fire is often difficult to render believably in games, but it’s obvious that a lot of care and effort went into the flames in Little Inferno. This doesn’t really come across in the screenshots; the animations and sound effects are vital to the versimilitude of the fire. Little details also help immensely, like the way the embers fly upwards, and how objects slowly decompose while alight, or even the way the resultant ashes are blown around the fireplace when new objects are slid around inside. It’s definitely the best fire I’ve ever seen in a game. Which is good, because I saw it a lot as I burned through all the available items. Each has a unique reaction when set ablaze, and watching these is the main motivation players have to continue burning.

It is impossible to fail at Little Inferno. There are no tricky puzzling challenges to figure out. In fact, barring searching for optional combos, the player only interacts with the game in incidental, playful ways, such as throwing things around inside the fireplace or piling on tons of objects to create a huge bonfire. None of that affects how the game plays out; there is a story to follow, but it plays out automatically as players try burning every available thing. Detractors argued that this limited interactivity created a short, linear and uninteresting game, one that is solely a message without any challenge.

Short games that focus on their message, however, are much more common (and better liked) today. Games like Papers, Please or This War of Mine received great acclaim for the way they crafted an interactive experience that completely served their message (although I should note that I haven’t played either of those games yet). Some might argue that these more recent examples do a better job handling player interaction, but I doubt it. Little Inferno is about the pointlessness of endlessly burning things. There is a reason that the player’s only possible actions are buying things and burning them. It’s all in service to the central theme.

Ironically, when compared to recent games with a similar tight focus, Little Inferno may actually be too long. Kyle Gabler is a master of communicating story through snippets of text, with an ability to establish a character’s personality with just a few words, and absolute perfect timing between lines. This makes Little Inferno’s story a joy to follow, but the pacing suffers when there are too many objects to burn in between. This is especially problematic when one is searching for combos, as repeated wrong guesses lengthen things significantly. It doesn’t help that many combos are inside jokes or references to other things Kyle Gabler has done, of which players may not be aware. Fortunately, there’s an (official?) hint site available to help people along when they’re stuck on a combo.

But even if one ignores the combos, there are still a few too many burnable items. And many are references to other indie games, which today comes across as cliquish rather than communal. Now that there are so many developers creating games in so many different ways, identifying with a few specific titles feels exclusionary, which I’m sure is the opposite of the original intent. It certainly dates the game and detracts from its lasting appeal.

But despite these shortcomings, I enjoyed Little Inferno a lot. It has more of Kyle Gabler’s beautiful music, it is beautiful to look at, and it tells a simple but enjoyable tale that manages, through the strength of Kyle’s writing, to narrowly avoid overt heavy-handedness. It’s clear from the start what the game is about, but it unfolds in a way that still manages to be sweet and affecting. It has stuck with me long after I finished it.

And it’s a lot safer than playing with real fire. That’s a definite plus.

If you want to give it a try yourself, Little Inferno is available directly from Tomorrow Corporation (via the Humble Store), as well as from Steam and other digital distributors. It’s also available for iOS, Android, and Wii U. Stay warm!

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2 Responses to Burn, Baby, Burn: Little Inferno

  1. Gregg B says:

    Yeah, Little Inferno was a huge surprise to me. I loved it and so did my girlfriend.

    • waltorious says:

      It’s odd because I remembered it getting poor reviews, but when I looked for them while writing this post I found they were mostly positive. Not sure where I got the negative impression, unless I just fixated on the differences from World of Goo.

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