Little Inferno is a game for grown-ups about lighting things on fire.
If that sounds like a contradiction-in-terms, well that’s part of the idea. Little Inferno tells one of the most layered narratives I’ve probably ever played. More and more games these days are trying to pack in actual grown-up oriented story lines, though most seem to flub it – most I’ve played, anyway – so it’s nice to see a game that asks what kind of story only a game could tell. Sure, Little Inferno‘s message could be delivered as a short story or on TV, but it fits absolutely perfectly with a controller in the consumer’s hand.
This all struck me after about an hour of play (it took me three to get to the game’s ending). You start as a character staring, fixated, on his new Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace from the Tomorrow Corporation. You order things from catalogues and burn them for money and stamps – but mostly for the fun. And it is fun. That’s the core mechanic of the game – burning sh*t – and that enough would give it more entertainment value than another time-waster like Farmville. And burn I did. I burned toys and magnets and pictures and letters from Tomorrow Corporation, and I never looked away from the flickering lights in front of me. It was all as fun and funny as I was told it would be.
And then someone tried to break my isolation. Someone in the game tried to reach out to me, and I realized something vital that the game wanted me to realize: When the fire died, all I had left was the cold, soulless grey-brown of an empty fireplace. And as the time between deliveries grew longer as the game progressed, that uncomfortable coldness spread – and there was somebody out there who wanted to make a real connection with me. Then Little Inferno asked me to make decisions about that. Do I keep the letters she sends me? Do I keep the picture of her? All those attempts to break down the artifice that keeps us apart also crowd my inventory, which means I can’t burn as much, which means there are longer and longer periods of coldness between the fires. Managing that became the hardest part of the game . Little Inferno may seem like a game about burning sh*t, but in truth, it’s a game about finding compromise between finding time for fun (and the game offers a lot of fun) and holding on to human connection. And it’s like no game I’ve ever played.
(For some serious spoilerage, follow along after the jump. If you haven’t played Little Inferno, I’d advise you don’t read along. In my opinion, it’s a must-play for everyone who loves video games, and the less you know from this point on, the better. I got it on sale on the Wii U eShop; it’s also available here and on Steam and the App Store.)
So it was at the point of realizing that I had to make hard choices between holding on to human contact and keeping the fun going that, with masterful subtlety, the game revealed itself to me: The fourth wall came crumbling down, and I looked not at the game, but at the flickering box mounted on the wall in my very own living room.
I had voicemail on my phone from a call I’d ignored while I burned things in that box in front of me. I had a real human being in my house – a husband I love – real human contact. People I love, people I miss, and a whole, real world to explore, and all of it was beckoning. Waiting.
It struck me that I, too, had a choice to make.
If Little Inferno stopped right there, it would still be magnificent. But it doesn’t. It continues, it elaborates on the visceral impact of imploding the fourth wall, exploring what it means to choose between the real world and simulation. It has more to say, and it says it with subtlety, eloquence, and humour.
But for me, that could all wait.
I made my choice. I turned off the flickering box, and in the darkness before sleep that night I held my husband a little bit closer.