Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Little Inferno

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to an indie game on Steam called Little Inferno, joking that it was perfect for our fire-loving mutual friend. I watched the trailer, and was immediately drawn in by the weirdness of it. As far as I could tell, the gameplay consisted entirely of lighting small objects on fire, but the game had an underlying grim humor and apocalyptic feel that I found really appealing.

 Website   Steam

The game itself didn't disappoint. You, the main character, live in a world plagued by an endless winter, and your only source of entertainment (and life sustaining warmth) is your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace.The gameplay is very, very simple - you spend virtually the whole game staring into said fireplace, tossing items inside and setting them ablaze in order to stay warm. You have to spend money to buy items to burn, and those items pop out money once they're fully combusted - more money than you spent on them, allowing you to continue buying more expensive items and unlocking new product catalogs. For each catalog, there are a set of challenges - combinations of 2-3 items you need to burn together, indicated by a short phrase that's sometimes literal (bike pirate) sometimes themed (terrible teeth), and sometimes metaphorical - though many of them sound more metaphorical than they are.

Some of the combos are more self evident than others, and they get appropriately more difficult as the game goes on, both because they're less obvious, and because you have more objects to combine. Now, all this is fairly basic (if really weirdly executed) puzzle game fodder. But what makes Little Inferno really come to life is that throughout the game you're receiving letters - from your new found friend Sugar Plumps, from the creator of the Little Inferno fireplace, and from the weather man. Each letter gives you a glimpse into the bleak outside world, with great little snippets throughout that feel fantastically ominous - more so because the most apocalyptic sounding turns of phrase are the ones delivered with the most cheer.

In fact, the whole game plays up this contrast between doom and gloom and upbeat cheer. The main game screen is silent except for the sound of fire and a faint, distant, cold wind, but the catalog pages (where you spend a near equal amount of time) have an upbeat, 50's TV ad style jingle. Everyone is all smiles, despite your obviously grim situation. And the toys. The toys are brilliantly designed, with a grim sense of humor (a rabid raccoon plushie, cans of soda that are "good as long as you're drinking them") that makes you laugh right up until it becomes sort of horrifying (a school bus - that you set on fire and everyone inside starts screaming) or tragic (a note from your friend, or a teddy bear). Even when you burn things in combination, they only rarely interact, but almost all of the items have their own unique reaction to fire (a cob of corn pops into kernels and then popcorn, the rabid raccoon starts foaming at the mouth) that's again sometimes really funny and highly pyro-pleasing, but occasionally really tragic.

Little Inferno is mostly a sandbox (fire box?) puzzle game with a story that gradually reveals itself, getting more and more haunting all the while. Like most indie games, it's pretty short - I clocked in a full play through in a little more than six hours, which included a break for dinner and a little wandering around, since there's no pause button (or really any kind of game interface at all) - but it's incredibly beautiful, with great visual and sound design, amazing writing, and a smooth, intuitive interface and reward system that manages to make the game feel more challenging as it progresses without really altering the gameplay. More than anything, the story is powerful and thought provoking, and all the more so because it's spare and deftly written. If you like playing with fire, puzzle games, post-apocalyptic stories, or are just looking for a simple something that will really make you think, Little Inferno is definitely worth a try.

If you're on the fence about it, I found that the game trailer I above is representative of the atmosphere and aesthetic of the game, but not really the gameplay. Since I'm not really the type to buy anything on a whim, I actually checked out this gameplay video from Yogscast before I bought it. The video is about 20 minutes long, but very representative of the game as a whole, and should give you a feel for whether or not you'll like the game pretty quickly.

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