Little Inferno and ‘Digital Experiences’: They’re Video Games, Jim, But Not as We Know Them

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In today’s gamingsphere, accomplishment is paramount. As we’ve previously seen, if a game featured an Achievement for a month’s uninterrupted play with nary a pause for a bathroom break, there would be those enterprising gamers that acquired it, risking their bladders swelling until they exploded in a ghastly, macabre mess of urine and blood-leaking flesh fragments on their shagpile carpets.

Hard mode? Impossible mode? preposterous mode? Ultimate-Fighting-Champion-battle-against-humongous-movie-badass-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-with-an-arm-and-both-legs-tied-behind-your-back-armed-only-with-a-turd-stained-toilet-brush mode? All SHALL be conquered, paying no heed to the loss of sanity/vision/hours of daylight/minty-fresh body odour/significant others that may occur as a result.

Self-imposed feats of demented ninja cyborg gaming prowess are also common, completing x level utilising only x weapon and ad nauseum variants on that notion. As such, what is the protocol with ‘digital experiences,’ these odd little confections that don’t deign to offer achievements, trophies, coherent plots of any sort or even logical level systems? Are we to abandon our strenuous quest to bolster the ever-increasing size of our immense e-wieners? Are we reduced to taking photographs of ourselves giving the righteous middle finger and mailing them to developer HQs in our eternal chagrin? No. Because THAT would be crazy.

Let us venture, then, into the preposterous, endearing and macabre world of Little Inferno. This PC release steadfastly defies any attempt at being genre-defined (I’m going to tentatively dub it a ‘puzzle’ game, though this is a loose -loose enough to DROP RIGHT OFF– application of the term), presenting players with… a fireplace. You’ll accrue catalogues containing a fantastical multitude of mail-order items, from the conventional (stuffed toys, food, drink, household items) to the ludicrous (a phoenix egg, an actual, tangible ‘email,’ the no-longer-manly-and-sizable-enough-to-be-a-fully-fledged-planet-but-still-not-the-kind-of-thing-you-can-keep-in-your-kitchen-cupboard astral body Pluto). Your sole aim, your very raison d’etre, is to purchase an assortment of these items and burn them in the fireplace.

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You are bereft of scoring systems and time limits, almost entirely unfettered by the ‘logic’ of the gamingverse as we know it. Our endeavours are buoyed along by only the vaguest of narratives: our protagonist (a small boy rarely seen due to the game’s first-person perspective) and his town are beset by a bizarre phenomenon: it has been snowing for as long as anybody can remember, it transpires, and is becoming ever-colder. It is fortuitous that the big ol’ global enterprise, Tomorrow Corporation, is in town, dispensing their ‘Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace.’ As a fleeting, Tim Burton-esque cutscene demonstrates, the master plan to curtail everybody’s popsicle-testicled frozen fate is to… burn things in the fire. A calling our tiny pyromaniac performs with gleeful vigor.

Beyond this tantalizing, fleeting glimpse, we must rely upon letters, brief missives that arrive alongside your fire-fodder (and, in turn, become just so much kindling once read). Oftentimes, these will constitute the psychotic warblings of your next door neighbour, Sugar Plumbs, as she burns toy tigers’ crotches and so forth in the same manner. She’ll leave maddening hints pertaining to the eternal snow, and the reasons for it, and allude to knowing other things that are never disclosed. Further messages will arrive from the weather man (he is, naturellement, orbiting this dystopian, frozen world in a balloon, as these guys are seemingly wont to do) and will intermittently report upon the precarious situation outside your window. Beyond these loons, a third character, Ms. Nancy, will lend less-than-insightful insights about the ‘Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace,’ working within the Tomorrow Corporation.

There is, I’ll concede, some semblance of progress and even collectibles to be found in the toon-tinged, macabre world of Little Inferno. Most pertinently, there is a ‘combo’ menu. (the only time, except when making purchases, that you won’t be staring into the bowels of that infernal fireplace with its creeptacular, unexplained WEIRD HEAD THING. Which incidentally, has its eyes shut, yet still has the capacity to glare into your soul with a righteous condemnation, as though you have a saucer of human eyelids on your kitchen and half a buttock under your pillow. STARE NOT, FOUL THING! RETURN UP SATAN’S ANUS FROM WHENCE YOU CAME!) Of some hundred-or so items proffered, certain selections will have a special effect when burnt simultaneously.

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The menu will provide a clue and the number of objects (two to four), and it’s incumbent upon you to earn the ‘stamp’ on the menu that ensues. There are 99 of these, and they are perilously close to conventional puzzles by the unhinged standards of Little Inferno. Only half are a prerequisite to ending the game (certain thresholds of combos must be discovered before you acquire the next catalogue), and much poring over the humorous, cryptic clues and perusal of the catalogues will be required to find them all.

Those that have indulged in the developer’s much-vaunted World of Goo can attest to the find dichotomy of cute and creepy that these guys deliver with aplomb. As such, with the incessant allusions to something ghastly JUST ABOUT to be elucidated upon, Little Inferno demonstrates how absurdly compelling its comparatively aimless approach can be.

In summation, you won’t attaining ultra, mega, roaring off into the stratosphere on a rainbow of mighty gaming prowess scores here, or achieving anything per se. This is a whimsical, odd little confection, relentlessly addictive in ways that are quite astonishing. In other releases, you may expend several hours in your travails to conquer a ‘professional’ or ‘ballbuster’ or some such difficulty mode. Here, in the same time period, you may opt to painstakingly construct a fort from the building blocks, or spell out convoluted messages with the letter bricks. Is this a comparable ‘challenge?’ The seemingly-warranted pride of enthusiasts that have uploaded screenshots of such to Wii U’s Miiverse would suggest so.