It’s rare for a developer to elevate the tablet game. The tablet market as it exists today is a wasteland of bottom-rung titles fighting for the visibility of the 5-minute gamer with limited attention span. Very rarely does a game utilize those 5 minutes to prompt a player to consider the larger world outside a fictional environment. We play for escapism; why would we want to be bothered by mundane real life? Sometimes, a game like Little Inferno reminds us why video games are more than mere timesinks.
The following synopsis contains spoilers for the ending of Little Inferno. If you’re only here wondering whether it’s a good buy, the answer is yes.
At first glance, Little Inferno is an innocuous shovelware title available on the PC and in iTunes and the Wii U‘s Virtual Console. It imagines a world overcome by perpetual winter wherein children huddle around high-tech furnaces to keep warm. A popular pastime is to order items through catalogs for fireplace fodder. It’s casual gaming at its most casual: points are awarded via item combinations, and discovering new ways to create “Online Piracy” or “Wooden Applause” creates extra points. For all intents and purposes, it’s just another tablet game to pass some time. Until the letters start.
At certain checkpoints, the game sends messages from other people who also exist in the world. There’s the Weather Man, who delivers the unchanging weather conditions and hopeless malaise outdoors, as well as your neighbor Sugar Plumps who oozes enthusiasm and excitement for the fun inherent in arson. As the game progresses, the player is encouraged to find all possible combinations to create more interactions with these characters, until an error combination is created that causes a malfunction in the primary Little Inferno interface. Full game completion ends the game entirely.
It also sets your player character’s house on fire.
The endgame sequence is more lengthy than a credit roll and “thanks for playing.” Your character is forced to venture outside for the first time since we’ve known him, left to wander aimlessly and interact with NPCs only briefly glimpsed before. During this sequence, it is revealed that an entire world has always existed around your character, but the protagonist himself was too engrossed in his Little Inferno to look elsewhere. It is only when things go too far and he cannot exist at home anymore that he is forced outward to experience the other things life can offer him. After visiting the Little Inferno creator, the protagonist finds himself riding in a hot air balloon on the way to new lands.
If this is to be taken at face value, then it is a simple coming of age story. When a child transitions into adulthood, one’s home can become restrictive and stifling. Leaving home is part of the growing up process, and no child can be said to be fully matured without having experienced the terrifying sense of living without a net. As we age, we watch our parents grow old and die. Our neighborhoods shift and change to accommodate the next generation. Many times, we discover that we’ve left home only to return to visit a place that isn’t quite the same as we remembered it. Once we leave, we cannot truly go home again. Does Little Inferno mean to tell us that our current crop of childlike adults cannot sustain itself as it currently exists? Does it wish to tell us that we will freeze and die unless we learn to go outdoors and experience more of the world? Or, could it be that it simply wishes to open up this dialogue and force us to have this discussion among ourselves?
Whatever the intention, it is curious that Tomorrow Corporation chose to leave its story content so back-loaded. It is well-known that ninety percent of people who begin a game will never finish it. Combined with the expected ADD of the casual gamer market, it is possible that a staggering few players will ever be privy to the ending at all. But this development team stated its willingness to embrace a gamer willing to push through.”You can’t play in the sandbox forever,” reflects Tomorrow Corporation member Kyle Gabler. “There is an end.” Perhaps the point is speculation. To reach the end of Little Inferno, a player must meet several requirements. He or she must be a gamer owner who also has the time and commitment required to complete a 4-6 hour game. Speaking broadly, only children and dedicated gamers will receive the message.
Go outside, implores Little Inferno. Live. Experience. It’s a strong message to those willing to receive it. And even if a player doesn’t agree with the message, it’s an important discussion to raise. Quantitatively speaking, one game that urges us to think is worth a thousand farm simulations.