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Maybe it's because Little Inferno doesn't present the side of Armageddon that we're used to seeing in games, but you might not even pick up on its apocalyptic storyline. Yet as I burned prize after prize in my Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, a thought tugged at the back of my mind: why am I doing this?
Why am I, a child left apparently alone in the dead of winter, burning everything in sight, then buying more things and burning them, too? Why is the Weather Man telling me to keep burning, to stay warm at all costs, that the snow shows no signs of stopping, that he can't remember the last time it did?
Spoilers for Little Inferno follow:
At the end of the game, as my house burned down around me, I half expected to find a desolate wasteland and a handful of diligent post-men ("rain or shine," after all) waiting for me outside. But no, its industrial landscape appeared calm, if chilly.
So why does Miss Nancy, the CEO of Tomorrow Corporation (eponymous with the game's developers) and inventor of the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, flee? What is she running from? And why does she need a rocket ship to get there?
What could possibly be so bad about the planet she's already on?
Little Inferno is not overtly a story about the apocalypse. But under its deceptively simplistic surface, I sensed a pre-apocalyptic world on the brink of another ice age. This is the story I made up in my head: with temperatures dropping and adult supervision in short supply, the forward-thinking Tomorrow Corp. sent a Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace to every boy and girl in the hopes of staving off the end just a little bit longer.
And (real-world) Tomorrow Corporation's Kyle Gabler, previously of World of Goo fame, told me during an email exchange that my apocalyptic conspiracy theory is "not off base."
"The reason for the weather outside isn't ever directly stated," he wrote. "At least one character kind of muses about it, but [Miss Nancy's] also kind of a batty old lady who smells like cinnamon, so who knows."
He added a ":)" for good measure.
I played through Little Inferno a half dozen times, seeking answers to these questions and more: Where did Sugar Plumps, the cute little neighbor girl, escape to? Did she really find some tropical paradise? And where was the Weather Man taking me in his mysterious hot air balloon?
Ultimately, I could only alter one aspect of the story, by resisting my urge to burn everything and hanging on to one lone item—a coupon for a free hug—until the final act. With this special prize in hand I unlocked the secret ending: just before Miss Nancy fled the city's impending doom, she leaned in close, ample bosom taking up most of the screen, and embraced me.
It wasn't much, but in this world devoid of hope, I found it endlessly comforting, and I put down my controller at peace with my fate.
One of my favorite games on Nintendo's new console is an interactive fireplace.
It's an emotional, interactive fireplace. And it's the first console game I've played through without ever turning on the TV.
Little Inferno is a download-only game for Wii U and PC/Mac/Linux. It was mostly made by two friends named Kyle and a guy named Allan Blomquist. Separately they led the creations of the acclaimed World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. The former game was a building set, the latter a hybrid sidescroller and block-puzzle game on the other. That these guys made an interactive fireplace is both surprising and not surprising at all.
If you look for info on Little Inferno, you find a mix of confusion and acclaim. The confused people wonder if Little Inferno is even a game. The impressed people write about how, as they finished the game, they got choked up.
It is a game. It's mostly a puzzle game. You've got a fireplace that you can see on your GamePad screen (or, presumably, on your TV). You've got a catalog of items such as bricks, corn and fireflies in a jar. With the stroke of the GamePad's stylus, you can flick these things into the fireplace. Everything burns. The bricks get crispy. The corn pops. Later, when you burn a railroad crossing sign, a train horn blares, the fireplace shakes and, for a moment, it seems that an unseen locomotive is speeding by.
The game has 99 challenges. These are its puzzles, each of them a phrase that refers to two or three items that must be burned at the same time. "Bike Pirate" is a cinch. Burn the wooden bike. Burn the pirate. "Movie Night" is a little tougher. Burn the popcorn. Burn the TV.
Developer: Tomorrow Corporation
Platforms: Wii U (reviewed), PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date (US): November 18
Type of game: Pyromaniac's delight masquerading as a puzzle game about burning things. Sort of an adventure game.
What I played: Solved 77 of the game's 99 puzzles in 285 minutes. Did it all on the GamePad (that's the Wii U controller with the screen in it); kept the TV off.
My Two Favorite Things
My Two Least-Favorite Things
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
Everything in the game burns in a visually-interesting and surprising way. The fire effects look great. This alone will emotionally engage any number of pyromaniacs who buy a Wii U or download the game on their computer. The rest of us might be more enchanted by the mysterious letters that begin showing up in the game's inventory. They are intermittently cheerful and sad, a wee bit wicked and increasingly desperate.
You might feel a mix of emotions as you play.
On the one hand you're playing through a game that lets you burn the moon in a fireplace.
On the other, you're drawn to these messages from this character who seems to exist beyond the interactive world you thought you were in. Something seems off. There's a hidden truth to the game that starts to matter more and more. Your memory may flicker. You may begin to think of another confidently-made game of puzzles, secrets and unexpected emotions: Portal. You don't want me to tell you any more.
There is a debate on the Wii U's social network, about whether this game is worth $15. It's a valid question that can only be answered by those who know what $15 is worth to the person asking. I didn't 100 percent the game, yet I played it for nearly five hours. I didn't get to shoot anyone in it. The game has only one zombie (you can burn him). But it does include a lot of jokes. It has a great soundtrack and a bunch of surprises. It is an interactive fireplace with a wonderful story. Should it cost $10? Maybe. I'd pay full price for it again.
The test I want a good game to pass is simple: I want it to stick with me. I want it to seep into my thoughts days after I played it. Little Inferno is simple. It's somehow both quaint and bold. It lingers. It burns brightly. It burns well.