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Review: Little Inferno

Congratulations on your new Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace! Kim throws her toys into the fire as she reviews Tomorrow Corporation’s surprising puzzle game, Little Inferno.

Title overview
Name: Little Inferno
Developer: Tomorrow Corporation
Publisher: Tomorrow Corporation
Release date: November 2012
PEGI rating: 12
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, PC, Wii U
More information: Official website

Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Initial impressions

Kyle Gabler and Alan Blomquist worked together on World of Goo, and in 2010 they joined with Kyle Gray from Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. Their first project as Tomorrow Corporation was released in November 2012 and in an interview with Nintendo World Report, Gabler revealed that their inspiration was The Yule Log: “It started in 1967 by a TV station in New York, originally as a 17-second loop of a flaming log. And we thought: ‘Man, that’s like a super boring game that some awful company will totally make for the Wii or smartphones.’ And then we thought: ‘Wait, WE could be that awful company! But I wonder if we can start with an exceptionally underwhelming premise, but then actually make the game really really surprisingly good?’”

Little Inferno was the result. Now I have to admit, if I’d come across this on Steam myself it’s highly unlikely the short description would have convinced me to part with my money: “Throw your toys into your fire, and play with them as they burn. Stay warm in there. It’s getting cold outside!” But I picked up the title as part of a Humble Bundle in December 2013 and had nothing to lose in giving it a go – and I’m extremely glad I did. There’s a lot more to Little Inferno than a quick glance reveals and if you’re able to look underneath the mobile-game-esque surface, you’ll find a clever gem in the ashes.

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Little Inferno is set in the city of Burnington where it’s constantly snowing. The Weather Man, reporting ‘from the Weather Balloon, over the smoke stacks, over the city’, keeps residents regularly updated on the status of the freezing weather and tells everyone to stay inside. Fortunately, the Tomorrow Corporation (not only the developer but a large company within the game) has come to the rescue: their mass-manufactured Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace enables children to sit by the fire, burn all of their toys and stay warm.

As you burn through all of the objects within the Tomorrow Corporation’s catalogues, Sugar Plumps’ words grow disturbing…

While your character is mesmerised by the flames and continues to throw their belongings into the ashes, they receive letters from a young (and slightly annoying) girl named Sugar Plumps. Bangs against the wall reveal that she’s actually your neighbour with a Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace of her own. She’s usually bubbly and over-excitable, and your responses to her requests for certain items result in gifts in return; but as you burn through all of the objects within the Tomorrow Corporation’s catalogues, her words grow disturbing… is there more to your fireplace than meets the eye?

In an interview with The Reticule during July 2012, Gabler revealed that one of the developer’s goals was to make Little Inferno ‘unpredictable’. He said: “I want to be taken on a ride, and not know where I’m going. I want game designers to respect me enough to NOT let me know exactly what’s going on. Give me hints. Let me NOT know. Let me figure it out. Totally change the game out from under me.” In this regard, their project succeeds. From the unexpectedly-humorous results of burning certain items, to the situation surrounding Sugar Plumps and her fate, to a small gameplay twist at the end of the title; over the course of around three hours there are plenty of times that this title will surprise you.

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When starting the game, players find themselves in front of their Little Entertainment Fireplace with a set of instructions encouraging them to ‘burn all the things’. As making a fire is as simple as left-clicking on the environment, up go the instructions in flame – along with the initial letter from Sugar Plumps and spiders found scuttling down the chimney. These actions earn you coins, which can then be used to purchase further items from Tomorrow Corporation’s glossy catalogue; and sending those up into smoke too makes you further money so the cycle can continue.

The Internet Cloud item is the ‘repository of all human hope and knowledge, now almost entirely cat photos and loneliness’.

Burning your way through the objects for sale within the first brochure unlocks further catalogues up to a total of seven. Each has a loose theme: ‘Totally Recalled Toys’ contains playthings which don’t appear to be completely safe or sane, while ‘Existence Now’ caters for all of your technological needs. Each purchase is described through a witty one-liner and most are worthy of a chuckle. For example, the Internet Cloud item is the ‘repository of all human hope and knowledge, now almost entirely cat photos and loneliness’; while the Low Self-Esteem Action Doll can be found ‘teetering in the corner of every bar and fraternity party’.

Just as with real-life catalogue orders, your purchases will take a bit of time to arrive. Smaller and less-expensive buys will appear in under a minute while the game’s biggest purchase will take a full four-minutes to reach you. You can speed this up by using stamps uncovered alongside coins in the fireplace, and I found myself using quite a bit of ‘express shipping’ in order to reduce the time spent waiting. Fortunately however I never seemed to run out of stamps so at first glance it can seem as if this mechanic is somewhat pointless; but there’s more to it than that and I’ll cover it in a paragraph below.

Speaking of ‘more to it’, Little Inferno isn’t simply a case of throwing your objects into the flames. A list of 99 clues encourages the player to experiment with combinations to produce different results – a vital lesson in progressing to the game’s finale. It’s easy enough to figure out that the ‘Movie Night’ combo refers to burning the Television and Corn on the Cob (popcorn) together. But clues such as ‘Terrible Teeth’ will have you searching through the catalogues to find the toys with the worst smiles, and ‘Colourful Flame’ will see you trying out a variety of combinations.

Some objects smoulder slowly while others explode – and some even sing or scream, or produce other unexpected results.

There are 140 items to burn and each reacts differently to fire. It’s important to note the after-effects of burning if you want to achieve all of the combinations but I don’t believe you need to do this in order to complete the game. Some objects smoulder slowly while others explode – and some even sing or scream, or produce other unexpected results. Torching the Spider Egg causes loads of the little critters to go bouncing around the fireplace; placing the Mini Moon in your fireplace has the effect of pulling all other items towards its gravitational pull; and burning the Valkyrie Doll results in her singing a grand aria while rose petals fall from the ceiling.

Anyone who’s played one of Zynga’s mobile games or similar will notice a similarity in Little Inferno in terms of look and feel. The references become even more explicit after unlocking the fourth ‘1st Person Shopper’ catalogue, which contains items such as the Gaming Tablet with its description of ‘filled with ‘free’ games that will cost you thousands’. Some players may therefore see Tomorrow Corporation’s release as nothing more than a ‘superficial’ title to pass the time or even a hate-letter to mobile developers. However, a nice little gameplay twist towards the end reveals that it’s something far more clever and thoughtful than that.

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Visuals and audio

One of the highlights of Little Inferno is indeed the inferno. The physics here are well done and as mentioned above, each object has different effect when set on fire; items made of paper go up in seconds while those of a colder nature, such as the Dry Ice Cubes, take a while to ignite before covering everything around them in ice. Flames erupt in a blaze of glory before leaving the glowing embers of toys’ remains, and budding pyromaniacs will find themselves mesmerised by the conflagration within the fireplace in front of them.

An upbeat tune in the style of a television jingle with telephone rings give the impression of a rush of orders being placed.

A lot of the game’s atmosphere comes from its soundtrack. When browsing through the catalogues, an upbeat tune in the style of a television jingle can be heard in the background while telephone rings give the impression of a rush of orders being placed. This is in contrast to the fireplace screen where the crackles from the embers are mostly unaccompanied and encourage the player to throw even more items into the flames. Burn all the things!

On Tomorrow Corporation’s website, Gabler reveals: “Little Inferno has always been a difficult game to describe, so we knew we needed a short, simple way of communicating what it was all about. This old timey jingle is the result. Kyle Gray’s friend Travis Hill provided the perfect ‘narrator’ voice, with a welcome bit of Phil Hartman smarm.” As a testament to how catchy it is, my other-half watched part of my playthrough and was there when I uncovered the video; and he’s still singing the song to himself now three weeks later!

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Replay and innovation

There is some limited replayability value within Little Inferno. First, there are the 99 combos to achieve as described in the gameplay section of this review; and some gamers seem intent on discovering what combination of items will make the largest explosion, as this Steam discussion thread shows. But I can see a lot of players not going back to the game once they’ve completed it – although that being said, I was happy enough to pick it up again once evening recently to record the video below!

“You always have the option to burn it all down and move on. But you can’t ever get that time back.”

As mentioned above, there is some reference to mobile games within Tomorrow Corporation’s release and some may see it as a parody of Facebook apps and ‘junk-food’ screen-tapping titles. Take the fact that the gameplay is artificially lengthened by wait-timers, or that friends – in this case Sugar Plumps – badger you to play and send them new items. However, in an interview with BeefJack in December 2012, Gabler said: “There’s a simple idea that everything hangs off of in the game. It’s that feeling you’ve been spending your time doing something silly and unproductive, but that once you realise it, you always have the option to burn it all down and move on. But you can’t ever get that time back.”

In other interviews he went on to explain that it was more about getting out of hated job or a bad relationship than playing ‘empty’ mobile titles. But whatever your interpretation of Little Inferno, it’s hard to deny that it’s a pretty innovative message for a video game. Some have claimed that the title mocks the players who love it the most but I didn’t see it that way: I took it as a reminder that we should all be living life to the full and not get stuck doing the same things over and over – definitely a positive message.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

After its release in November 2012, Little Inferno went on to receive nominations for the Independent Games Festival Grand Prize, Nuovo Award and Technical Excellence award, along with honourable mentions in Design Audio. At the present time over 93% of almost five-thousand reviews submitted to Steam are positive so it’s clear the game has quite a few fans.

Here’s a title that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

But should it be included within future 1001 lists? If it was given a space I don’t think it would be unwarranted. It’s an unusual game to describe and ‘throwing your toys into the fire and playing with them as they burn’ doesn’t immediately sound as if it would make for an exciting experience. But with its satirical gameplay, gorgeous physics, grin-worthy humour, and positive message about not wasting your time on pointless things, here’s a title that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, Little Inferno won’t be for everyone as it could be considered too ‘weird’ or ‘simplistic’. But look among the flames and you may just find a little game that burns brightly.

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Review round-up
Reviewed: PC
Source: We received the game as part of a Humble Bundle
Positive: A heart-warming message conveyed through lovely physics
Negative: Some may find the gameplay too simplistic or not see the underlying meaning
Score: 41 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Little Inferno, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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