The game is about a city named Burnington, which is constantly covered in snow and is slowly freezing over (at this point, I could completely relate to the story, since I was also slowly freezing in Pittsburgh’s 40 F weather). In this apocalyptic world, you play as the unnamed protagonist, and you are asked to burn various objects in your empty “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace”. You start off with a catalogue of items that you can order to burn and keep yourself warm. As you burn items, you collect more money and coupons throughout the game, and unlock more catalogues and items to burn. By burning certain items together, you unlock combos that give you more money and coupons. There are 99 combos in total that player must unlock to finish the game.
Since there are no instructions nor any tutorials, the story and setting of the world conveyed through letters sent by three Non-Playable Characters (NPCs), who each have a very distinct important function in telling the story:
The CEO of Tomorrow Corporation, Miss Nancy: She informs you about most of the gameplay, including how to literally start playing the game. She also tells you about the Tomorrow Corporation, who are the creators of “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace”.
Your neighbour, Sugar Plumps: An excitable and affectionate, though somewhat vacuous young girl who gives you the most insight into the world. Although she is seemingly irrelevant in the beginning, it is revealed that her situation mirrors yours – so her narrative provides perspective as to who you are and the meaning behind your actions. She is also instrumental in moving the story forward, as she is the catalyst for the climax: you burning your house down.
The Weather Man: He is a Tomorrow Corporation employee who periodically describes the weather in some variation of ‘really cold’. He is the one who eventually the story closure, as at the end of the game, you fly away out of the city with him in his weather balloon.
The game also satirizes the omnipresent corporation, through the self-referential, vaguely menacing “Tomorrow Corporation”. The protagonist’s only possessions come from Tomorrow Corporation’s catalogues, which filled with strange and sometimes downright terrifying items. These guys are every bit as terrifying as a real six-sigma company – they have creepy saccharine-sweet advertisements in which children explode, they seem to own everything in town, even the in-universe money is called “Tomorrow Bucks”.
Little Inferno never gets impossibly hard, nor is it ever boringly easy. Despite there being only six catalogues and 20 items in each catalogue, an interesting combo system based on visual puns, wordplay and good old-fashioned matching (relying on your memory) ensure that the difficulty vs skill balance is always maintained. After unlocking a certain number of combos per catalogue, the player can proceed to unlocking the next catalogue. The combo system is a masterstroke on the creators’ part, because it ensures that the game never swings to the extremities of too hard or too easy. Some of the combos require a lot of thought, but the game teaches you to recognize the patterns in finding combos by looking carefully at the descriptions of the items, the way items burn, and even the names of the items – and finding connections.
Little Inferno cleverly piques interest by not giving any information. It has a good interest curve, which can be roughly broken down as:
- Little Inferno Interest Curve
A : The game begins and you set the first item on fire.
B : First messages from Miss Nancy, Sugar Plumps, and the Weather Man. Unlocking first combo. Unlocking new catalogue.
C : Finding out that Sugar Plumps is your neighbour, when she knocks at your door.
D : A lack of communication from Miss Nancy, Sugar Plumps and the Weather Man made the game a little boring, because the story was not progressing and all I felt I was doing was mechanically finding combos.
E : The moment when Sugar Plumps burns her own home down. I felt the build up to this moment was really good, because she had been dropping hints in her correspondence that “this can’t last forever”, and that she would burn her house down. When she actually did it, it proved that she was no longer the air-headed girl from the beginning of the story. Then her ghost continued sending letters.. I got a little scared of her at this point.
F : There was a lull in my interest as I got stuck with around 20 of the hardest combos left. I had to go to every object and methodically burn it again and again to see the clues I had missed the first time around.
G : Sugar Plumps tells you about the special combo #100, with which you can set your final possession – your house – on fire.
After setting the house on fire, leaving the fireplace behind to step out and explore the actual game world. I was very curious to see the apocalyptic icy wasteland I was certain I would find, but the world of Little Inferno surprised me by being a Dickensian industrial setting (complete with a family shivering in the cold). Finding out what happened to my only link to the outside world – Miss Nancy, Sugar Plumps and the Weather Man – also added to my excitement.
H : Credits sequence. Adds to the feel and mystique of the game.
1. Difficulty vs Skill
In the involvement part of my Little Inferno gameplaying experience it seemed to me that I should be wise with my money and spend it sparingly, so I wouldn’t run out of money to buy more items and hit a dead-end. But to increase player involvement, the creators of the game cleverly make sure that you never stop the game – you always earn more money than you had when you burn items. In the world of Little Inferno, however, time is as plentiful as money. Every item has a delivery period, which can range from 15 seconds to 5 minutes. The coupons that you collect can be used to deliver items instantly; but as it turned out, waiting is far harder than frugality, and I often ended up with too much money and no coupons to ensure instant delivery of my items (in order to make sure that you don’t run out of money and don’t get bored while your items are arriving, the game has little spiders and flying bugs in the fireplace that you can kill for even more coupons and money).
It was testament to how immersed I was in the game, that while waiting for the very last item on the catalogue to be delivered, I actually waited for five whole minutes.. Staring at an empty fireplace and occasionally killing spiders. The investment part of my experience paid off very well towards the end, as I reached the climax of the journey by burning my home down, and thus starting off on the next big journey.
2. Visual and Audio Feedback
Little Inferno excels at telling a complex story in fits and spurts. The player is thrown headfirst into the game, without any explanation in the form of tutorials or cutscenes, and the setting of the game’s world is only introduced around an hour into the game. It is for this reason that feedback is extremely important, because without a strong, repeated feedback, the naive guest would be completely lost in the game.
The feedback is both outright and subtle. The money (“Tomorrow Bucks”) you earn by burning items shows how much you have earned when you tap on it. When you click on any item in the catalogue, it shows an animation of the item. When you buy any item, or use a coupon for an express delivery, it is accordingly conveyed clearly in the game.
However there is some foreshadowing in the form of very subtle feedback too. The four items that you need to burn down your house are the only four items that the face carved into your fireplace will interact with in normal gameplay. When burned separately, Broken Magnet makes the cogs turn faster, Jar of Fireflies makes the face’s mouth open, Toy Exterminator makes the face glow red, Fashionable Sunglasses can be worn by the face. By way of story feedback too, they are also the four items that Sugar Plumps requests that you send her.
The game’s UI is simple and easy for the player to understand. The total amount of money you have earned as well as the coupons is shown clearly on the left side of the screen all the time. All 99 combos can be viewed by clicking on the right side of the screen, for easy reference. In the catalogues too, the items are animated in a cute style which, paired with the Tim Burtonesque art style, give a feeling of dissonance that adds to the dystopian feel of the world. The fire effects are also beautifully done and very responsive. The art style is minimal and quiet in-game – with muted sepia tones in the fireplace gameplay and black and white in the epilogue gameplay – but by contrast, the catalogues of Tomorrow Corporation are almost offensively bright and reinforce the feeling of forced, corporation-mandated cheerfulness.
Possibly the greatest aesthetic values of the game, however, is the evocative audio experience. It gives Little Inferno an emotional feel and keeps it from being yet another starving-child-in-a-post-apocalyptic-future story (of which there are too many nowadays!). The soundtrack is at times playful and whimsical, but also pensive and introspective. The OST of this game is absolutely one that you must check out. The longer pieces are standout, for sure, but even the shorter ones, clocking at barely 10 seconds, are unique and beautiful. During certain points in the game, the musical tone changes completely to reflect what is happening in the story sequences. This change ensures a strong impact on the mood of the game and the player. For instance, at certain ‘moments’ in the game – like finding out that Sugar Plumps is your neighbour and is trapped in her own home just like you – the music changes after a brief uncanny silence. These moments are enhanced by the complete lack of music. The crackling of the fire, the noises that each item makes, all have distinct sounds that do not interfere or reduce the potency of the music.
All in all, there is much more to Little Inferno than just buy-’n-burn. Little Inferno harnesses a brilliant story premise, beautiful music and a unique art style to create a poetic experience that is both a commentary on consumerism and a satirical self-parody.