Little Inferno

2016-08-21 Sun

I enjoy playing video games, perhaps too much.

Background

I've had wonderful, thrilling, challenging, thought-provoking, growth-inspiring play sessions. But I can also turn to games as a convenient escape from hard reality, when joyless hours of "play" slide past. It's unhealthy–numbing–and I inevitably regret squandering precious time.

Several months back, I decided to take a break from games–not a new resolution, but with a new resolve. It went well; aside from social situations, I've played very little since.

But perhaps moderation is a better goal than abstinence? The medium is too valuable to be ignored forever. The desire is a part of me, and I want to live with it in peace, rather than cut it off.

I recently learned of a game that resonated with my struggles.

Little Inferno

I came upon a spoiler-filled analysis of Little Inferno, an indie game already sitting, unplayed, in my Steam library.

Little Inferno fireplace
Soundtrack notes: "Little Inferno is a quiet introverted art project masquerading as a loud extroverted shopping game."

I'd assumed Little Inferno was a stylish, pleasant, self-aware waste of time, like so many others. I've burned hours on such games in the past, and wasn't eager to do it again.

The analysis video above revealed that the game is about burning time.

Intriguing. So I played it through.

In brief: This game is a commentary on time spent playing games, and dares the player to seek out a life beyond the glowing box. It takes three hours to finish, perhaps four for the completionist. It was surprisingly emotional, both poignant and hopeful, and I'm glad I invested the time.

Little Inferno postcard: 'It's been
        snowing for as long as anyone can remember!'
"Our world is getting colder, but there's no need for alarm. Just sit by your fire, burn all of your toys, and stay warm!"

So, how do you play? You burn things, and you buy things to burn. The items have amusing or disturbing burn animations, and some items have interesting effects on others.

That's it.

The player gets what's shown on the tin: tongue-in-cheek mimicry of time-wasting, microtransaction-driven casual games. Gameplay is thin and filled with small jokes. The player faces a series of repetitive actions, slowly expiring timers, and barely-hidden secrets. Pleasant, light, low-effort, mindless, time-wastey.

But right from the opening title, the experience delivers more.

Little Inferno postcard: 'I stare into
        the fIRE for HOURS and DAYS...'
Sugar Lumps: "Turn around. Just turn your head. Could you? If you wanted?"

The soundtrack isn't the serviceable, peppy loop of a casual hour-waster. The main theme is serious, heavy, with an uplifting swell. It carries much of the weight of the game. (I enjoyed the track notes, above. Always interesting to hear the thoughts of the creator—and much respect for the work being done in-house, by such a tiny studio. Talented folks.)

And the game provides an actual world, with an actual story. The primary characters live in an unending winter of sooty snow. Fearing the outside world, they spend their days just like everybody else—isolated in their homes, ordering items to burn in their Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplaces for warmth and fun.

A bit on the nose? Well, that's fine from a silly satire. Right?

But things change.

Little inferno postcard: 'UP!'
Sugar Lumps: ""When I stare into my Little Inferno Fireplace, I have so much fun. Where does the time go? It floats up up the chimney...up up up...like everything else."

The game is filled with "upward" references, from The Weather Man's balloon to the ever-rising smoke. Initially regretful, the tone later turns optimistic. The idea of growth, of rising above, of overcoming and–consequently–moving on and leaving behind, is central to the message. Again, the soundtrack delivers much of this punch.

Over the course of the game, we see the player's primary companion, Sugar Lumps, learn to differentiate between the fireplace and life. She grows, moves on, and urges the player's character–the player–to do the same. (Her musical theme also becomes progressively more upward-moving. An important, if subtle, cue to the player.)

She isn't bitter about time lost. She acknowledges her past for what it was, what it meant. She remembers the fire fondly. But now she wants more, and she's now willing to pursue it. Sugar Lumps has learned something that I'm still working on: Perspective requires that we both respect and release the past. Fixation and denial are both unhealthy.

Little Inferno postcard: 'Little Inferno
        Entertainment Fireplace was designed not to matter'
I sheepishly admit that I took the time to complete the optional little objectives. Fittingly, my efforts were acknowledged with trivial rewards.

The game lasts just long enough to make the player feel the time spent. It could easily have stretched longer, which would have undermined the message. I appreciate the creators' restraint.

The message isn't hidden. The game mechanics–particularly time spent waiting for item delivery–draw awareness that the player doesn't feed only physical possessions into the flames. They burn their time, their life, as they play.

The game encourages us to think carefully about this choice, and hopes that we'll ultimately turn away from the comfortable glow and seek out real experiences and adventures.

Little Inferno postcard: 'There is bound
        to be an end!'
Sugar Lumps: "You can never go back."

Themes

All screenshots captured by myself, using Steam, from Little Inferno. Copyright belongs to Tomorrow Corporation or the Experimental Gameplay Group or however they legally self-identify.