With that opening, I know some people will now get confused by the score at the bottom of the review, so let’s take a crack at explaining why I’m so conflicted about whether Little Inferno is actually worth buying.
On its surface, Little Inferno is a game that is from start to finish a criticism of the kinds of games that Facebook and Zynga popularised. Like those games, there’s no real point to the game – players just dump toys that they buy with virtual currency into a fireplace, and set them on fire. It’s a literal play on the impression many have that anyone who spends real money on FarmVille and the like are burning their money away.
To the very core of the game Little Inferno is self-referential, openly mocking everything that games like it offer players. It’s not all in good humour either. The developers wanted people to feel deeply uncomfortable about this game while they play it, and they succeeded at that. Despite the happy Tim Burton's Scissorhands-style visuals there’s child-like screams as you burn a toy school bus. In another toy I burned I found a used syringe. The music at times jumps from the kind of perkiness of a FarmVille game to be downright depressing. It was clearly the intention of the developers to make the players emotionally involved in what was going on, and they succeed. Despite being so disconcerting, the theme of Little Inferno is often genuinely compelling – a kind of “feel bad” compulsiveness that is the perfect foil to the “feel good” adventures that FarmVille players experience.
In other words: Little Inferno from start to finish is telling players that Little Inferno is a worthless game. Indeed, Little Inferno is, if anything, even less of a game than FarmVille and co. In FarmVille players go from an empty screen to a massive farm filled with virtual stuff. Yes, it’s useless stuff and yes, the game is a time sink and quite possibly an expensive one at that. But players do end up with something to show for their time and effort.
Furthermore, one of the main appeals of games like FarmVille is something Little Inferno misreads entirely - their highly social nature. These games are not about sitting at home lonely and clicking away on patches of virtual farmland – it’s about gifting stuff to friends, visiting their farms, and pulling a community together around a shared experience. This is a feature that makes these games worthwhile even if you’re not that into them – I know I’ve played FarmVille-style games on and off over the years because my wife has and enjoyed that side of the experience a great deal. Little Inferno’s way of dealing with it is to have pre-written “letters” sent by NPCs at regular intervals. It’s here that Little Inferno’s philosophy breaks down a great deal.
Despite that philosophical flaw, Little Inferno is a clever effort that is a completely worthless game. I really want to encourage indie developers (and mainstream ones, for that matter) to play this game and digest it. Look at the MiiVerse community that has built up around it – there is an audience for games that offer nothing more than the promise that they will engage with players on a near-academic level.
But by the same token I don’t want anyone who buy a game and then get upset with me for recommending something that, by its own admission, is deathly boring.
So how about we do this nice and bold, and then stick a score that’s right down the middle: If you do believe that games are art, and that gaming can offer more than dumb entertainment, then buy it. If games are nothing more than a stress release to you, don’t.
- Matt S
Find me on Twitter: @DigitallyDownld
And also on MiiVerse: WaltzIT