Little Inferno review: Burn it all

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Take your TV. Just yank it out of your entertainment center. It doesn't matter if you unhook it from the cable box or your Wii U first. You're just going to stick it right in the fireplace. Burn that TV. Burn your plates, your sunglasses, your radio. Your favorite stuffed animal from childhood? Your precious family photos? Straight into the fire. All the stuff that's accumulating in your house, all the junk you work to pay for that sits untouched on shelves or in the back of closets, pull them out and toss them in your fireplace and burn them. I mean, you're already wasting your time. You're playing a video game.

That's what Little Inferno says. Except this weird little downloadable from Tomorrow Corporation (a team-up from the designers of World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure) isn't really a game. It's an anti-game, featuring few of the qualities necessary for an activity to be called a game. It has rules, but there's no challenge. There's a win state, but you can't lose, so it's more like an inevitable stopping point. Mostly, Little Inferno is an interactive story, but it's even low-key about that until an unforgettable conclusion. That story mocks us for fixating on this repetitive, unproductive activity and ignoring the world around us, arguing that this passivity and neglect is as destructive as if we intentionally tried to ruin the world. And somehow Little Inferno makes this subversive point about as adorably as possible.

In Little Inferno you burn things. You throw stuff in a fireplace and tap the Wii U's GamePad to light them on fire. A burning orange trail follows your stylus as it slides across the screen, lighting up any flammable object it touches. All you'll see for almost the entire game is a first-person view of that fireplace. It's a drab brown box in which you burn everything you own, with a weird stone face in the middle with closed eyes and an inscrutable half-smile.

You use coins to buy more things to burn, ordering them from a series of catalogues and waiting in real time for them to arrive. Some are everyday household implements. Others range from the esoteric to the downright impossible. (Or can you really buy miniature planets with their own gravitational fields?) You open the packages as they appear in your queue at the bottom of the screen, you drag the objects into the fireplace, and then you burn them. Once burned, every object leaves behind more coins than it costs, so you never have to worry about running out of money. (You can also get more coins by tapping spiders that crawl down the chimney.) Occasionally you'll also find stamps within an object's ashes. Stamps are used to immediately deliver your next package, saving you some time. There's no timer, though, and no time limits, so the only time you're saving is your own in real life. More expensive objects take longer to show up. You have to wait four real-world minutes for the most expensive item, a miniature Sun, to eventually arrive. Little Inferno always makes sure to remind you how much of your time it's wasting.

Each catalogue offers a couple dozen objects, and you can only burn the first two or three at first. Every time you burn an object you unlock another one. When you unlock every object from a catalogue and complete a certain number of combos you unlock the next catalogue. That keeps you engaged despite the game's repetition and inherent pointlessness – you're always working towards a clearly defined goal.

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To unlock more catalogues and advance the story you have to complete combos. These are groupings of two or sometimes three objects that have to be burned at the same time. These combos turn Little Inferno into a word puzzle, which is the closest it gets to being a real game. You're given a list of all 99 combos in the game, and they all have puns for names. Decipher the pun's meaning, order the two or three objects hinted at by the pun, and burn them at the same time to check that combo off your list. For example: to clear the "Movie Night" combo off your list, you have to simultaneously burn a TV and an ear of corn whose kernels pop in the flame. Keep going until you've unlocked all seven catalogues and there's nowhere else to go. At that point the story takes over completely, and I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Other than buying, waiting for, and then burning new stuff, Little Inferno builds its cute but sad little story through a series of letters that arrive regularly throughout the game. A few come from the mail order company that ships your packages and makes the Little Inferno fireplace, a company called, as in real life, the Tomorrow Corporation. Occasionally you'll get an update from a weatherman about the intensifying snowstorm that perpetually plagues your town. Mostly, your letters come from a sweet neighbor girl who's as addicted to her Little Inferno fireplace as you are to yours. Your relationship with Sugar Plumps is totally one-sided, but watching it develop will keep you hooked to Little Inferno as you wait for more stuff to burn. She grows increasingly crazed with her fireplace with each letter, building up to the ultimate conclusion and making you question your own obsession with fire. To say any more about the story would diminish its impact, so I'll leave it at that.

You might think that Little Inferno sounds boring, but even though it willfully and intentionally wastes your time, it's not a waste of time itself. The creepy atmosphere, the single-minded focus on extremely minimal actions, and the mocking self-awareness all contribute to a deft statement on games and how we play them. And even though it gleefully wastes our time, it doesn't waste too much of it – it might take you a few hours to complete, even with a healthy bit of screwing around.

This review is based on an eShop download of Little Inferno for Wii U, purchased by the reviewer. Little Inferno is also available on PC via Steam or directly through the Tomorrow Corporation.

Garrett Martin enjoys fire on a higher level than the average person. He edits Paste Magazine's videogame section and reviews games for the Boston Herald and other outlets. You can hear his blather at Twitter (@GRMartin) or at a variety of Atlanta-area bars.

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