There's nothing better than a big, crackling fire, for ambiance, for warmth, for burning all your belongings. In the world of Little Inferno [$4.99], the best thing in life is getting a new toy or gizmo in the mail, tossing it in your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, and setting it on fire. In fact, there may be nothing else. Nothing else at all.
This might seem like an exercise in futility—burning up every bit of progress you make—but it isn't. Not quite. There's something Tomorrow Corporation is trying to tell you in this game, something that isn't entirely comfortable to reflect upon. It's a message that can't be discussed without spoilers, so suffice it to say that it will resonate with mobile gamers—probably much more than any other audience. Just one of a few reasons Little Inferno feels right cozy on iPad.
The device also makes a pretty good window right into your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace. Dragging things into the fireplace feels natural; setting them on fire even more so. You can hold a fingertip near something that burns and watch as the heat from your flame lights it up. Or you can sweep your finger around haphazardly, lighting everything in bright flame. All Little Inferno is missing is some heat and the smell of burning fur and plastic.
It's a very good thing that Tomorrow Corporation has crafted an outstanding incineration simulation, because there isn't a whole heck of a lot more to do in the game. Here's how it breaks down: you have a few coins. You spend them on some flimsy, flammable toys. Then you burn those toys, and they give you more coins. I'm not oversimplifying, that's simply the process. It seems like it's begging for microtransactions, doesn't it? There aren't any. That's part of the point.
You can't run out of coins, and will steadily get more and more. They'll pile up and up until you buy all the things you can buy, and then you'll be able to pay to unlock a new catalog of gadgets and grotesquities. It's fun to burn everything at least once and see how it all goes up. Something might explode, light up in colored flame, or spit out flies that burn and die in turn. The special effects get more and more interesting as you work through the catalogs, earning more and more the more you spend.
The self-perpetuating cycle is an idiosyncrasy, so much so that one of the game's other character's notes it in one of her letters. You're alone in Little Inferno—it's just you and your fireplace. But there are others out there, in the city and above it, and one of them is Sugar Plumps. Her notes are barely literate but incredibly enthusiastic, and she serves as your guide through the game's oddities. She, the Weather Man, and Miss Nancy, owner of the in-game Tomorrow Corporation, walk you through the increasingly dissonant and dystopian world just outside your door—wherever that may be. Not in view of your fireplace, that's for sure.
Sharp-eyed readers are surely about to declare this a right proper non-game, but that's not quite right. There's something of a meta-game to be played in a list of hidden combos solved with word association. For instance, to get the first combo, "Bike Pirate," you burn, err, a bike and a pirate together. Not the cleverest, but it gets you started on a path to 99 complete combos that get more and more puzzling as you go. Completing combos earns you stamps, which speed up delivery times for your packages—and yes, I'm still certain there are no microtransactions to be found.
You may get the sense that Little Inferno walks a fine line between satirizing our gaming habits and revelling in them. If you take it lightly, it works. Give it serious thought and you might find a bit of hypocrisy buried between the lines, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a game that sticks with you. I've spent hundreds of hours gaming in front of my iPad, but the three I spent with Little Inferno have been some of the most thought-provoking. Tomorrow Corporation asks the big questions about games, life and flammability. It also lets you burn things. All the things. Frankly, that's good too.
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