You Must Burn: Little Inferno and Smartly Limited Choices
“Fire can be warm. Fire can be fun. Fire can be DANGEROUS.
But there’s something even more dangerous than fire.”
The future, brought to you by Tomorrow Corporation, is a bright place. It is a safe place and a cozy place. Though the world outside rains frigid ash, the interior of your house is warm, thanks to the machinations of your “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace.”
Why is the sky so full of clouds? Why is the weatherman in his balloon constantly warning of an impending drop in temperature? How are packages of flammable materials so politely and efficiently delivered to your side? Where does the smoke and ash go after it floats up up up and out of your chimney? Where are all the other people?
You could ask these questions and many more, or you can do what any sensible God-fearing person would do: burn stuff.
This is the way you play Little Inferno, the latest from real-world game company Tomorrow Corporation. You sit in front of your fireplace. You open your handy catalog. You order something. You wait for it to arrive. You burn it. Watch the flames rise and billows of black smoke waft higher higher higher.
It is a simple game, and honest-to-god fun to burn stuff. It starts out simple: wooden blocks and ears of corn, but as you go on and unlock bigger and better items, you’ll be treated to a host of finely animated inflammables, ranging from teddy bears to miniature nukes. It is devilishly fun to throw a plush doll into the fire and listen to it scream its cute miniature screams.
If you hadn’t noticed already, the screams make it clear that there is something sinister going on here.
To anyone who cares to notice, the entire game is an obvious metaphor. It’s about consumerism and the consequences of burning non-renewable resources. Yes, the creators have created an entire game as an attempt to grab us by our shoulders and shout in our faces “DON’T YOU REALIZE THAT OUR CONSTANT PURSUIT OF STUFF IS GOING TO DESTROY US?!”
What is surprising is how poignantly they are able to deliver that message. It’s not only delivered in the shouting. It’s delivered in whispers, with subtle tones. A haunting melody playing while the weatherman cheerfully delivers his dismal report. It’s getting colder, but don’t worry: just stay warm by burning whatever you can get your hands on.
The narrative plays out via a series of letters from various characters who are keen to update you on the state of the world. In the midst of the fiery mayhem, they are placed silently by your side, taking up space, waiting for you to read them. After they are read, they will remain in your “inventory” until you burn them. Read them well, because after that, there is only one way to interact with them. The fire.
It seems profane. Messages are meant to be shared; responded to. When someone writes us a letter, we should write back, shouldn’t we? But in Little Inferno, all we know how to do is burn.
Many games these days attempt to make an impact by promising a host of choices. Whether these are choices that can affect the outcome of the story or simply choices in how to configure your assortment of weapons, the proliferation of options in games is widespread. In fact, when developers take certain choices away, players often react very negatively. However, the developers of Little Inferno make a strong case for authorial control by intentionally limiting the ways the player can interact with the game.
A few friends were over as I browsed the in-game catalog and selected what I wanted to incinerate next. They were drawn over by the cheery music and helped me select my next set of kindling. They cheered when the mini nuke exploded, erasing from existence a little spider that had wandered into view. They laughed when I burned a “spider egg” and it exploded, revealing an assortment of baby spiders scurrying around in a pointless attempt to escape their doom. Curiosity echoed as we all noticed that a new letter had arrived. Inside were the words of a plump, cherubic creature named Miss Nancy. She wanted to know if my fireplace was keeping me warm (of course it was). She also wanted to give me something that she said would keep me even warmer: a hug. Attached to the letter was a “COUPON for ONE FREE HUG.”
The coupon dropped into my inventory.
My friends watched as I clicked it, hoping to activate my free hug. But how do you activate a coupon?
I clicked it a few more times.
What am I supposed to do with this coupon?
We all did.
The room got a little quieter.