First Impressions: Little Inferno

Let us be your little Virgil

2D Boy released what is still arguably the best game on the WiiWare service, World of Goo. But since the release of that game four years ago the developer has been rather quiet. The game never got a sequel and lips were sealed tight on future projects, but we knew that whatever this immensely talented — and impressively small — team was going to give us next, it was going to be worth waiting for.

And now, thanks to a preview build of its upcoming Wii U release Little Inferno, we can confirm that this next title is both a brilliant follow-up, and an intriguing step forward.

Describing Little Inferno is a challenge. Say too little, and it sounds like a quirkier cousin of Fireplacing. Say too much, and the experience gets robbed of its surprising magic. So bear with us as we dance around the impressive twists and turns of a game that consists almost solely of one screen.

You play the role of...well, that's not entirely clear. And your goal is to...nothing, really. There is no explicit goal. See now why we're having so much trouble describing it?

You sit facing your brand new Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, and the first — and only — instruction you receive is how to start a fire. Needless to say the first thing you do is burn the instruction card itself, and then that's it. You're alone again.

Well, not quite alone. Every so often a letter will appear. It could be from the Tomorrow Corporation itself, mysterious neighbour girl Sugar Plumps, or the Weather Man, who reports with increasing urgency the dire, worsening conditions of the frosty world outside your home. But no worries, because you have the Little Inferno to keep you warm. You hope...

You burn these letters, and coins appear. With these coins you can purchase items from catalogues, varying items with often surprising abilities, and you burn those too. After all, there's just a small flame between you and a chilly death, so you'd best keep it going.

Burning certain items together will fulfill "combinations," which are hinted at in-game but aren't explicitly explained until you find one. For instance, burning dry ice and a cup of coffee at the same time counts as the "Iced Coffee" combination, and burning a Henry Hatsworth lookalike along with some tetrominoes is the Puzzling Adventure. Find enough of these combinations and new catalogues become available which offer new items, which can then, in turn, create new combinations.

As you play, the background narrative of the game becomes more clear. There's an obvious environmental caution embedded in the game's concept, and its endorsed bonfire of mass-produced goods is about as anti-consumerist as you get. Additionally, much is made of the fact that even though you control a character, you can't pull your eyes away from the fireplace, much like, say, a television or a video game. It's a hypnotic experience to be sure, and even those who aren't necessarily entranced by the prospect of burning up new and unique things are bound to play longer and longer just to see how bleak the weather reports get, or to learn more about poor little Sugar Plumps.

Little Inferno is a great follow-up to World of Goo, but in spite of some winking references to that previous game, it treads entirely new ground. After all, World of Goo was a game about construction and exploration. Little Inferno is a game about destruction and isolation. It's a deliberately small release that somehow manages to feel enormous, perhaps due to its whispered suggestions of an entire world beyond that wall you're staring at. A world that may in fact be dying, but which is large and mysterious all the same. Sometimes in life you must struggle just to keep warm. Other times it might be worth risking the cold.

After all, if you never risk it, you'll never know...