While the majority of the game is spent burning and destroying things, Little Inferno is a celebration of life.
This post completely spoils the twist ending of Little Inferno.
Little Inferno is a wonderfully uplifting game. Ostensibly, it’s about burning all manner of items in a virtual fireplace, but over the course of a couple hours, the game peels back its own layers to reveal a surprisingly thoughtful narrative. Little Inferno is a game about moving on -- that much is unmistakable -- but it's vague on what you’re moving on from and where you’re moving on to. With its colorful cast of characters, its recurring dialogue, and its early-Tim Burton art style, it has that kind of surreal atmosphere that just begs for reinterpretation and turns the game into a kind of Rorschach test. It’s interesting how many different interpretations there are of this game. Christopher Franklin from Errant Signal sees it as a compassionate criticism of casual games (as in, it doesn’t demonize those kinds of games or those who make them). Mike Rougeau from Kotaku sees it as a pre-apocalypse fable. Others in the comments for both articles see it as a metaphor for global warming. I see the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace as a rather direct metaphor for childhood: A place where we can play, seemingly forever, but that has to end sometime.
Early on in the game, you receive a letter from Miss Nancy, telling you that “Your Little Inferno is not like other games. There are no points. There is no score. You are not being timed. Just make a nice fire and stay warm in the glow of your high definition entertainment product.” In other words, it’s a toy -- the kind of game that we play with in the purest sense of that word. It’s not a competition. It’s not a test of skill. It’s a game that embodies the aimless, meandering play of a child.
Personifying this childish glee is your neighbor, Sugar Plumps. She introduces herself in a letter filled with spelling errors and exaggerations, “I’m alllll snuggggled up in front of my Little Inferno Entertainment FIREPLACE! It’s so toasty I could stay here forever!” Her letters encapsulate the stream of consciousness style of writing of a kid, as she contemplates the possibilities of a blank page: “They can be filled with anything…Dinosaurs or outER SPACE or an entire world where everything is PINK!”
She also acts as your instructor in the game's beginning, introducing the concept of combos, in which burning two items together earns us a special stamp. This becomes necessary for progressing in the game, as we must find a certain number of combos before we’re allowed to buy the next Little Inferno catalog with more items to burn. Since Sugar Plumps is the one teaching us about this important mechanic, she becomes the voice of authority in the game, improper capitalization be damned. If we take the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace as a symbol of childhood, than Sugar Plumps is the perfect tutorial instructor. It takes a child to tell us how to properly use a child’s toy.
During this part of the game we never look away from the fireplace, something that gets remarked upon by Sugar Plumps and again, later on, by the Mailman, but there’s a surprisingly interesting world outside the hearth. We get access to information about that world from the bits and pieces of it provided through weather reports and Sugar Plumps’s rambling observations. We learn that the world outside is always cold and always snowing and that the city is like a forest of smokestacks since everyone is burning things to stay warm.
There are intriguing and disturbing implications here: Is the snow a result of the pollution? Is the Tomorrow Corporation, maker of the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, hastening the cold death of the planet by encouraging poisonous consumerism? Or is the world is just naturally cooling to a point where it becomes almost uninhabitable, and we’re just trying to survive a little longer?
The world is fascinating, but irrelevant. At this point anyways. The mystery of the outside world is so interesting because it’s purposefully vague, and it’s purposefully vague because we’re still symbolic children, more concerned with entertaining ourselves, only dimly aware of the world around us. The game introduces these ideas but doesn’t dwell on them.
But there is bound to be an end. Sugar Plumps eventually realizes that there’s something beyond the fireplace, and in her process of discovery, she burns down her house. For a while, she seems to be dead, but then she returns to help us move on as well. The game actually gives us a choice here. Sugar Plumps tells us how to reveal the secrets of the fireplace, which we know will probably result in us burning down our house as well, but we don’t actually have to follow her instructions. We can keep burning things, keep buying new catalogs, and keep finding new combos for as long as we want. It’s important that the game gives us this choice, since it means we have to make a concentrated effort to follow Sugar Plumps. We have to consciously weigh the familiar fun of the fireplace with the frightening possibilities of life beyond the fireplace. It’s a great moment in the game because it manages to capture the apprehension and excitement of doing something new for the first time.
When you eventually burn down your house, the game completely shifts gears to become a point-and click-adventure game. We find ourselves outside in the great big cold world, free to explore. We travel around, meeting a colorful cast of characters along the way. One of them, the Mailman, gives us one last letter from Sugar Plumps in which she reminisces about the time you spent together in the warmth and fun of the fireplace. She doesn’t regret that time but looks back on it fondly -- all with proper grammar this time, denoting her new maturity.
This is where Little Inferno shines as a positive, uplifting game. It’s not cynical about childhood, it doesn’t view that time as wasted on someone who can’t appreciate it, but it also doesn’t get caught up in the blind nostalgia of a more innocent time. Despite the sad state of the world around us, the game isn’t cynical about adulthood. Sugar Plumps tells us she’s getting a tan on the beach, and she can’t believe how fabulous she looks. She’s grown up and moved on, not into some soul crushing world but into a world filled with new experiences at every turn (like the beach). She looks back on the fireplace as time well spent while it lasted, but in retrospect, it’s obvious that it had to end sometime. Ultimately, she doesn’t regret that end.
The game keeps up this happy, but somber tone when our short journey takes us to meet Miss Nancy, the owner of Tomorrow Cooperation and creator of the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace. She looks out across the city from atop her skyscraper and tells us that it’s slowing down, more and more every day, and that it’ll soon stop. If the fireplace represents childhood, then the city must represent adulthood and the inevitable creep of the cold represents our life’s slow crawl towards death. It seems as if the game has taken a dark turn, and at first, Miss Nancy seems overcome with regret as she recounts all the things she wanted to be when she grew up: “I remember when I wanted to be an astronaut. And explore the cosmos. And compose a symphony. And dive to the bottom of the ocean! And discover lost cities! And build new cities! And become a model! But before you know it...” Miss Nancy knows that she’s old and that her life is coming to an end, but rather than just blithely accept her end she decides to “Dream Bigger” and hops in a spaceship and flies away. She’s committed to keep doing the things she loves until her very end, no sad truth can stop her.
Little Inferno is anything but a sad game. There’s an inevitable sadness that comes with telling the story of a boy growing out of childhood, leaving his toys behind, acknowledging the reality of death, realizing that the state of the world is not at all pleasant. But the game doesn’t dwell on theses realizations. Instead it uses them as motivation, encouraging us to “move on” because: “There’s a whole world out there” and “You can go as far as you want!” Little Inferno is really a celebration of life. As such, it ends with you hopping onto the Weather Man’s weather balloon, who takes you up up up over the smokestacks, over the city, to where the sun is shining for the first time in a long time.