One thing about games I’ve long had a particularly difficult time articulating is what makes them fun. I don’t mean this in the larger sense, which is actually an easier question to answer since Skinnerian mechanics, the feeling of mastering a skill, the enjoyment of surprise, etc. are pretty well obvious. At least, they seem pretty obvious to me, and I’m just some dilettante who likes playing games, not someone who actually studies them. Even that I could probably boil down to a simpler form and simply say that humans like play, and games offer us a nigh-infinite source of new forms of play. No, what I want to ask is what makes one game fun and another not when they have similar systems and rules. If every platformer is still pretty much another take on Super Mario Bros., why is Super Mario World still so much more fun than anything made since then. And how much does fun have to do with whether a game is actually any good?
Let’s get out of that weird stratosphere of abstraction for a second and head to the game in question: Little Inferno. Developed by Tomorrow Corporation and released in 2012 as a launch title for the Wii U, Little Inferno is one of those few indie games that breaks free of the usual game genres to try something new (sort of… we’ll get back to this in a second). I say this not because interesting twists on, say, Metroidvania games or roguelikes or any other genres aren’t necessarily a bad thing, simply that we’re glutted with them and that there’s something particularly refreshing about a title, indie or otherwise, that finds play in something that hasn’t been tried before. As much as a twist on something old is fun, who wouldn’t prefer something entirely new, assuming that it’s done well? Someone old and boring, that’s who, so let’s not be old and boring people for a moment here and say that Little Inferno, despite being three years old at the time I write this and even older by the time you read this (unless I’ve been thoroughly misunderstanding this whole time concept), will always feel new. It isn’t like anything else, except for itself, and there’s power in that.
If there is a Little Inferno 2 I will not play it, because the world will be a lesser place.
That isn’t to say that Little Inferno defies all game expectations. The people who make it are clearly well-grounded in video game history. There is a sense of progression. There is a sense of giving people a package that is obviously a game, with menus and UI, characters and dialogue and, yes, gameplay. It’s just that it’s intentionally not a genre game. Or rather, its genre is indie game, which is itself a genre the way literary fiction is, with expectations of its own, but at least that means it’s approachable. Did I mention that it’s on the Wii U? So yeah, it’s not all that weird, for all I’ve talked it up. This is a polished piece of software that your slightly demented 10-year-old child could pick up and play, which is important because for all its dullness, Little Inferno desperately wants you to play it. It is a virtual toy, and it requires a childlike sense of fun in order to get enjoyment from its gameplay. That being said, any kid who genuinely finds it fun, is willing to play through it until the end, is more than likely a little fucked up. Little Inferno wants you to try it, but at the same time it constantly begs you to find something else instead. You have to want to play it, the fun here does not come to you. Its gameplay is emergent in that you essentially have to find it yourself.
One of the game’s creators, Kyle Gabler, said that one of Little Inferno‘s inspirations was the Yule Log, that old video of a 17-second loop of a log burning that for some reason people used to put on in the background for Christmas. I know, I never understood it either–I think it has something to do with a need to always put television on in the background, which drives me absolutely crazy, even when there are people or a religious holiday going on that the presence of TV completely interferes with–but you have to admit that it is a good inspiration, since the Yule Log is the absolute nadir of entertainment. If you’re going to parody things, you need to go for the jugular, and Yule Log is to movies what Donald Trump is to politicians. It is dumb in completely fascinating ways that seem to say something about the people who like it, the only difference being that Little Inferno is more interested in finding out why we like games at all. It’s a game about finding the fun in games, and Tomorrow Corporation wants to know where it is in the same way that I do.
Here’s what you need to know about Little Inferno‘s gameplay: it’s slightly more skill-intensive than Progress Quest, but only slightly. You buy things from a catalogue and burn them in a fireplace. What you burn doesn’t matter, as regardless of what you choose you’ll get a pittance more money than what it cost back in return. Because of this you can afford newer, more expensive items, and thus move forward. Of a sort. Money is experience points here, and eventually you will have more money than you know what to do with. And then the game kind of ends.
There are two more gameplay elements (I’m not including the denouement, at which point Little Inferno becomes a controllable cutscene). One is that to get newer catalogues, you have to perform combos, an arbitrary number of which will unlock the next catalogue. These simply involve burning a couple items together that have some sort of thematic tie, and for the most part they’re easy enough to come up with. But this small puzzle element means that there’s some sort of skill and thought involved, so in that way it’s a tad more advanced than Desert Bus. It’s not just time moving forward that let’s you win, and sometimes you’ll get a combo wrong. The other part is that you can move things around in the fireplace, touch them and arrange them to your heart’s desire. This is both completely irrelevant to the story and progress, but in most traditional ways the core gameplay experience. This is where we’re supposed to find the fun.
I find this part of the game to be simultaneously fascinating and utterly worthless. But then, I am not a person who likes sandbox games. I don’t like to build things in games (I write instead), and while I appreciate emergent content, I don’t want to create it myself. I do not like finding my own fun. This, I have learned, puts me in opposition with a great many other game writers (“journalists,” but really that’s sometimes a weird term for these things), and plenty of players. Minecraft alone is pretty much the most popular thing of all time, bigger than the Beatles and trendier than parachute pants, let alone all the other games in the so-called open world or sandbox or emergent gameplay genre. The fun in these is supposed to be what you make of it, and as a goal-oriented person, when confronted with these games I mostly just find fun to be completely absent from the experience.
What’s that, I can walk or drive anywhere in a game? Wow, I can also do that by walking out my house’s front door, only with an even more emergent reality.
But so Little Inferno is a sandbox game, just not the type that we usually think of when we use that term. Or rather, it’s a firebox game. You get whatever items you want and you burn them. They burn in ways that might be described as interesting, and reflect the objects themselves rather than a realistic portrayal of what would happen were they to actually burn in a real fireplace. For people who like this sort of thing, the game must be almost ideal. Within the limited scope of burning random shit, you can do anything, combine items, throw them up against walls, and, umm, burn them in a slightly different combination. But then, that’s not so different from any other sandbox. It’s not fun, but it’s not fun for exactly the right reasons, which is to say it provides you with the same toolset as any big AAA open-world, more than likely Ubisoft-produced game. Which is also to say that it gives you almost nothing to do and your time burning things and waiting for new items to arrive is a complete waste. It is Assassin’s Creed fireplace. It is the Yule Log of sandbox games and it is incredibly dull. I played it while going through a lot of rather harrowing personal problems (cat-based personal problems, to be more specific) and this dullness, this lack of anything I found remotely interesting was a perfect way to unwind.
Playing Little Inferno was a lot like doing chores around the house, only with a story that I rather liked. But if cleaning my floors had the same story, I think I would like that more.
Little Inferno gives you an A just for showing up to class, and it does this because the creators know that one of the things we ask from all games is that they tell us we are A students. If you play Little Inferno for long enough you will win, because people like winning games and Little Inferno is a commentary on what it means to play a game. People who play games lik
e winning, because people who don’t like winning are either secretly aliens or lying.
The puzzles and Little Inferno‘s whimsy-by-way-of-Tim Burton story are there for people like me, who couldn’t give two craps about what’s going on in the actual fireplace and just want to achieve goals and know what happens next. This is how I got through pretty much the entirety of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s story without going to a single city. From this sentence you can probably infer that I hated Oblivion, and you’d be correct. But with this, the game offers something for everyone in a way that’s somehow more elegant than most games. The goals are meaningless, but at least they don’t pretend towards a reason and with this there’s a sort of logic, or at least a lack of illogic. Combos matter because the game says they matter. That they ultimately lead up to the explosive finale is just icing, because what’s important is that they are an arbitrary goal that means you can’t progress by just using the sandbox.
In all of this, there’s a miniaturized version of all sandbox games, but what I love so much is that the game’s story, because it somehow has one, focuses on how much burning things in this virtual fireplace is meaningless. The story is about time, wasting time, throwing it into a fireplace and watching things burn without anything to show for it except more of the same. Little Inferno is nihilism incarnate. It is about playing sandbox games, games without point, about doing that rather than something truly creative or interesting. It is about why having the Yule Log of games is a bad thing, but also that the Yule Log of games is most things that we play. It asks why we find something fun when it’s just a waste of time, why we spend our short lives doing these meaningless tasks. It is a game about games that has a serious problem with anyone who actually makes it to the ending credits.
But here’s the thing: Little Inferno is still intermittently fun. Flinging things into the virtual fireplace feels good, with touch controls and physics integrated just right. The story’s combination of creepiness and roundabout didacticism is weirdly engaging. The art design is cartoonish in a smart, po-mo sort of way. It takes several hours of meaninglessness to get to the game’s ending, but I’m going to guess that most people who make it are weirdly satisfied by the experience (I sure was), and those who don’t aren’t the type of people who like thinking about video games anyhow; and while it’s trite to say that the game’s not for them, well, it’s not.
Maybe I just like Little Inferno because I don’t like sandbox games so I’m attracted to anything that lashes out against them. But I think it’s more that I like a game that meshes its thematic content with its gameplay so well. If something is about wasting time, shouldn’t it require a lot of time wasting to get through? That’s always the question: if something is about boredom, does it in itself have to be boring to really work as a piece of art? Since Little Inferno is a commentary about what we find fun in games, could it do that, be a parody, if the game were moment-to-moment a fun experience? I don’t think so, but maybe I’m dead wrong.
I will never play Little Inferno again, but I’ve been telling Blake to because I think it’s a wonderful game, as much as it’s a sometimes interminable experience. It is play distilled to its absolute essence, and whether you’ll find that fun or not is kind of tough to guess at because there are so little of the usual game trappings there, the tricks that designers use to fool you into thinking the experience is fun when it’s ultimately time being burned up, inescapably and meaninglessly gone into the ashes of beyond the skyline. But then, that’s essentially the point.