Monday, August 19, 2013

Little Inferno: A Review

Recently, I have been working my way through the pile of Humble Indie Bundles I have accumulated over the past year. I promised myself that I would give every game a chance but maybe I am just getting impatient or jaded. Games that I would have played years ago I discarded for the slightest offense; even games that hooked me could not hold me. Thomas Was Alone – seems like it has the potential to be a great puzzler but I gave up after I had to re-solve the puzzle for getting up a single step on every step of a staircase. Atom Zombie Smasher – seems like it would be a great game but I gave up with the feeling I have played it before. (But don’t let me dissuade you from playing them. They are both good games)

This took me back to a conversation I had with a friend. He says he does not buy games for his kids because they discard the paid-for games as quickly as they discard the free ones. This conversation degenerated into a “back in my day” conversation (where we used to play video games uphill both ways); but I wonder, am I any better than his kids just because I can dismiss a game for snooty reasons instead of the basic “I’m bored”?

This review, however, is not about those games. It is about the game I did play… to completion: Little Inferno. The game caught my eye as it shares a designer/artist with World of Goo (another game I have played to completion). Without much fanfare, it plops you right into the gameplay. The core loop is simple: grab stuff in your inventory, drag it into the fireplace, light it on fire, collect coins, and buy more stuff. As someone who likes burning real things in a real fireplace, I found the animation to be quite satisfying. Little Inferno, though, is not about burning things. Burning things is just a metaphor.

Just like World of Goo, there is a strong anti-consumerist/environmental theme. Little Inferno, however, is a little more explicit about it: you are literally buying stuff to waste it. There are also some digs on free to play games by making you wait for deliveries unless you use stamps to speed it up and frantically clicking on coins that pop out of everything, but unlike free to play, they give you plenty of stamps for free and the coins collect themselves if you are patient. Though I digress, Wired, amongst others, has good coverage of this aspect. While that author of that piece was inspired to delete his F2P games because of it, it is not why I find this game so fascinating. This game is special because it is as close to a lesson in Zen as any game I have ever played.

I have been thinking about Zen and video games lately. While I have enjoyed games with “Zen” in the title, none have had anything to do with it. I found an interesting article on Gamasutra about the topic, but the author seems to have confused relaxation and meditation for Zen. He does get close when he mentions flOw as an example. flOw, the game, was designed to create flow, the psychological state, and flow, the psychological state, is similar to being one with all things.

Now, I should admit that I might have exaggerated a bit about Little Inferno being a lesson in Zen. It is a lesson in Zen for those familiar with Zen, but if you know where to look, it is an excellent illustration of the basics. Just watch yourself as you progress through the game. You start slow in the beginning, burning one thing after another, but as your finances improve you start buying ever more increasing quantities of junk and burning them all at once progressing through catalog after catalog growing more and more impatient at the delivery times. As your impatience grows, you start spending all the stamps you had saved. At first, one here and there, then two… three… eight… at a time.

That right there is the second noble truth: to suffer is to want and wanting leads to ever increasing wanting. When you reach the end (the game of your life), you look back on the suffering you have been through and realize that you had everything you needed for peace the whole time: an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the flames.