“In the West we often forget just how traditionally Japanese Nintendo really is. This aesthetic choice might be seen as sloppy or arrogant in the United States, a failure to make a coherent collection of titles that explain the purpose of the Wii U through methodical demonstration.
I take it as a gesture of humility. Nintendo is stepping back, acknowledging that things have changed. That it can no longer make assumptions about what games are or what they should be. And that its players shouldn’t either. This gesture of humility is a serious and profound one, in that it also refuses to accept the game industry’s standard assumptions about the present reality of games as mobile, social, and free-to-play. Instead, Nintendo presents a substantial, costly effort as its pack-in title, whose overall message amounts to, “we don’t know either.”
So serious is Nintendo about this act, it has launched its console with an independent, downloadable title that openly mocks the current state of video games. Little Inferno was created by Tomorrow Corporation, a new studio formed by Kyle Gabler (of World of Goo fame) and Allan Blomquist and Kyle Gray (Henry Hatsworth).
The game is both cute and morbid: in a fictional city bombarded by snow for as long as anyone can remember, a toy company (also called Tomorrow Corporation) creates the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, in which children can burn their toys to keep warm. The operation of this virtual fireplace forms the entirety of the game about it: a brick hearth appears on screen, upon which the player can set different children’s toys before igniting them.
Tomorrow Corporation provides catalogs of new toys, which can be purchased with coins earned by… burning more toys. Once purchased, the player must wait a period of time before they are delivered to the fireplace’s inbox, which visually mimics the iOS dock in a not-so-subtle jab at the Apple app economy.
Earning combos by burning objects together in response to a list of clues provides tickets that can be used to speed up delivery, which can take several minutes per item by the end of the game.
It doesn’t take much squinting to find Little Inferno’s tacit message: games have become pointless grinds, absurd hamster wheel exercises meant only to produce their own continuance, to offer just enough novelty to imbue players with curiosity sufficient to press on in the pointless art of clicking on (or burning) another object.
The simulation of a social game-style energy mechanic outside of the context of a free-to-play game with micropayments makes an adept point: sitting there, in front of the useless fireplace that is the television, waiting for progress bars to fill, yields a frosty chill. Is this what players and creators want, or what they have been settling for?
So self-aware is Little Inferno that it even mocks Nintendo as host. One of the game’s catalog of flammables, “1st Person Shopper,” contains video game-themed objects (including references to some popular indie games). Among the items in this catalog is a “handheld fireplace,” shaped more or less like a Wii U GamePad. Upon ordering this object to burn, the player — who probably purchased the virtual object whilst staring down at the GamePad instead of pointing a Wii remote at the television before him or her — can’t help but shiver with postmodern nuisance.”
Dr. Ian Bogost is a scholar, author, and game designer. He is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. As an author, he writes about videogames as a medium with many uses. As a game designer, he makes games for political, social, educational, and artistic uses. Bogost is author or co-author of seven books: Unit Operations, Persuasive Games, Racing the Beam, Newsgames, How To Do Things with Videogames, Alien Phenomenology, and the forthcoming 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. Bogost’s videogames cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally. His game A Slow Year, a collection of game poems for Atari, won the Vanguard and Virtuoso awards at the 2010 Indiecade Festival.