Do all boys burn their model airplanes? Or was it just me? Am I the only one who went through that weirdly destructive phase of watching with fascination as fire melted the plastic of the precious creations I had painstakingly pieced together and glued and held tight overnight with rubber bands while the glue dried and painted — all those tiny vials like a woman’s collection of lipsticks — and plastered with decals slipping wetly from my fingertips at all the wrong angles? So much time spent lining up a tiny “no step” decal, one tenth the size of a postage stamp, along the seam of an F-86 Saber’s aileron. And all reduced to sickening black smoke curling out from under an underpass near the apartments where we lived when I was a kid. There I was, willingly sacrificing something precious into my terrible newfound fascination with fire, gradually emptying my bedroom ceiling of the treasures I had carefully hung, each at just the right angle.

After the jump, I grew out of that and then years later found Little Inferno

I presume most kids grow out of that playing-with-fire phase. I don’t know if I stopped being fascinated, if I just ran out of model airplanes, or if it’s a matter of being unable to burn a Dungeons and Dragons session. But whatever happened, playing Little Inferno is one of those sublime games, like Bully, Brutal Legend, and Costume Quest, that opens a window to childhood. Not in that wholesome Disney/Pixar way. But in the darkly poignant way of finding a picture of yourself from a time when you thought you didn’t have any pictures of yourself.

I don’t mean to read too much into Little Inferno and I don’t want to give it too much credit as a great game. Like some of the most powerful games — The Path, Flower, Journey — it’s really not much of a game at all. It consists of a fireplace. You just buy stuff and burn it to earn more money to buy more stuff to burn. The puzzle element consists of figuring out which two or sometimes three things satisfy combos on a checklist. Obviously the “catfish combo” is the stuffed cat and the stuffed blowfish, but what on earth is the “generations combo”? You’ll have to figure out a bunch of these to progress through the catalogs from which you buy stuff. You can see the hand of a creative developer at work here (the guys who made this come from World of Goo and a rather ingenious puzzle game no one played called Henry Hatsworth). It’s like adventure game inventory puzzles without having to hassle with an actual adventure game. Let’s see what happens if I combine things that make sense. Voila! Combos ticked off the list! Now let’s try to guess the meaning of intriguing clues like “cold war”, “wake up”, and “deadly vices”.

The burnings are incredibly well done for how they reveal little surprises as you go. Many of the burnables are as unremarkable as you’d expect. But then you get to something like, say, marshmallows and it’s not what you expect. Furthermore, the overall progression of burnable items is a true joy to discover. The less said, the better, because I want you to discover it. I’m reminded of a Joseph Conrad novel called The Secret Agent in which an anarchist longs to toss a bomb into “pure mathematics”. I mentioned earlier that you can’t burn a session of Dungeon and Dragons. Little Inferno might have a thing or two to say about that limitation.

What ultimately makes Little Inferno special is the story that swirls out like tendrils of smoke. Yeah, there’s a story, and it even has characters (you’ll remember Sugar Plumps long after you’re done playing). I’m not sure what to make of it, and I’m disappointed the payoff is merely satisfying when it came so close to being transcendent. Little Inferno is eventually a two-to-three-hour short film of a videogame about loss, relationships, videogaming itself, innocence, destruction, technology, consumerism, the people we see or don’t see who are so close to us, or maybe even none of the above. Whatever Little Inferno has to say to you, it will do it quickly, compactly, decisively, and brightly.

5 stars
Wii U

(Little Inferno is available on the Wii U and for the PC. On the Wii U, you can play it entirely on the touchscreen controller or on your TV, but it otherwise has no unique Wii U features.)