Playing with fire: How Tomorrow Corporation's IGF-nominated Little Inferno came to be

Little Inferno is a game set in a fireplace.

In a world gone cold and demanding heat, Tomorrow Corporation's game equips players with the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace and tasks them with burning some of their favorite things to survive.

Polygon interviewed the developers of the 2013 Independent Games Festival-nominated Little Inferno to learn about the company, the game and the unexpected controversy that arose when the National Fire Protection Association condemned it.

It's been almost 10 years since Allan Blomquist, Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray met.

At Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, the trio collaborated on projects like a virtual reality version of Pong and organizing the Experimental Gameplay Project, a "friendly competition" that continues to reward indie developers who create innovative games quickly based on themes.


After graduating, all three got jobs at Electronic Arts. But each grew weary. They reformed because "we wanted to make our own mark on the industry," Tomorrow Corporation's Kyle Gray told Polygon.

The idea for a game where players look at a fireplace came from pattern recognition. They saw a trend emerging of games that looked like "slightly interactive screen savers," composer Kyle Gabler, who also scored the Wold of Goo soundtrack, told us.

"They seemed so obviously terrible, we thought it would have been brilliant if the developers had hidden a terrifying plot and genuinely great game just below the surface. And maybe only a few players would ever discover it.

"A virtual fireplace seemed like a good start — a suspiciously tiny, deliberately constrained premise, but still ripe for dripping in pieces of an outside world that's huge and scary and just out of reach. We've always loved the idea of setting expectations and then breaking them."

Some see the gameplay loop of buying and burning items in Little Inferno as a covert form of satire about consumerism and environmentalism. Gabler acknowledges that the game does contain some "friendly satire," but says it isn't the game's main thrust.

"That's not really the intended payload of the game, and not really meant to be anything especially profound or new — veryone already knows social/casual game mechanics can be kind of terrible! The one message we'd hoped players would take away is something much simpler and heart warming!"

"A virtual fireplace seemed like a good start."

Instead, Gabler told us that Little Inferno's quirks are a result of independent game development generally.

"Indie games tend to be outlets for their designers' hopes and anxieties and unusual ways of viewing the world," he wrote. "So these games, Little Inferno included, are filled with little messages and half-formed-thoughts and orphaned personality quirks, not really out of an attempt to be artistic, but because there's no other way we could make a game without these things oozing in."

That indie-fused quirkiness also brought some unintended controversy to the game earlier this year when the National Fire Protection Association called for the game's removal from the Nintendo Wii U's eShop. Its mascot, Sparky the Fire Dog, even got in on the action.

"Some will say that it's just a game! True — and many will treat it as such. But there is an innate curiosity to fire," a post on the NFPA's website reads, warning of the dangers inherent in the "use of fire as a toy."

As with the focus on consumerism, Gabler said the NFPA's criticism surprised the developers.

"I think we all had the same sequence of reactions starting with 1. 'Wow a cartoon dog is calling for our downfall — that's as awesome as it is confusing!' followed by 2. 'Huh. This game really probably looks like it's about fire, doesn't it!'

"But weirdly, when I think about Little Inferno, and what we were trying to do with it, playing with fire is not even close to the top!"

"Wow a cartoon dog is calling for our downfall — that's as awesome as it is confusing!"

That's a price you pay for being an indie developer, Gabler told us.

"Unfortunately, a game like this is a terrible idea for marketing! It's really really difficult to talk about — and probably a good reason this game would never have been made by a real company!"

Those interested in discovering what Tomorrow Corporation was trying to do with Little Inferno can buy the game for Windows PC DRM-free from the developer's website, Steam, the iOS App Store and the Wii U Nintendo eShop. If you like what you hear in the trailer above, you can download Little Inferno's John Williams-inspired soundtrack for free here.

Tomorrow Corporation's Little Inferno is a 2013 IGF finalist in the Technical Excellence, Nuovo Award and Seumas McNally Grand Prize categories. It also received honorable mention in the Excellence In Design and Excellence In Audio categories. The Independent Games Festival will take place during the 2013 Game Developers Conference, in San Francisco from March 25-29.

Polygon will be speaking with the IGF's student showcase winners and Nuovo Award finalists almost daily for the month of March. Follow along with their stories in our StoryStream below.

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