The masterminds behind World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth fill us in on the inspirations and thought experiments that led to their new game about burning stuff.
It took Nintendo a few years. They may be a generation late. But at long last, the House of Mario has decided to go all-in with digital distribution with the Wii U launch. This time tomorrow, players in North America will be able to log onto the eShop to find five download-only games available to purchase right from the start.
One such game is Little Inferno, a curious new project from Tomorrow Corporation in which the goal is to throw your worldly possessions into a fireplace. The three-man team behind it is comprised of Kyle Gray, who spearheaded the DS oddity Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, Kyle Gabler, the lead designer and artist on World of Goo, and Allan Blomquist, who helped bring the latter title to WiiWare.
Much of what Little Inferno entails, even so close to its release, is still shrouded in mystery. In this interview, we found out more about the nature of the game, as well as the team's influences, processes, and aspirations for it. Enjoy!
Nintendo World Report (NWR): Little Inferno is Tomorrow Corporation's first project, but many people know you as the guys behind World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth. How did this crew of people come together?
Kyle Gray: The three of us met in grad school years ago, back when the Wii was just a gleam in Shigeru Miyamoto’s eye. We made a bunch of tiny student projects, and talked about working together one day when we made it in the “real” games industry. Back then, the only way to make games was to join a giant company and work your way up from the bottom, but after a few years at EA, Kyle decided to leave and form 2D Boy. Allan joined shortly after to port World of Goo to the Wii, and I was the last to jump the EA ship after Hatsworth. A few months later, we started Tomorrow Corporation.
NWR: The idea behind Little Inferno, a game set entirely in front of a fireplace, is certainly very unique and intriguing. How did you come up with the idea for a game where the objective is to burn things? I suppose everybody has a firebug somewhere inside them, right?
Kyle Gabler: You may have heard of the Yule Log TV program—the burning log you find on TV around the winter months or in hotel rooms. It started in 1967 by a TV station in New York, originally as a 17-second loop of a flaming log. And we thought: "Man, that's like a super boring game that some awful company will totally make for the Wii or smartphones."
And then we thought: "Wait, WE could be that awful company! But I wonder if we can start with an exceptionally underwhelming premise, but then actually make the game really really surprisingly good?" And Little Inferno is the result. We hope we've succeeded!
NWR: From what we have seen and heard through the grapevine, the game seems quite like a sandbox, where you're really encouraged to play around and experiment with stuff just to see what happens. What is the driving factor towards making progress? Are there puzzles, missions or goals of any description?
Gabler: The game certainly has a huge "sandboxy" element, but you are never left alone and cold without a goal and a string of little surprises. There is a very clear direction you are heading. You can't play in the sandbox forever. There is an end.
There is a hilarious piece of Animal Crossing fan fiction from like 2007 that is a brilliant example of what can happen if you take a "sandboxy" game and give it an actual direction. It's called The Terrible Secret of Animal Crossing and is well worth a read if you have a free afternoon.
NWR: Video games like this are sometimes criticised as being more like toys than actual games. Is this a distinction you embrace? Or by its very nature, would you still classify Little Inferno as a game?
Gabler: Little Inferno makes no effort to be an ordinary game, and I expect there will be a wide range of opinions because of it. We enjoy the bewildered YouTube comments from folks like "What?! You throw things in a fire to get money to buy more things to throw in a fire? That's pointless and stupid!"
And of course it's pointless and stupid! The characters in the game muse about the very same thing in different ways. But why do we continue doing something that's warm and comfortable, maybe embarrassingly satisfying, even though it's clearly unproductive? It's a question the game is fascinated with.
NWR: Let's say, for example, that I'm the sort of gamer who likes to play games for the challenge and for the test of skill. How does Little Inferno evolve to keep me interested and challenged as I play more and more? Or are you going for something completely different with this game?
Gabler: Tests of skill can be fun, but games have so much more to offer more than rote, mechanical, time and dexterity trials.
Why do we enjoy roller coasters or traveling or music or exploring the sewer system under the neighborhood with flashlights? They aren't necessarily challenging, and you can't really get better at them, but they can be thrilling.
To the Moon and Dear Esther are two recent games that are beautiful and especially memorable to me for their distinct and intentional lack of challenge. Adventure games like Space Quest and the old LucasArts games also had very little challenge, yet the genre has managed to remain one of the most beloved class of games. There are whole worlds filled with characters inside of these games waiting to be explored and talked to and licked and exploded!
So, nope! Not only does Little Inferno very intentionally have almost no challenge, but the fact that that's the case is a really central plot detail—and it's not lost on the characters within the game either.
NWR: The presentation and story is another aspect of Little Inferno that has definitely caught our attention. The teaser trailer you put out a while ago was somehow adorable and at the same time, weirdly sinister. It's a fascinating and kind of unsettling dichotomy. What was the inspiration behind this style and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
Gabler: A few years ago when Flash games were huge, Derek Yu of TIGsource commented something like "[This one Flash game site] is evil, in the same way as Disney Land or Church." Which I thought was an apt way to sum up that particular feeling of a person/company/whatever smiling at you with their face while simultaneously defiling you with their long fingers. It's a feeling I feel constantly, like when ordering a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks, or when saying "thank you" to the nice TSA agent who just had his hand on my inner thigh, and I wish there were a word for it. Is there a word for it?
And speaking of mashing up emotions together, I read an interview forever ago with the legendary Meryl Streep where she said she never acts just one emotion - she likes to act like 12 emotions all at once. Just watch how she breaks that egg!
I hope we can one day approach her repertoire of simultaneous emotions.
NWR: How about the game's soundtrack? One of the things I absolutely loved about World of Goo was its wide range of great music. What is the direction you're going in with the music for Little Inferno? Any influences to speak of?
Gabler: With World of Goo, I wrote two or three tracks specifically for the game, but all the rest came from a back catalog of music I'd written over the previous ten years or so - so the soundtrack became kind of a ragtag junkyard of previously-loved misfit music.
With Little Inferno, I'm pretending to be a real composer, and making all the music from scratch just for this game, which means this gets to be a more mature soundtrack with actual real live soundtrack features—like different themes for different characters that evolve over time. I'm a big fan of movie music from the 80's and 90's—like John Williams (1993 was his most amazing year), Danny Elfman's 90's heyday, Vangelis in the early 80's—all with strong melodic themes and instantly identifiable orchestration.
NWR: The game is, of course, coming to Wii U, and will be one of the first downloadable games to appear on the system. What has it been like working on the Wii U? What are the main perks and challenges of developing a game for a new console, and such an unusual one at that?
Allan Blomquist: As a lifelong Nintendo fan, the biggest perk for me was getting to play with the new system before everybody else of course! It's also exciting as a developer to get your hands on more powerful hardware because suddenly it feels like anything is possible. Little Inferno definitely couldn't have existed in its present form on the Wii.
The flip side of getting early access is that there aren't already established conventions on the system. For example, if the player wants to transition from playing on their TV to playing on the GamePad, how exactly will that work? Should it be a button press, or a menu? Should the game pause? What should we show on the TV once you're playing on the GamePad? Next year, there will be a bunch of games that have all tackled these issues and the best ideas will become the unwritten standard. Until then, it's up to the initial crop of launch titles to set the pace. No pressure!
NWR: We know that the Wii U version can be controlled using the Wii Remote's pointer? Are there any exclusive features for this version of the game? How, if at all, does it use the Wii U GamePad controller?
Gray: Players will be able to play with their Little Inferno with either the GamePad or Wii Remote. While the Wii Remotes make natural fire pokers, there’s something comforting about snuggling up to a nice warm fireplace that you can carry with you around the house. We’re also tinkering with multiplayer for a possible future update. Fire is fun for the whole family!
NWR: How have Nintendo been involved during the development of Little Inferno? Have they taken a fairly hands-on approach or have you had free rein? How does it compare to your experience working on WiiWare?
Gabler: We have feelings filled with raccoon suits and invincibility stars for Dan and Shannon and the fine folks at the Mushroom Kingdom. They have been supportive from the beginning—of us, and this incredibly weird game. It's worth noting though, that Nintendo is not our publisher, so the question of hands on or off doesn't really enter into it, no matter how soft or white their gloves are. Like a lot of indie developers, we're a small team, fully self-funded, and don't have a publisher. So there's 100 percent creative control by default.
NWR: Little Inferno seems to have had a shorter space of time between its announcement and its release than most indie titles. Was this intentional? Do you feel there is a risk in people losing interest when a game is known about and in development for a long time?
Gray: It seems like only a few short years ago all you needed was a decent review or an article in a game magazine to get noticed. With today’s on-the-go society, we’re under a constant barrage of information.
Every time I check my email I have to parse through ads trying to drive me to their website to play crappy HTML 5 games. Every time I play a game on my phone, I have to sit through an advertisement for the next greatest tower-animal-ville sim. Every time I log on to a website I have to look at a dozen banners full of buxom fantasy wenches, touting their latest free-to-play social network title. With all the noise out there it’s a wonder that more game companies don’t start hyping their next game as soon as they release their current one.
We believe the best way to make people interested in our games is not to talk endlessly about them ourselves, but to make games that people want to talk about. Games that are good. Games that are different. Games that people will remember years from now.
With Little Inferno we’re taking players on a strange and wonderful ride to somewhere they’ve never been before. We’re excited to see what people think when it releases later this month!
NWR: Lastly, let's talk launch details. When will Little Inferno be coming out? And do you have any information to give on its price on the Wii U eShop?
Gray: We’re pushing to release on launch day in North America and Europe. Thanks to some tremendous work on the part of our volunteer fan translators, we’ll be launching in English, French, German, Dutch, and Spanish! As for the price, we’re planning on launching at $15 in the US, and should be releasing at a comparable price in Europe.