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.
Little Inferno is riddled with the same kind of ambiguity that characterizes the Wii U itself. It is both a silly toy and a real adult game, with real themes worth taking seriously. It's both a game and the representation of a game, both in turn created by a real and a fictional Tomorrow Corporation. The game itself is unabashedly and shamelessly "indie," thus realizing Nintendo's desire to offer an eShop store at console launch, while also remaining available on other platforms with "no copy protection" by guys with "no office" -- a deft rhetorical turn for young dudes who have probably burned the piles of cash they made from their previous games on swank cribs with Herman Miller-bedazzled home offices.
It's a subtle and surprising game about the horror of today's games that keeps its message close to its chest -- until the very end, when it reveals that message in the most heavy-handed, blatant manner possible. In so doing, Little Inferno embraces both the triviality of games and the naiveté of players and developers, while somehow still affording its creators the freedom to advertise such callowness as a "zero waste" aesthetic full of "polish." It's as "perfeccct as possible," the creators boast on their website, which is just to say, typographic tongue in cheek, flawed by design.
Little Inferno is lovely and awful in the way that most indie games are lovely and awful. Pretty and weird, unexpected and ironic, self-referential and earnest, full of youthful scorn for didacticism and pretense, in a manner delivered with moralism and ostentation. Little Inferno is the Wii U saying that it supports indie games, while also saying that indie games are sort of terrible, actually, and wouldn't you rather just save princesses and kill zombies instead?
It's almost impossible to understand the Wii U in the abstract, without playing it. And even then you won't be sure of it, because the Wii U isn't sure of itself, and that's its greatest virtue. In an age when showy CEOs shout hubristic, trite predictions about the inevitable future of games, The Wii U offers an understated bravado that's far more courageous. With it, Nintendo admits, "we don't know either." We don't know what video games are anymore, or what they will become. It's a huge risk, and it's probably the most daring move Nintendo has made in its 125-year history. Domestication through polite ferocity. Feral design.
Still, let's not get too romantic: Nintendo's risk is not daring because the Wii U is good, necessarily. Many will lament what they will perceive as a step back for Nintendo compared to the "innovation" found in the Wii. They might be right. But the Wii U is serious in a way that Nintendo has never attempted. Even Nintendo may not have fully realized what it has done. It has domesticated the wildness of the present moment in video games, consumer electronics, the internet, and home entertainment by caging them out in the open. It's lurid and beautiful and repugnant and real, like watching Mickey Mouse smoke a joint in the alley behind Space Mountain.
We've all been assuming that games "growing up" means growing up in theme, tackling adult issues, achieving the aesthetic feats of literature and painting and film -- even if by "film" we usually mean "summer tent-pole movies."
But there are other ways to grow up. One involves embracing the uncertainty of one's own form and responding deliberately. That's what real art does, after all. It admits that it doesn't know what art is in theory, but only in practice. It gives the finger to its critics because it doesn't care if they like the results. Some among us keep asking for the Citizen Kane of games. Maybe Nintendo delivered something better, something weirder and more surprising -- particularly for a consumer electronics device. Not craft but soul, for once. Even Apple hasn't succeeded at that.
Around the time Nintendo was gearing up to license Disney's properties and become a major player in the playing card business, the novelist Samuel Beckett published The Unnamable. The book has no concrete plot or setting, and it's unclear if the work's characters and events are real or figments of the narrator's imagination.
Much of the novel is self-referential, with frequent ponderings over the possibility that the narrator is simply a construction of the language that forms the novel itself. The writing is a mess, full of despair and incoherence, long sentences flowing into one another to the point of illegibility. It ends with this famous passage, which now, surprisingly, improbably, could as easily have been written by Satoru Iwata or Shigeru Miyamoto:
They're going to stop, I know that well: I can feel it. They're going to abandon me. It will be the silence, for a moment (a good few moments). Or it will be mine? The lasting one, that didn't last, that still lasts? It will be I? ...
Perhaps it's done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)
It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.
You must go on.
I can't go on.
I'll go on.