Entropy, Austerity, and Little Inferno

Most everyone seems a little baffled by Little Inferno. It seems like a collection of cool things that have very little to do with each other: An entrancing fire simulation without goals to give it structure. A handful of strange, endearing characters without much of a larger plot. An in-game store that pokes fun at the likes of Farmville with a vague anticonsumerism vibe. Where can we find some thread that ties these disparate elements together? Here’s one idea: Little Inferno is, at its core, a game about entropy.

Entropy is the natural tendency for order to dissolve into chaos. It is a one-way process of physical change in the universe, which dilutes concentrated energy and slowly redistributes it throughout the cosmos. Entropy is the reason you can scramble an egg but can’t unscramble it. It’s also why perpetual motion machines are impossible: any possible contraption will always be losing small amounts of energy as heat and friction, so it’s impossible to get out more than you put into any system.

In Little Inferno, the essence of entropy is encapsulated by a beautiful and complex fireplace simulation. In the game as well as the real world, fire does not produce energy out of nowhere: it releases the energy stored in the fuel it consumes, transferring it into heat which (although warm near the center of the fire) eventually spreads out and becomes completely diluted. Little Inferno is quick to point out the consequences of this setup: a cheerful early instruction tells players to “make a nice fire and stay warm”, yet cautions “…But you can’t do that forever!” This feeling of unsustainability permeates the moment-to-moment play of the game: even without a timer or difficult gameplay goals, the destructive, frantic gameplay of Little Inferno gives it a feeling of desperation and looming, inevitable failure not present in a creative construction game like World of Goo.

Lest the fire die out, more fuel to be burned must always be bought using the in-game catalogue, where Little Inferno confronts us with the absurdity of consumer culture. Alongside the indie references and joke items reside flammables like “Someone Else’s Credit Card” and “Blankity Bank”: on scales from the personal to the national, Little Inferno is reminding us that the world economy is supported by growing towers of debt and by a willingness to pretend that perpetual economic growth is possible. This point is reinforced by the impossible perpetual-motion machine of the game’s Farmville-style currency system. In the game’s own words: “Buy stuff… Burn it… and it gives you MORE money than when you started. That can’t go on forever!” In economics, too, entropy ensures that unsustainable practices will eventually come toppling down.

Ultimately, the ironic fate of the world of Little Inferno is made clear: each fireplace’s roaring flame is keeping someone warm, but the smoke from those fires is what’s clouding the atmosphere and causing the temperature to crash in the first place, making the long-term picture bleaker for everyone. Of course, this kind of short-term thinking is exactly what leads to real-world environmental problems like global warming, but there is a yet bigger, more interesting metaphor at work: Little Inferno is also a parable about the long-term fate of the entire universe.

At the end of the game, the CEO of “Tomorrow Corporation” confirms that nothing can be done to warm the game’s freezing world. Her selfish solution is to hop on a rocket and blast off for another planet entirely and seek a fresh start for yet more unsustainable schemes. But this explosive escape offers only temporary respite from the falling temperatures. After all, even the stars can’t go on forever.

The brighter and hotter a star burns, the more fuel it must consume in each instant. With each ounce of fuel exhausted, the total amount of disorder in the universe increases irreversibly. Just as every Entertainment Fireplace is slowly sealing the frozen fate that they are built to avoid, every star’s outpouring of life-giving energy is simultaneously bringing the so-called “heat death of the universe” ever nearer: the time when entropy claims its final victory, and all energy in the universe becomes too dilute to possibly sustain life.

In a million little ways, people like to pretend that it’s possible to get something from nothing, that perpetual growth is somehow sustainable. That’s why Little Inferno is here to remind us of a simple truth: nothing lasts forever, and what goes up must someday come back down.