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.