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Literary Inferno

Little Inferno was released to questions of its intentions, but what it was was an effort of literary criticism in video game form, commenting on trends in game design, tech culture, and also the second law of thermodynamics.

Tyler Shogren, Blogger

November 7, 2013

4 Min Read

                Wikipedia states the second law of thermodynamics as “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium—the state of maximum entropy.” This is hardly the only version, but it means things get messy: your car, your hard drive and especially your fireplace. Richard Feynman observes that the second law is the only law that isn’t time reversible and therefore the one true time arrow of the universe. It means you can’t unring a bell, unplay Tomorrow Corporation’s Little Inferno, or unread this paragraph. In a sense, you can never go back.

                Little Inferno was released last year to little fanfare and questions as to its intentions. It seemed to mock the very players it was intended for, but it didn’t. What it was was an effort of literary criticism in video game form, commenting on trends in popular game design, gamer culture or tech culture at large, and also the second law of thermodynamics.

                I’ll assume readers have played the game already and only briefly summarize. You are the new owner of the hottest new entertainment product: a Little Inferno fireplace. You buy successively more expensive items from a series of catalogues in order to burn them with sometimes dazzling effects. In the process these burned items generate more money than they cost, facilitating more purchases and advancement through the game. Essentially, there is no way to lose, which is a comment on the lack of difficulty in modern game design.

                A more serious commentary comes with the delivery time the player must wait for each item, which directly mocks the timers of social games like Farmville. At first this delivery time is minimal seconds, an almost realistic touch to remind the player they have mail ordered the item. At later stages, the delivery time becomes distracting minutes, too long for smooth play and reminiscent of weak Free2Play design. It seems there can be no other purpose to this unfun mechanic than commentary on weak modern game designs.

                The game’s story is linear. At intervals you meet your unhinged neighbor, who you only interact with through letters. This seems to be a commentary on tech culture, wherein texting and textual social media interactions are your closest connections, even if, as in this case, you live next door. At one point a letter even informs you she is standing right behind you, but the game offers no mechanism to turn your avatar’s gaze from the fireplace. In the world of Little Inferno, social interactions are obfuscated and tangential.

                Features of the second law of thermodynamics are introduced by another character: “…Reporting from the Weather Balloon, over the smoke stacks, over the city, The Weather Man." The Weather Man reports of continuously colder weather as the game progresses. At one point he opines: “Remember... fire can be warm! Fire can be fun! Fire can be DANGEROUS! But remember, there is one thing more dangerous than fire...” which I posit is the heat death of the universe. In the world of Little Inferno, everyone is burning things in their Little Inferno entertainment fireplaces and the second law of thermodynamics, paradoxically, states that the consequence is the world should be getting colder. It’s as if the world of little Inferno is a tiny, enclosed system experiencing the heat death of the universe on an accelerated scale.

                The cooling world of Little Inferno can be read as a grand analogy for the consequences of tech proliferation in our own social world. Every computer, Xbox, PS3 and Wii can be seen as a fireplace (feel it after playing a game). In your house or apartment, enjoying these modern energy inputs, you must, according to the principle of entropy, be making the universe colder, less personal. Although we enjoy the experience, the consequence is a less enjoyable world.

                There are many details throughout the game that support these observations, but I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to find them and decide for yourself. Little Inferno is not a cheap, one-off game, it’s a literary inferno that comments on games, gamer culture and the second law of thermodynamics.

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