The video game Factorio got me hooked and I have played it longer than any other single-player game. While it is still in the early access phase and scheduled to be released in August, more than two million copies of the game have been sold.
Video games today are multifaceted. As video games gained in depth and complexity in the last decade, video game criticism started taking them seriously as cultural and artistic works, as a diverse medium. Every game tells you something about the world – the in-game fictional world but also the world their creators and players inhabit. It is worth examining what games tell about the world – and what not. I find it noteworthy how Factorio depicts the natural world and human interaction with it.
On its surface, Factorio is a simulation of a factory. The factory uses machines to mine raw materials and process them. More machines transform products into other products, and so forth. The goal of the game is to automate the production further and produce more complex artifacts.
Instead of asking what the game is about, it gives more insight to ask what Factorio is not about. It is surprising what the game omits, what the game does not tell.
First, the game is not about building an economy. In an economy, there are humans and human labor transforming natural substances. There is demand on the consumer side and supply on the producer side. In the capitalist mode of production, someone owns the means of production, employs workers, pays wages and earns profit in order to reinvest it. Products are sold on a market, exchanged as commodities. There are technical, societal and juridical conditions.
Second, the game is not about ecology, broadly defined as “relationship of organisms with each other and the environment”. Such organisms span from microbes to animals, including humans. They transform matter in biochemical processes. In ecology, there are few one-way streets. Substances are transformed in food webs, but matter and energy is never lost. A species cannot survive for long if it is not part of biogeochemical cycles and energy flows.
From a human perspective, ecology could mean exchange of matter between human and nature. Clearly, humans depend on and are entangled with the nature around them. For lack of a better description, science uses an economic term: nature provides “ecosystem services”, like drinking water, breathable air, fertile soil, renewable resources, decomposition of poisonous substances etc. Today, as the climate crisis, the Anthropocene extinction and plastic pollution are among the most pressing problems of humankind, we are reminded of these essential “services”.
Third, on its surface, the game does not tell anything. There is a thin story, but it can be summarized in one sentence: The player avatar, simply called engineer, crash-lands on an alien planet and needs to build a rocket to launch a satellite into orbit. (It is not that the engineer wants to be rescued.) You “win” the game by launching the satellite. But it’s not the end of the technology tree, you can continue playing the game.
There is, however, a story being told casually. When game designers do this on purpose, it is called environmental storytelling. Factorio features environmental storytelling in the sense that it tells about the natural environment and how human interacts with it.
The factory simulation is a mathematical model, a function over time. Goods are produced, transformed and consumed. Yet the variables of this simulation are familiar to the player: trees, water, ores, oil and derivatives, conveyor belts, machines, cars, trains, electricity, power plants. They appeal to what the player knows. In terms of technical progress, the game world is a mix of mid and late 20th century innovations. The industry relies heavily on fossil resources and fossil fuels.
There is the distant goal of building a rocket. But instead, a near goal drives the gameplay forward: the alien threat. The aliens are insect-like swarm creatures. They live in nests and occasionally expand by building new nests. They attack everything that comes near them. They run straight into the player’s defenses. These enemies are an important outer limiting factor, an additional challenge the player needs to tackle when planning and expanding the factory.
As a game device, the aliens force the player to build a machinery of war. If one would take out the products, the buildings, the technology research etc. directly or indirectly connected to military, there is only a fraction left. (To be specific here, I have counted 129 civil items, 10 dual use items and 44 military items. That means almost a quarter of the items are clearly military.) So for a great deal, this game is a war game, with little strategic value I might add.
Defending your civilization against the natives is a notorious colonial narrative. To expand your factory, you constantly need to push the “frontier” forward, eliminating the native population.
In the huge mathematical simulation, there is one formula reminiscent of ecology: Some parts of your factory cause pollution. The pollution is one factor that make aliens attack your factory. They seek to eliminate the source of the pollution. The environment is somehow resilient against pollution: Trees absorb pollution, but may also die from it. Soil and water absorbs and neutralizes pollution.
In essence, this is an ecological idea. Reduce pollution to improve your life, to stop antagonizing the native life. There is one drawback: I found the whole pollution mechanic to be obscure, insignificant and ultimately pointless. You can almost ignore it during gameplay. It is not thought-out, it seems unsound and unfinished.
Reducing pollution could have been an important aspect of the game, but it is not. There is little incentive not to clear a forest. (You cannot reforest. Trees do not regrow either.) There is little motivation not to pave the ground and seal the soil. To defend against alien attacks attracted by pollution, it is much easier and more obvious to build up arms, to optimize your war machinery, to achieve superior firepower.
Early in the game, when you burn massive amounts of fossil fuels, there are little ways to reduce pollution. So you need to invest in military to counter the inevitable attacks. Later in the game, you can reduce pollution easily, but mostly as a byproduct of energy efficiency. In that stage, you have already built a powerful military industry and do not have to care about pollution.
Upgrading your weapons is the natural way of handling the negative impact of pollution. The game offers plenty of strategies how to decimate aliens or keep them at bay. Funnily enough, pollution does not harm yourself directly. Only the aliens are bothered. This does not make sense given the player seems to be a living organism as well.
In addition to static defense structures, there is offensive combat. Again, with a huge complexity and variety. There are plenty of guns, ammunition, armed vehicles, combat robots, armed trains and respective upgrades. Whole industries are connected to these weapons.
The purpose of offensive combat is to conquer new territories. It is necessary that your factory grows steadily to open up new resources. This is due to the fact that in the game world, conservation of mass and energy does not apply. Especially for techology upgrades, matter is consumed and vanishes into thin air. Most resources are finite. Once raw materials have been processed, you cannot disassemble and recycle the products. (You can only throw them away or blow them up.)
Since there is no recycling, you cannot set up a circular economy. Therefore, expansion, growth and colonization are imperatives of the game. Sustainability and peace are no options.
Challenging the game for its focus on war means putting the cart before the horse. Rather, the question is why the alien creatures are designed like they are: lacking intelligence, always hostile, no intelligible motives or needs. This is a particular cheap way of conceiving adversaries.
How do these creatures sustain their life? Like every organism, they must exchange matter with nature. They need a habitat. They are interconnected with other organisms. The fact that the aliens look like insects and live in huge groups suggests they have a eusocial structure, like ants and bees.
If the game had explored how these organisms live and survive, coexistence would be possible. Both species could interact, exchange and support each other. This could be as complex and manifold as building a sophisticated war industry, without denying that there are different interests and that the player is an intruder.
All this seems like a missed opportunity for me. The game designers opted for the “safe” way by raking up colonial narratives. As a consequence, the simulation actively ignores the basics of human-nature interaction and ultimately the basics of life.
Every fictional work is free to do so, it does not have to be realistic. Also, a game is not a lecture in economy or ecology. Still, works of fiction deal with issues from the real world, find fictional answers and shape how we reason about them. The game antagonizes human and nature, especially human and non-human animals. This is nothing but a story, a harmful story.
Postscriptum: In this article, I describe the “vanilla” gameplay and the standard configuration. The game has many options, like peaceful mode, that change the gameplay significantly. Also Factorio has a vibrant modding community that changes and extends almost aspect of the game. Several mods change the mechanics mentioned here. Taking mods into account, it is impossible to say what the game is in essence and what not. That is why I examine the vanilla gameplay. Even without mods, Factorio is an open framework. While military plays an important role in standard gameplay, there are plenty of ways to play this sandbox game. One can spend twenty hours optimizing the war machinery or trying to minimize armed conflicts.