Any analysis of the relationship between the player-character and their environment in Factorio must begin with an acknowledgement that Factorio is a game that does considerably more to accurately depict the environmental impact of human industrial development than the vast majority of its peers in the simulation, management, strategy, and puzzle genres.
In Stardew Valley, for instance, not only do forests rapidly regrow and lakes never deplete of fish, but quarries, mines, and caves also replenish with stone and ore from day to day. Similarly, while Infinifactory does periodically foreground topics like mining, exploitation, and waste in its story and puzzle design—it nevertheless provides an infinite supply of inputs that can be accelerated or decelerated at will, even when those inputs are living creatures. Even games like Terraria and Minecraft, which go so far as to represent resource acquisition as a zero sum game, nevertheless depict all processing, combining, and consuming of those resources as a pollution-free, byproduct-free non-zero sum game.
By contrast, in Factorio, resources are finite; resources don’t always combine cleanly into singular products; pollution results from production; and pollution has consequences for both the world and the player. Nevertheless, despite its demonstrable steps in the right direction, Factorio preserves a great many of the negative practical and psychological trends embodied by such optimization- and development-focused titles. In fact, it is precisely because Factorio does so much to emphasize the topics of resource scarcity and pollution that its weaknesses in the realm of environmentalism shine so brightly.
Yet it still rides that line—between being a productive presentation of environmental topics and being a destructive presentation of the same—so closely that I can easily imagine different players having widely varying responses regarding whether Factorio’s depiction of humanity’s interaction with nature is a net positive or net negative in the wider conversation about such topics. How can this be? Let’s take a closer look:
A Summary of Factorio:
You arrive in the world of Factorio privy only to a small set of facts: your player-character is a lone human survivor of a spacecraft crash on an alien planet; the planet is inhabited by an enormous insect-like species which reacts violently when approached by the player-character or when in proximity to structures created by the player-character; and the planet is lush in natural resources—not only forests and waterways, nor only metal and coal deposits, but even subterranean oil reserves and naturally occurring pockets of uranium.
In a humble and succinct text box, you are given a concrete and specific goal. The goal is immediately comprehensible, yet dauntingly complex: build and launch a rocket into space. As one may expect from beginning alone with a scant few machines and resources, the task of constructing a functional rocket is herculean. Moreover, doing everything by hand is out of the question, for two reasons: first, because many items can only be produced within machines; and second, because—even if it were possible—doing so would consume literal years of a player’s time.
That the goal is impossible by hand, however, is no obstacle, because the player-character in Factorio is an unusually dexterous engineer. Some of the items and facilities they are capable of constructing from raw materials include mechanical arms, conveyor belts, and so-called ‘assembling machines.’ If supplied with sufficient power where necessary, such tools can automate everything from acquisition of materials to manufacturing of goods to even (miraculously) research of more advanced technologies.
“If supplied with sufficient power where necessary” . . . there’s the rub. Until the acquisition of solar or nuclear technology, constructing and operating power infrastructure even for entirely electronic processes requires the rapid consumption of fuel, either coal or oil products, in boilers attached to steam engines. And what’s more, the assembly lines refining metals, plastic, and fuels from ore and crude oil themselves burn enormous quantities of coal and other resources for most of the game.
Even if not actively cleared for wood or for space, the nearby forests are slowly diminished and damaged by this largescale pollution operation. It turns bodies of water green, and kills off the fish within them. And as the air pollution increments and spreads from the growing factories, the aforementioned local arthropods begin and slowly ramp up attempted acts of vengeance against the machines.
You may have picked up on the curious teleology described just now: as a matter of course and ludic necessity, one must reach the goal of launching a rocket, so one must produce items from raw materials, so one must automate to scale production and create complex goods, so one must extract natural resources and pollute water and air, so one must engage in violent conflicts with the locals. It is manifest destiny that a rocket be launched, so exploitation of the environment is unavoidable and the efforts of the bug race stand in the way of fate.
At every step of the way, one may be tempted to wonder whether there are alternatives: Is it possible to avoid automation? Are there any pollution-free ways to produce these goods? Are there any diplomatic ways of interacting with the native species? Well, the answer to each of these questions is ‘no’ (with a small asterisk next to the answer regarding pollution). But why is the answer ‘no?’ It’s ‘no’ because such alternatives are denied by the structure and design of the game.
Many items are restricted from being produced by the player-character, and must result from feeding materials into furnaces, assembling machines, refineries, and chemical plants. Solar energy, nuclear energy, and electric furnaces are not among the options available to the player from the start, such that one must move through a period of utilizing coal and oil derivatives to fuel facilities. Locomotives, cars, and tanks are always restricted to either fossil fuels or synthetic substances (combining fossil fuels and other ingredients). The alien race has no non-violent interactions. And non-lethal defense mechanisms that can be employed by the player-character are limited to negligibly forestalling attacks with walls.
But when this teleological campaign concludes, what happens next? Well, as one nears the bottom of the tech tree (or whenever curious enough to scroll well down it and poke around), one can uncover the reason that the rocket is to be launched. Is it meant to carry the player-character away from the alien world and back to safety, as in the original Pikmin? Is it meant to signal other members of the player-character’s species to the plight of the stranded player-character, as when the Valor is signaled in Dead Space? No and no. The rocket’s primary purpose is the positioning of satellites, which provide the technological means to continue research via resource exploitation on the planet forever.
That is—while launching a single rocket does inform the player that they have achieved victory in Factorio—a small subset of Factorio’s technological capacities and productivity metrics have no upper bound whatsoever, instead having rapidly incrementing research costs between tiers. As such, one can theoretically continue increasing numbers like energy weapon damage, follower robot count, and artillery shell range; continue ridding the world of fish, trees, and biters; continue firing rocket after rocket into orbit; and continue ravenously expending natural resources—just as long as they want. The discrete, almighty, fated goal of the initial rocket launch fades away, and only the endlessly polluting treadmill of efficiency remains.
An Ecocritical Reading of Factorio:
Factorio depicts production and research as inevitably tending toward sprawling development; exploitation, corruption, and depletion of natural resources; and armed suppression of native inhabitants. What’s more, with the overwhelming focus of its gameplay being on optimization and problem-solving within the bounds of factory design, Factorio demonstrates a relative disinterest regarding these key aspects of its worldbuilding. In this disinterest lies tacit acceptance of the maxims that might makes right, that resources can and should be consumed as voraciously as possible, and that the primary focus of people (i.e. players) should be on myopic problem-solving—even when the presented problem is how to translate the greatest volume and greatest diversity of material into plastic, metal, and smoke.
The tremendous acumen of the player-character in construction and automation is notable. In effect, the player-character in Factorio is not simply a human. They are humanity, a super-being with the full technological capability of the human race, as well as a number of extrapolations into possible future fruits of the human race’s industrial ingenuity—such as laser weaponry, spider-legged war automata, and drones capable of making deliveries and doing construction tasks.
Along these lines, there is a (very roughly) chronological momentum to the research efforts. The player-character begins with a set of early-industrial, steam-powered (or, in some cases, steampunk) tools. Ore and coal burst forth from the surface of the world in such prodigious amounts and with such regularity that it is trivial, and feels utterly natural, to set the few starting tools to work on them in a matter of minutes. This small act of development is a minute push delivered to a round stone atop a snowy hill, and the snowballing begins immediately. From there, research moves the player-character through electric machinery, through oil refining, through “green” energies, and into the collection of space-age and science-fiction items mentioned earlier.
As one proceeds, the once-overflowing pockets of resources ready-to-hand run dry. This is no cause for alarm, of course, as fully automated train lines and other long-distance supply chains grant access to more and richer deposits. Again, there is this teleological feeling; regardless of its eventual dissolution after the first rocket has taken to the sky, there is for most of the experience a feeling that the singular goal slipped to the player in that small text box all those hours ago justifies everything. That the technological advance, the emptying of every pocket of ore, the growing reach of the pollutant cloud, all of it—was an inevitable consequence of the player-character’s initial abilities to mine resources and build steam engines.
This is not to say, mind you, that things could be perfect if only we hadn’t had the industrial revolution. By all accounts, a romantic or pastoral rendering of an idyllic past when humans lived in harmony with nature is a wistful distraction and even a harmful invention. In actuality, the evidence suggests that human beings have always been an ecological disaster: their arrival into a region presaged the disappearance of species and the destruction of balanced ecosystems. As Ken Hiltner explains,
In the last few centuries, thanks to a range of scientists, historians, and other scholars, we have learned much about the past of our planet and species. The picture that has emerged does not show us living harmoniously with nature, ever. [. . .] For example, over 40,000 years ago, when our species first moved into Australia, 15 of the 16 genera of large mammals soon vanished (in taxonomy, genera are root categories that can contain hundreds of species each). This pattern would repeat in Asia and Europe, then in North and South America. [. . .] The practice of mass deforestation [. . .] followed human beings out of Northern Africa and into Europe on its way to the Americas and everywhere else.
[. . .]
It’s easy to cast blame on technological modernity for our dependence on fossil fuels; however, as the early modern emergence of this dependency makes clear, the buck needs to stop with us, as all these fossil fuels were (and still are) either burned indirectly for us or directly by us.
[. . .]
We cannot get ‘back to nature’ because nature (i.e. a perfect human relationship with nature) never existed. If we are to get to nature in this sense, it will not be by going back, but by boldly moving forward toward it. (Hiltner 24, 34, 37)
Hiltner’s overall thesis is that the efforts of environmentalists in applied sciences and technology must be aided and in fact preempted by efforts in ‘applied humanities’ to reshape environmentally damaging beliefs and practices. In Factorio, however, there is no sense that one could ever look or move “forward to nature”—not in belief, not in practice, and not in technology. By the necessity of the game’s programming, a human is a thing like a grim reaper, killing anything it touches with no recourse toward generation, reform, or mending.
This is the answer to the central question of this article: ‘How can it be that this game has the potential to strike some people as environmentally conscious, and others as environmentally damaging?’ No other game of which I am aware so perfectly encapsulates the dominating, all-encompassing, all-consuming threat posed by even the smallest number of humans toward any natural environment. In this sense, the work is progressive. Yet its presentation is utterly guiltless in this matter, constantly impelling the player to stay distracted from these facts and consider them only as yet another ball to keep juggling, another plate to keep spinning—in the dizzying morass of factory design, industrial engineering, and technological research. In this sense, it is regressive.
Pollution is hidden away in submenus and optional map views, with only the tiniest plumes of animated smoke and steam escaping from machines within the gameworld, which hardly occlude vision and dissipate shortly after appearing. Furnaces and boilers produce the greatest quantity of visible smoke, but are still outstripped in visible occlusion by the harmless steam rising from engines and turbines. The player is given no way in which to interact with the world except through exploitation. One can right click to chop a tree, but never left click to plant one. Indeed, trees that are burned, cut, or toppled are irreplaceable. Suddenly, the rare fidelity of the game to presenting the finitude of resources has gone too far, looping back around into being unnatural and unrealistic. And finally, worthy of dedicated attention above all else, there is not even a means of preventing structural damage by giant insects except by killing them.
The Alien Insects of Factorio:
Peace is never an option. Left to their own devices, the local species will violently unmake every man-made machine and installation, and then kill the player-character. When it comes to significantly forestalling or entirely preventing the destruction of Factorio’s factories, there are no non-lethal methods.
Along these lines of consideration, the design of the aliens is a great place to start. They spawn from swollen, fleshy hives, defended by enormous burrowing slugs. The two types of mobile insects are six- and twelve-legged beetles and roaches, ranging in size from roughly human-like to several factors larger. The beetles spit acid like the slugs, while the roaches attack with their mandibles. They create new nests by dying to seed the ground with their corpses. They make hissing, squishing, and crunching sounds as they act and are acted upon. In short, their presentation has ended up almost as disgusting to human players as possible.
One has to wonder whether most players would feel as comfortable single-handedly wiping community after community off of the map if they were styled as mammalian or even amphibian species rather than insects. It’s the Starship Troopers method, of depicting one’s adversaries in fictional armed conflict as literal bugs in need of squashing. But in Factorio we find ourselves far from the irony and satire of the film Starship Troopers, as well as from the social commentary of a work like District 9. The proceedings feel closer to the original novel version of Starship Troopers, unencumbered by irony and self-awareness about its depiction of warfare—more interested in other topics (in the case of the novel, political philosophy and civic responsibility; in the case of Factorio, industry and optimization), and unconcerned about what else may be unintentionally communicated.
The insects of Factorio are not even depicted as existing within an ecosystem. In fact, they seem more out of place on their own planet than the invading player-character, who finds familiar landscapes covered in deciduous and coniferous trees, fish-bearing lakes, and stretches of grass and dirt. When a factory is removed or replaced, the grass below is unharmed; when a bug nest is cleared, a scar on the landscape remains. While the player-character is apparently tireless, they can at least consume fish; the insects, meanwhile, are not shown to eat or sleep. The bugs are there only to destroy or be destroyed, and there are submenus tracking how many one has slaughtered (much like the similar submenus for tracking train systems and power grid statistics). All of this points in the same direction: toward it being natural and good and right that the player-character build, build, build—and kill, kill, kill.
For ludic reasons, members of Factorio’s insect race advance in both size and power over the course of the game, due to a combination of factors. In this way, they may be interpreted as something like an immune response by the planet, rising to match a threat to its balance. This too perpetuates a damaging myth, that the earth’s own plant and animal species constitute a nature that can absorb any and all wrongdoing and harm inflicted by humans and their creations.
In actuality, the natural mechanisms whereby living species adapt to changes in their surroundings on earth is something that takes place at an incredibly slow rate—intergenerationally across millennia—and (even in cases where it is faster or more flexible) is entirely untethered from the rate at which human technologies advance and human consumption occurs.
Thus, for the bugs as for the game generally, a close analysis bears mixed results. On the positive side, the largescale industrial activity of the player-character is shown to create negative outcomes for both the player-character and nature; as pollution spreads and violence against local wildlife increases, things get worse for both parties in concrete ways.
But unlike when considering the game generally, here the negative side is far larger and clearly dominant. The only local alien species of note is a race of creatures presented as entirely unsympathetic, relatively unintelligent, and even as physically unappealing as possible. Despite their technological aptitude, the player-character has no way of interacting with the local species except through violence, up to and including the manufacture and employment of atomic bombs. Similarly, there is no prospect of the aliens engaging with the player-character in any nonviolent fashion. Thus, clashes—violent clashes—are guaranteed, presenting human progress and violent suppression of wildlife as necessarily linked. And finally, the insects’ game-like progression in size and type reinforces the mistaken notion that wilderness can and will always bounce back from human activity, and may even do so in a proportional manner.
So, is Factorio about environmentalism, or is it not? Grant me a belabored comparison, and I’ll answer the question. Factorio is like a game where the player is tasked with juggling an increasingly diverse set of objects. As the juggled collection grows, some additions are dangerous due to having sharp edges; some that are oddly shaped require more attention than others each time they near one’s hands; and other additions are simple alone but are presented in great abundance. What’s worse, people are continually trying to knock away the juggler’s hands, so they must move around as they work. Even without such distractions, juggling is a complex test of dexterity, and as the game goes on it only demands more and more of one’s attention.
Suppose, now, that in the peripheral vision of the juggler, they can just barely notice that the person who has been feeding them new items to juggle is stealing them from passerby. The balls and other objects the juggler is tossing are the belongings of the people swatting at the juggler’s hands. Hence their animosity as they attempt to disrupt the task.
In a parallel situation, the primary gameplay of Factorio is sufficiently complex and varied, sufficiently involving and mentally taxing, that it is only on the periphery that one may note that what they are engaged in doing is atrocious: that they are strip mining a planet without even an arguably outweighing extrinsic goal like survival or escape, and that they are thus a monstrous villain in a game with numerous tragic bug-like heroes. The horrible acts of the player-character go largely unnoticed by most players because they are generally subdued, in the interest of emphasizing the ever-present goal of optimizing one’s factory, as well as the initially compelling goal of launching one’s rocket. The resource exploitation is depicted as a natural step in an ironclad teleological progression toward the stated goals of the game. The killing is depicted as self-defense against a group of enemies who are relentless, naturally violent, and physically repulsive.
After all, would you say that the hypothetical game described a moment ago is about theft, or about juggling? Personally, I’d be inclined to say that it’s about juggling, and uses theft as a minor background mechanic. Therefore, by analogy, I’d be inclined to say that Factorio is a game about building factories, and only uses environmental devastation as a minor background mechanic. It is progressive insofar as it holds up a mirror to humanity’s parasitic and corrupting interactions with ecosystems—yet opposes progress insofar as it incentivizes the sins of the past, justifies the sins of the present, and paints as unavoidable similar sins in the future.
Bug Hunt at Outpost Mine: