THE FACTORY MUST GROW - a critique of factorio

Factorio is a game where you land on an alien planet with only basic resources, and your task is to build a rocket to escape. To do so, you build, from the ground up, a vast factory drilling for resources, producing power, assembling components, processing chemicals, and eventually constructing rocket components and launching things into space. It's certainly not intended to be a game with much to say about the world, but it unintentionally takes some very strong positions through how it implements mechanics like pollution and resource extraction.

I feel like I should first say that I enjoy Factorio. The game has a satisfying formula that leads to lots of management puzzles, logistical puzzles and an incredibly strong gameplay loop with a satisfying sense of progression. I'd be happy with this as a puzzle experience (and games that use just these elements, such as shapez, are good in their own right), but I see how it could feel flat compared to more management-heavy games to some players. To get around this, two major mechanics exist to provide some active upkeep to prevent the game from becoming idle - pollution, and resource patches running dry.

These two mechanics RADICALLY change the themes of Factorio in my view. While there is certainly analysis to be done of its relationship to expansionism, these two mechanics ground the players actions, mechanically, within an ecosystem. With them, Factorio's world goes from being a backdrop for an abstract puzzle to something that is mechanically real and affected by the player, and the way the player is incentivised to interact with that world is worthy of a closer look.

It's worth talking here about how pollution actually works in factorio. Different machines produce a different amount of pollution, which then spreads in a "cloud" from where they are placed at a steady rate. Anything within that cloud is affected by pollution. Some objects, like trees, absorb pollution, lowering the level around them.

an example of pollution on the game map

a pollution cloud in-game

I say "affected by pollution", but pollution in Factorio has no effects on the factory. No dirty water, no waste, no contaminants, the engineer can continue going about their day as if nothing has happened. This world is one in which pollution has no human cost. The only affect of pollution is triggering attacks from the inhabitants of the planet (which, obviously, are designed to be the most generically gross insectoid aliens), adding a military aspect to the game where as you are building your factory you are also building walls and turrets to defend it. It is never questioned in game that you are defending your factory from attacks caused by your factory. This is a game where the solution to climate change is use of massive military force against those who oppose your exploitation of the environment. I'm not sure why I have to say this reflects badly on the game.

In fairness, Factorio has options for reducing your pollution, they're just terrible. Once unlocked you can use solar panels for power, but they are pitifully weak and barely worth the effort as a power source, so most players simply ignore them. And your furnaces will still be putting out pollution that you can't offset or avoid. Trees cut pollution, but not by much, and you can't plant them. Efficiency modules improve things, but you only unlock them once you've practically wiped out the entire local population.

Resources in factorio are also finite, but when resource patches run out, you just go take a new patch further out. The game never puts you in a situation where you are actually out of a resource, you just might need to have a longer supply chain to get it to your main base. Oil never runs out. It's practically just an occasional annoyance.

So with these together, factorio presents a world where pollution has no human cost, the solution to the effects of pollution is massacre, and running the land dry of resources is as most an annoyance, and oil is infinite. I see it often treated as purely being a satisfying puzzle of a game, the factory grows and it's satisfying to watch, and and not questioned for the rules that puzzle follows or the way you're incentivised to solve it but it actually has these aspects that are problematic and these should be talked about. So yeah.