Factorio’s World Is Infinite, Ours Is Not
In Factorio, you build up a thousand different little machines to transform the raw resources you extract from the environment into a thousand other different machines. You can turn copper and steel into a laser turret, or into a computer board and even a spider mech. You transform the bare landscape of the alien planet in which you crash landed into an endless megafactory that takes five minutes to walk across. Steel and concrete first overlap and later submerge the surface, as you reshuffle everything you touch into a precise interlocking grid built to your every specification. Eventually, lost in this promethean dream, you lose track of which object fulfils what function, and are only loosely aware of the inputs and outputs of this immense machine you build. It outgrows you, bit by bit, and envelops a planet that gradually becomes barren.
Factorio is a game about humanity. What I just described is what we have done to a large part of our planet. It encapsulates the patient work of many epochs of human civilization into, ordinarily, between forty and sixty hours of gameplay. The world-system our entire civilization stands on is not all that different from that terrible spaghetti factory you build. It’s infinitely more complex and immensely larger, certainly, but it follows the same principle: everything tends towards the transformation of resources from one form to another, all ultimately directed towards reaching for the bright blue sky we see in our mind’s eye, be it through a city’s skyline or through rockets. Reshaping the Earth so we may transcend it. And much like Factorio, that means losing something in the exchange. After all, the second law of thermodynamics scales perfectly well. There’s always waste, always something expended.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Factorio, as wonderfully deep and complex as it may be, is just a game in the end. It cannot fully model anything as complex as our world. But what it can and does model terribly well is this process of transformation. As soon as the game starts you mine some rocks, chop down some trees, start mining materials from the ground and melt or cut or build them into a furnace or inserter or transporter. You extract so that you may extract some more. You start researching so you can build more things. Building things means you can conduct more research, and the cycle continues — only at a faster rate. Eventually, you can do what would have taken you minutes in half a second. You put down conveyors, smelters, transporters, train tracks, convert water to energy, build walls and floors and weapons until your factory, bit by bit, piece by piece, becomes so large you cannot keep track of it. The Factory stands immense, dwarfing its creator. Drones zip around constructing new machines, trains bring resources from one corner of the world to another, as guns protect our borders from the teeming alien hordes.
That is our world. Right now, something is being lost: the time you spend reading this article, the electricity consumed by your PC and Medium’s servers, the infrastructure that allows this all to happen. That of course produces waste, but not just pollution: it’s another kind that the game can’t really simulate. In Factorio it’s a tiny engineer man doing most of the work. In our world it’s offloaded to workers subject to various degrees of exploitation located mostly in developing countries. And, of course, there’s a large amount of that in our technological North as well. That too is lost, that too is spent. The time we spend working is a resource, too, certainly the most important one. The game cannot really illustrate how this process of transformation works socially because even if you’re playing multiplayer, it’s just you and some friends messing around with machines and insulting each other for transporter or powerline placement before happily strolling out to kill aliens. There’s an implied agreement that you’re all in this together, and the good of the factory is the good of all because you’re all invested in reaching the endgame and will all benefit from it. In Factorio, the waste of the process of transformation is never people. In real life, it often is.
And when you reach the end, when the rocket’s ready to set sail for destinations unknown and start the process again, the world you leave behind contains only machines endlessly extracting, turning, multiplying, transforming the polluted waste of a barren planet. There’s another assumption here underlying the game’s premise: that there are multiple worlds — theoretically infinite worlds — because you can randomly generate an infinite number of them to play with.
For Factorio’s fantasy to work, it must be guaranteed that when it comes time to man the rockets to escape a planet choked by machinery, we will all climb on them together in pursuit of another place where we can repeat the process: so that we can keep transforming, endlessly, without harming ourselves — only the temporary planet we can discard once it’s spent.
The question this leaves us with is obvious: how does the game end without such a guarantee?