Exploitation is Satisfactory

Deconstructing the Factory Builder

A piece of pre-rendered art for the game “Satisfactory”

I’ve been a bit obsessed lately with a game called Satisfactory, which follows up on similar games like Factorio as a variant of the 4X genre focused on factory production and logistics. Where games like Civilization see you building an empire and seeking to fulfill each of the 4 x’s (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) for their own sake, these games are centered around the third X above all. You land on a planet, exploit its resources, explore so you can find more resources to exploit, expand your production so you can properly exploit those resources, and exterminate the hostile native species that pose a threat to your exploitation.

Unlike Factorio, however, Satisfactory doesn’t do much to indicate any negative effects of your exploitation. In fact, it encourages you to revel in it. The world resembles one like Minecraft, a beautiful and untouched wilderness nevertheless full of creatures who will spontaneously attack you on sight. You aren’t even fighting for survival here, you’re just working at the behest of some Amazon/SpaceX/Raytheon/Walmart conglomerate called FICSIT™ to exploit resources for its own sake. It’s kind of uncomfortable, to be honest.

So why do I love it so much?

The landing pod from the game’s opening cutscene; a small peek into the natural world surrounded by metal.

When you open Satisfactory for the first time, you’re shot from space in a landing pod and informed by a computerized voice that your mission is to build machines with provided blueprints that will extract the planet’s resources, explore for rarer resources to expand your factory with, and automate your refining of resources for maximum efficiency. The voice finishes its speech with a curt sendoff:

“That’s it. Get to work, be effective.”

After that, your landing pod goes through re-entry and, despite the cold FICSIT™ branded steel surrounding you, you can see the gorgeous planet below you coming into view through a tiny window. Once the pod lands, you can step out and see the landscape in all its glory, while the voice reminds you to always place efficiency first.

Of course, the beauty of nature can’t last long. You dismantle your landing pod, but you only do so to place a larger hub building somewhere else. On the way to wherever you’d like to place the hub, you’ll probably notice that looking at literally any bit of greenery other than the grass and the trees will prompt you to collect it. You don’t even know why you’d want to do that yet, but the simple act of collection is already presented in an inherently satisfying way, and a significant portion of the environment is already understood only in terms of the resource value it’s worth.

An image of a hog creature from satisfactory, with the player’s gun aimed at it.

After you settle down and start looking for ore nodes to exploit, you’ll quickly discover the game’s combat mechanics. Pretty much any interesting collectible in the game world is accompanied by some animal standing next to it who will attack you on sight and will even relentlessly chase you if you try to run away from its territory. There’s no apparent reason why they all just so happen to be nesting on ore nodes, nor why they apparently hate you so much before you’ve even done anything to them. Thankfully though, you’re equipped with a taser to murder them with, so that’s nice.

I actually tried to be peaceful about this when I played the game for the first time. The basic creatures only make very basic charge attacks which are easy enough to dodge if you don’t need much from wherever they are. However, the game made this difficult. As the game suggested, I built my base next to a resource node, meaning that one of these creatures was basically constantly breathing down my neck. The base is slightly elevated off the ground, so it couldn’t actually get me, but it constantly made loud, aggressive noises, and would sometimes manage to get up there and attack me when I wasn’t looking. Eventually, I gave up trying to do what I wanted to and gave the game what it clearly wanted, killing the creature and any others I happened to run across. It’s not like there way any other way to interact with them.

That’s all kind of weird, I think. There was basically nothing else for me to do there, no way for me to avoid falling into the mindset of a scavenging murder-hobo if I wanted to keep playing the game. Everything about Satisfactory’s opening hour conditions you to play the role of a colonizer, seeing the world as nothing but a collection of resources to extract and mindless creatures who seek to stop you for no reason. Like in Factorio, you are exclusively a blight to the world you’ve landed on, but not only did you choose to land here, the game doesn’t even do anything to show you how damaging you’re being. Neither your character, nor the FICSIT™ corporation, care even a little bit about what effects your mindless exploitation might have.

A complex factory from the game

This hardly wanes as you progress through the game, either. As you grow your operation, you need a way to power it, and that’s where the leaf collecting comes in. At first, you power things with biomass, but it’s the only part of your production that can’t be automated, so it’s quite a hassle to mass-produce indefinitely. However, you eventually unlock the ability to use coal, your first fossil fuel, as a direct upgrade. Of course, coal never runs out and it has no negative impact on the environment whatsoever. Like any mineral resource, it simply keeps getting mined forever with a magic machine, and as the logistics guy, you’re not really supposed to care how sustainable it is.

Indeed, the environment is first and foremost an obstacle to be overcome in Satisfactory. The game gives you every encouragement to replace as much of it as possible with eerily identical, beautifully uniform, and clearly defined FICSIT™ brand buildings. Beyond the colors, you have no control over what these buildings look like, and you’d have no idea how to make any of them without your magic FICSIT™ brand building gun. You can place foundations to obscure the environment further, removing grade, texture, and ambiguity so you can easily measure and place your buildings in a nice grid. You never have to reckon with the environment, understand the creatures, or see the broader systems at work. To the contrary, your job is to compress it back into the tiny square it occupied in your landing pod window.

All this exploitation, strictly speaking, is in service of one goal: the space elevator. Towards the beginning of the game, you construct the anchor for this project, and it’s your job to send large numbers of complex parts up there. Unlike the rocket in Factorio, this has no real relevance to you besides being your job, and despite providing so much you never see what’s up at the top for yourself. You are quite literally colonizing the planet at the behest of a higher power, some company or organization or ideology that you simply aren’t meant to understand. Your job is to find everything on the planet that you can exploit and perform that exploitation as efficiently as possible. Appreciation, Understanding, and Sustainability simply aren’t relevant. Efficiency first.

Another complex factory from the game, but with more greenery visible

This is the part where I finally drop the curtain a little and say what I think Satisfactory is trying to do. I think the game is something of a thematic sequel to Factorio; instead of showing you the grim results of your industrialization, it cranks the ideological image of industrial expansion and colonization to absurd, satirical levels. Resources are infinite, hostile creatures just hate you for no reason, and sustainability isn’t a concern beyond having to store nuclear waste, the one thing a logistics guy actually has to deal with. No matter how nightmarish your corporate machine grows to be, the soothing music and colorful aesthetic ensure you always feel good about it. You are a corporate stooge, after all, and you’re not supposed to ask questions.

This is all incredibly unrealistic, obviously. In the real world, industrialization has caused some pretty serious problems for the planet and the people living on it. It’s telling, then, that the only version of industrial colonization that Satisfactory can present as being, well, satisfactory is an absurd caricature with almost none of the characteristics of real industrial colonization. The game is well designed and incredibly fun, and as a result it makes no sense whatsoever. For colonization to be fun, it has to be abstract and nonsensical.

an old timey globe
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

I think this says something really interesting about the real-world versions of industrialism and colonialism. There’s certainly no 1:1 parallel here, but the mindset Satisfactory puts you into is very much the same mindset that I have to imagine many of the people who “discovered” the Americas or Africa had. This isn’t exactly a new insight — there was a Dan Olson video applying the same idea to Minecraft — but I think there’s something really special about how hard Satisfactory leans into this and how specific all of the parallels are.

Resources in the “New World” weren’t infinite, but colonizers were usually rich and had either poorer colonizers or literal slaves do the hard part of mining coal or growing crops for them. They didn’t generally care to find out the motives or interests of the people whose lands they were invading (again, I really want to stress that I do not mean to compare indigenous people to these boar creatures, I mean to say that colonizers thought of indigenous people the same way the player in Satisfactory thinks of the boar creatures). They saw the preexisting environments and the indigenous peoples’ infrastructure as nothing more than a series of obstacles to be conquered, a confused and ambiguous “wilderness” that needed to be tamed.

Similarly, the middle managers, engineers, and architects behind the infrastructure of the industrial revolution didn’t really need to care about worker alienation or the encroaching misery of industrial capitalism, nor were they expected to. They, like the colonizers, were basically just logistics people, loyally enriching a boss or a state whose power and luxury they would never get to experience, so abstracted from the results of their designs that they might as well have been living in a world of magic self-powering conveyor belts and infinite coal. When you’re in a position like that, it really does feel like nothing more than a fun game. It feels satisfactory.

A gif of the game Terra Nil, depicting several machines at work

I’m not really sure how to feel about Satisfactory at the end of the day. I think it very clearly has a satirical bent to it, with your main guide being a soulless voice representing an equally soulless company and you receiving a warning that you’re damaging FICSIT™ property when you take damage. It’s one of those situations, though, where the whole genre kind of functions as a parody of itself and it’s tricky to figure out exactly what we’re meant to take from it. Satisfactory beautifully showcases the absurdity of industrial colonialism, but at the end of the day, it’s also the kind of satire that could easily be taken literally by certain people. It shares a lot with other 4X games in that regard.

Because of this, I want to shout out a game that I think does a beautiful job of subverting all this called Terra Nil. It’s essentially a reverse industrialization game in which you take a burned out, destroyed wasteland of a planet and restore it to its former glory. At first, you only restore the land to a basic grassy plain, which is pretty but kind of insubstantial. The thing that really gets me about it, though, is how after you restore enough basic greenery, you are tasked with restoring biodiversity by recreating biomes that Satisfactory would see only as obstacles. You undrain the swamps, unclear the forests, and even restore the natural rain and thunder. You endeavor to re-create a world that a colonizer or industrialist would see only as wild and thirsting for exploitation.

Most impressively, Terra Nil doesn’t let you stay in the world you created, because it’s not yours. You find an alien planet and restore the ecosystem for its own sake, not because you want something out of it. Once everything is stable and healthy again, your final task is to collect all the buildings you placed and use the materials to build a rocket for you to leave in. Once that’s done, all that’s left is an “empty” wilderness, full of the chaos and diversity that keeps an ecosystem functional. Its mechanics aren’t exactly realistic either, but it encourages you to follow its example even in a world where restoration isn’t quite so simple.

The rocket from Terra Nil lifting off at the end of the game

My point here is not to say “Satisfactory bad, Terra Nil good.” I like both games a lot, and I think they both have interesting and good things to say about what they are and the world that they exist in. They simply represent two sides of the same coin. Satisfactory exhibits a propagandized and ideological version of industrial expansion that allows for the kind of devastation that Terra Nil seeks to fix. Satisfactory is a false promise, while Terra Nil is a real solution. I think both know exactly what they’re doing, and I think they both do it exceptionally well.

As far as the real world goes, we have to understand that the idea of resource extraction we’ve been fed as members of a capitalist, imperialist world order are a myth. When we are prevented from exploiting and exploring the environment to its fullest potential, we must respond with diplomacy and seek to understand it, rather than declaring war. We can’t scorn technology altogether — Terra Nil shows that it can be an important part of the solution — but we must understand the full impact it has and learn to use it in harmony with the rest of nature, always keeping its growth in check. Most of all, we need to abandon the idea that we as humans are entitled to constantly take whatever we want from the rest of nature with no consideration of the broader impacts it might have. We need not and should not cease all human development or avoid shaping the world at all, but if we try to subjugate nature without caring to understand it, we will find one day that not only is life on earth gone for good, but it’s prepared to take us down with it.

Thank you for reading my article! I hope you enjoyed it. Before I go, I’d like to thank the patrons who help make it possible for me to write things like this. That includes Mahan Harirsaz, Honestlyarchon, Julia Pseudo, VixenVVitch, Abigail Nail, Mizake Da Mizan, Sonja Marie, Upscale Furry Trash, Niels Ablidgaard, Bran, and Gender_Thief. If you want to have your name listed here and get early access to things I write, I have a Patreon you can subscribe to. Also, if you’d prefer to listen to these articles, I publish audio versions on my YouTube channel as well.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alexis

Alexis

Trans Internet Creator with an engineering degree. She/they.