after spending some time with Planet Crafter a few weekends ago, steam's algorithm astutely led me to Satisfactory, which i'd never heard of. it's a first person open world factory building sim, currently in early access.
over 4th of July weekend the game really laid its eggs in my brain, though maybe not the same exact kind as lots of folks get from that game. i found building and optimizing factories enjoyable enough even though it definitely, as @johnnemann put it so well, "makes you feel like the bad guy from The Lorax" - even with my chosen play style of never cutting down trees. really hoping the storyline that gets added for 1.0 doesn't swing low for the Levine-style "shameplay" and does something more interesting than try to make you feel bad for playing it.
once i had my barely passable crapfactory ticking away at the main objective, i got curious about the world i saw in every direction: those mountains off in the distance, that massive plateau tufted with cherry-blossom-pink trees, the long coastline that plunges into nothingness. when i started the game i was expecting its world's role would be strictly supportive, a terrain crafted to provide emergent challenges for the building portion. and it certainly does that, particularly given how nearly everything else about the strategic layer of building lies downstream of the (100% authored and immovable) placement of resource deposits.
but as i chased after the distant ping on my compass that was my only lead on a new critical resource (sigh, oil) i found myself in a gloomy, semi-poisonous swamp crater area full of towering mushrooms, whose geometry was genuinely hostile to traversal in ways that I wasn't used to, even from all my hours of hostile alien terrain adventures in No Man's Sky, Subnautica, etc. i quickly found some tricks to make that traversal possible if not easy - most significantly, the ability to zipline along the power lines that you can construct on almost any point you can see and target, and thus climb structures taller than you, to heights that most games would say you have no business whatsoever ascending.
so with these few movement tricks (later augmented by an actual reasonably-limited jetpack) the world really started to unfold before me. and dear readers, it is a massive world, and quite beautiful - an impressive breadth of biomes, each one lush and exciting in its own way, offering meaningfully different terrain challenges and populated with just enough danger (heights aplenty, and hostile creatures with simple AI that never attack your structures) to make entering a new area feel like an accomplishment. honestly, after a while it had me feeling a bit like my utterly magical (and sadly totally unreplicable) first few hours with Breath of the Wild, despite having way way less to do in a given acre of world. i was content to simply wander and vibe - a mode that is, as i drift through the long years of middle age and pandemic burnout, increasingly my default.
and after finding a couple of world edges you finally get a sense for the full scope of it, and i felt a certain euphoria that Robert Yang has articulated before with the expression, "Mmm, so wasteful" - his reaction to things in AAA games that are extravagantly high-fidelity/high-difficulty/high-scope yet seemingly of low importance, simply because they can afford to be. while i don't think that's developer Coffee Stain's intent here - like i said, i thoroughly "get" why they committed to making this massive beast as the setting for this specific game design - it has the same sort of effect, and as "spectacles of labor" go it's a relatively clean high because it's so peaceful and meandering and has that indifference to the player that critics have in the past decade identified as a unique spell cast over us by certain open world games, open worlds that unlike their peers aren't especially concerned if you only see a fraction of their "content" - Shadow of the Colossus's dramatically massive+sparse world perhaps being an ur-example.
in Satisfactory, despite all your grand designs, nature is as indifferent to you as you are (assumed to be, i think) to it. there's definitely something uniquely beautiful about that. and in a certain sense, the factory building lets players answer the grandeur of the natural world with their own cold and mechanistic sort of beauty, that of industrial processes at increasingly massive scales. like, seriously, look at what players do with the building tools in this game. ridiculous!
but now, sadly, i've uncovered 99% of the map, so i guess i have to play "the real game" now. i think i might wait for the next update, to see if it makes any part of that expertise-building curve a little gentler. this chost is already running long so if i have any further thoughts on that side of the game i'll save it for a followup.
i'll cherish that first glimpse i got of the lake forest area, though.
brain is still stuck on this damn game. not long after my prior post i plunged deep into the factory production math stuff and finally wrapped my head around how to plan, build, and balance everything, and can now undertake very large projects without getting overwhelmed. which continues to feel great, a fabulously intricate model train set with a working coal hopper and crosswalks and a waterfall to make an old man's heart glad.
and i've continued thinking about those "relationship with the world" type feelings i was scratching at in the last post. even if like me you're taking pains to build around and/or above the flowers and redwood groves and preserve the pristine beauty of this alien planet, you're undeniably doing something terrible to it. i learned how the creature population system actually works: if an area's been cleared (ie you killed the aggressive fauna) and the spawners in it find any powered buildings nearby, they stop spawning. my exploration style has long been to lay power lines where i go, because the traversal-funmaking zipline and hoverpack use them. so my attempts to explore the world "in peace" had actually been deactivating, genociding essentially, its native wildlife. and yeah the creatures that attack you are buttheads (the spiders are unsettling enough that the devs included an option to turn them into, i shit you not, kitty cat JPEG billboard sprites) with Doom-monster-level AI, but the feeling is unavoidable: you are stripping this world, dominating it, draining it.
and yet, and yet! the world is still powerful and vast and mostly indifferent to you. everything you do is subject to and in conversation with its terrain, the thousands of tiny and huge inconveniences it throws at you. for something as complex as the waste-free* nuclear plant shown above, the biggest challenge wasn't building all the machines and threading them together, it was working out the best ways to pull a dozen different resources out of the ground and route them where they need to go, which inevitably involves running pipes and conveyors through swamps, caves, forests, waterfalls, across chasms. the choice space is so massive and satisfyingly crinkly that the world + core loops feel like one big "TODO generator", constantly giving you new things to do as it alternately foils and aids your intentions.
yeah, the nuclear power plant was definitely the turning point for my journey in this game. there are only four uranium deposits on the entire world map, and i determined that the easiest one to do anything with would be the one in a cave behind a massive niagara-sized waterfall at the edge of the suckiest poison swamp that ever sucked - my only prior trip through which had been a panicked dash, under constant attack from giant spiders and stumbling through acre-wide clouds of poisonous gas. so i decided to just pave over it, two or three stories up from ground level, just build a massive roof and use that as a giant sheet of grid paper to build my nice neat little gigawatt megaplex. in the grand scheme of things these are little bubbles of discretized, measurable, malleable space you can create, to tame the chaos enough to make building the requisite large complex rube goldbergs manageable.
but the world's ragged edges are always within sight, a wolf silhouette at the edge of some paleolithic ancestor's camp firelight, telling you that you will never tame it. and this game, and any game with a world remotely like it, wouldn't be what it is without that chaos, that vastness, pushing back.