Planet of the Beavers · molily
Almost three years ago, I wrote about Factorio, a factory simulation game. I lamented on the distorted relationship between human and nature and how the game negates the principles of human and non-human life.
On Twitter, Dr Annie Burman followed up with a thread I recommend reading as a whole. Burman notes that the player character, simply called engineer, is human – but all that is human is foreign to them:
I have been playing #Factorio for a while now. It is fun, and easy to get very into, but I think it falls short in a few ways. This thread is going to be about the engineer character and how it is under-utilised. […] The thing where the game really fails, in my opinion, is in addressing the absolute loneliness of this world. You crash on a planet devoid of sentient lives. All your crew-mates are dead – their bodies are scattered just like the rubble of your ship. You are stuck in this vast world, and you start building, taming the wilderness. But that sense of loneliness still remains. You are still the only person there, now stuck in a vast industrial landscape. The character we play is never given much in the way of emotions or fear or needs. They do not need to eat or sleep. They are a non-entity in many ways, to the extent that on occasion, I’ve wondered why there is a sprite at all (except to get killed by the biters). I think that the game could explore the horror of this plight and of your own actions in a few subtle ways. […] So it is a failing, definitely, to have a character on screen, but not allow it any of the things that make us human, a theme that feels like it could have been central to this game.
This sums it up brilliantly. These glaring aspects of Factorio were brought back to my mind recently while playing another video game. That game resembles Factorio in many ways yet distinctly differs in the points Burmanmentioned.
I am talking about Timberborn. With regard to the mentioned aspects, Timberborn can be viewed as the antithesis to Factorio.
Timberbornis a rather traditional city economy simulation. The player builds a beaver colony. Each beaver inhabits a house, works in a production building where it extracts raw materials or processes them further. Products are consumed, like food for example, or used as building material.
Compared to Factorio’s countless buildings, resources, products and processing steps, Timberbornis rather simple. The game is also down-to-earth in the sense that you need to build a sustainable economy that works with the limited natural resources the habitat provides. The most basic ones are water, irrigated and fertile soil, timber and other forest products. They remain the limiting factors even later in the game.
The goal of the game is to satisfy the needs of all beavers: From eating, drinking and sleeping over health and pleasure to community and spirituality. The goal is not to maximize production and consumption endlessly, but to grant the beavers The Right to Be Lazy. The beavers want to work as little and enjoy as much leisure time as possible.
The beavers want to sip coffee, eat maple pastry, read books. Chill on a rooftop terrace during sundown. Swim in a lido, or enjoy the bubbles in a mud bath. Meet friends and potential partners at a fireplace. Find community and spiritual contemplation in shrines and temples. Experience beauty and awe when marvelling at statues and monuments.
The things that make us human, the things that Factorio lacks, are central to this game. Timberborn’s anthropomorphic beavers are more human than all humans in Factorio.
While switching between Factorio and Timberborn, it came to my mind that Factorio is a game from programmers for programmers – or more broadly, for people with an obsession on automation and efficiency. With all the interlocking production logic, with circuits and combinators, Factorio itself forms a visual programming environment. This also explains the popularity of the game in the programming community. (Disclosure: I am a programmer myself.)
In Factorio, there is a unity of efficiency in the game world and the game controls. The game screams “ Do Not Repeat Yourself” all over – a common, yet misleading programming principle. The keyboard and mouse controls are optimized as programmers would optimize their code editor. There are a dozen of options to configure the interface for maximum input efficiency. As the game progresses, there is a positive feedback loop between faster/less input and faster/more production.
Let us recap that this Great Accelerationdoes not reflect on what it accelerates and why. Factorio’s automation for the sake of automation establishes dominance over nature and exterminates other creatures.
In Timberborn, there is also a unity of efficiency: There is little efficiency in the game. And the game controls are inefficient as well.
Timberborn revolves around manual labor and repetition. Every day, the beavers wake up and carry out their arduous stint. The ways to increase the productivity are very limited: Well-rested, well-fed, satisfied beavers are slightly more productive.
Once there is enough food for everyone, the player is supposed to reduce the beaver’s working hours, increase their leisure time, so they can thrive and prosper. This slows down the whole economy until it reaches an equilibrium of workload and leisure, production and consumption.
The only significant productivity leap comes with the invention of robots, formerly known as golems. While beavers are sensitive and demanding creatures, the tenacious robots work day and nightwith a little maintenance. Still, it is manual work to sustain a steady robot workforce. And while robots are an interesting addition to the game, there is no immediate need or substantial gain to let robots do all the work.
Similarly, the game controls are manual and tedious and remain so over the course of the game. Configurable keyboard shortcuts were introduced just recently in Timberborn Update5, two years after the initial Early Access release. For important actions, there is still no keyboard shortcut.
Maybe the game controls will become more efficient in future updates. But it goes against the grain of this game to have shortcuts, copy & paste blueprints, productivity updates or even programmable logic.
There is no electronic circuit that automatically closes the floodgates when a tide of toxic water threatens to contaminate the soil, destroy your crops and make your beavers sick. You have to be on the watch and manage the gates manually. Nature has no mercy and this is the beaver condition.
I would like to close with a thought that puts both games, their fictional worlds and the real world into perspective. You may call it far-fetched or just fanfic: I can make sense of these games when I regard them as sequels. Of course, they are from different game studios and superficially, their story lines do not cross. But let me explain.
The Factorio player character is a lonely astronaut. I imagine that they have left the poisoned, barren earth. They are doomed to wander in space and scrape raw materials from the crust of hostile planets without ever finding community or peace.
The shipwrecked engineer surrounded by automated mining drills and gun turrets reminds me of the Manifesto of the Committeeto Abolish Outer Space, a satirical critique of the colonial “frontier” narratives in space flight.
What will Marslook like in ten years , fifty , a hundred, five hundred ? It’s a question that breeds monsters. Maybe domed cities, maybe tidy spa resorts on the shores of the Hellas basin . Or there could be dark and vast robots there, colossi wreathed in smoke and fire striding across the planet’s surface, digging deep scars into the rock with metal jaws, stripping out the useful minerals and burning the rest in an atomic blaze. We might see the streaming furrows of a dust storm on the horizon, while the last colonist gnaws at the bones of her fellow adventurers, driven mad by that tiny dot in the night sky that was once her home.
This last colonist resembles the engineer in Factorio, who is not even able to grieve their dead friends.
While not immediately obvious, the world the cute beavers of Timberborninhabit is our very own planet Earth long after the “ hoomans ” disappeared. The beavers find and use the human relics and have to cope with their remains. Like having to deal with rivers polluted by toxic waste:
In Timberborn’s world, humanity disappeared and left ruin behind. As of Update 5, that legacy also includes toxic pollution, colloquially known as badwater. Accumulated in the Earth ’s crust in mankind’s final days, these deadly chemicals flow down the rivers and erupt from the ground, threatening all life and making restoration of the planet even more challenging. – Timberborn Update 5 release notes
So allow me this fanfic: Timberborn and Factorio play in the same universe, at the same time. The former on Earthand the latter on a distant planet.
This allows me to see the games not as antithetical, but as twosides of the same coin. Humanity managed to wipe itself off the face of the Earth . Isolated individuals of Homo Sapiens – like the engineer – are wandering around in space. This explains why Factorio’s economy serves no human need, why the game has no concept of ecology and does not try to grasp the essence of life.
The hoomansblew it up, and the post-apocalyptic Earth is now the Planet of the Beavers .