Satisfactory: On Outputs

Since starting a new save in Satisfactory, I’ve just reached oil extraction again – you can unlock a new type of machine that pulls oil out the ground, and you can connect it to a refiner to create plastic or rubber, that sort of thing – but it’s interesting, because it’s the first time in the game up to that point that you have to deal with byproducts. Normally you put in one material and another comes out, but here the production methods for plastic and rubber both produce ‘heavy oil residue’ as well. You don’t necessarily want that oil residue, it’s not a key ingredient in anything particularly useful – it’s just a byproduct of your production chain, and something you have to deal with. You have to set up a fluid storage system, or try and convert it into something you can use in your broader setup. It’s not a hugely important development in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an interesting shift in your relationship to the production cycle. It introduces a level of inefficiency, forcing you to accept an undesirable product alongside the stuff you actually want.

And – I dunno, I guess it’s got me thinking about the game’s relationship with outputs more broadly. Obviously as a game about colonial resource exploitation, Satisfactory has you extract a bunch of shit and send it up a space elevator, removing resources and wealth from the colonized space in order to return it to the homeland. As in Stardew Valley, the resources that you send don’t feed into any visible economy – you’re told that it’s for ‘project assembly’, and there’s a glimpse of what that might be in the 2018 E3 trailer (at 2:03), but as of writing, we don’t know exactly what it is. There’s nothing that you can see in the game. Really you could be blasting those resources out into the void and it wouldn’t make much difference to you – you’re asked to generate and send resources, but you don’t really care what happens to them once they go. The journey is more interesting than the destination.

I’m not even sure if it’s appropriate to talk about it as a ‘journey’, come to think of it. That saying generally implies that you should sit back and take in the view – it implies leisure, relaxation. And that’s not what Satisfactory is about. Strictly speaking, it’s really not that hard to fulfil your delivery requirements – it can just take a long time if you do it badly. For example, in order to complete the third phase of project assembly, you have to produce (among other things) 2,500 ‘versatile frameworks’. I currently have one single assembly machine working on those frameworks, producing at a rate of five per minute. At that speed, it will take over eight hours of play (500 minutes) to fill my quota. I’ve sort of wandered off and left it running while I’m exploring, but I know that in some sense I’m playing inefficiently – playing badly, even. The goal in Satisfactory isn’t just to meet your quota – it’s to do it as quickly as possible. Satisfactory is fundamentally a game about efficiency. It’s less about enjoying the journey and more about calculating the optimal route to minimize your travel time. It’s not about the destination (because you don’t care what happens to the resources you send), but it’s also arguably not about the journey (because you want to make the journey as quick as possible). Maybe we could say that it’s about the meta-journey, the journey of planning your journey. But again, in that context, the outputs are still less important than the method by which they’re obtained.

Maybe that will change though, over time. After all, Satisfactory is an early access game – it might be that the project assembly teased in that E3 trailer will come through in later versions. Maybe you’ll get a destination worth reaching – I think currently all you get for finishing project assembly is a mug. But that’s one of the joys of early access – knowing that the game will change. Video games are generally closed or complete systems – as a player you receive a bound universe, constrained by code. But in early access, the machine remains to some extent unbound. It’s a space of potential, of opportunity, gesturing towards the things that will be added – the things that as yet are not. It’s a space governed by the imaginative impulse, rather than the sometimes slightly plodding reality of the actual game. There are probably parallel moments that create similar feelings – for instance you sometimes hear people say oh man, I wish I could play that again for the first time. When you boot up a new game, there’s that feeling of looking out over its horizon – looking to the future, to the experiences that you imagine you’ll have. The early scenes of a game aren’t just representing themselves – they’re gesturing towards the scope of what will come next, how things will continue. Again, the imaginative impulse is at play, and the possibilities in some sense are boundless.

Satisfactory‘s nature as an early access game – here’s the thesis statement, we’ve wound our way here – I think also impacts our perception of its outputs. The game is a systems simulator, a factory optimization game, and yet it’s built and marketed on the idea that the system is not yet closed. Update #5 just came out last month – and I don’t think there are any really revolutionary changes, the game hasn’t been turned on its head – but there are all these new opportunities for optimization and refining things, as well as all the fun little cosmetic updates. And that’s kinda interesting. When you play Satisfactory, you’re not necessarily going in to defeat or overcome a fixed system – to take this game and bend it to your heavily optimized will. You’re as much going in to experience a work in progress – to engage with a system that will change and that will require constant tweaking. The outputs of the process take a back seat to the process in itself – to the actual tinkering with all the little bits and pieces, all those details about efficiency and speed. It is a game about the journey, but the journey is knowing that when you build something efficient today, you’ll have to come back and redesign it tomorrow. The final output – the game in its finished state – is therefore its own kind of disappointment – an indication of the real journey’s end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s