The text below contains spoilers for the game Infinifactory.
I have now been a vegetarian for over a year and a half — I don’t eat any meat or fish. I haven’t developed an allergy, and this isn’t some experiment either — my reasons for this are solely ethical, I am against the mass murder of animals and against producing them for this purpose.
On this topic, I can recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s great book Eating Animals. You could also have a listen to some songs of a hardcore punk band titled Carnist.
For some time I had an idea of a political game where this topic would be examined. I wanted a display of this contrast between the omnipresent meat consumption and the empathy that humans can feel towards animals, e.g. dogs and cats.
Frankly, I didn’t have an exact idea, rather an idea of an idea, because I couldn’t come up with anything interesting. And then suddenly I came across the perfect implementation of this in a puzzle game: Infinifactory, a game in which I totally wasn’t expecting to see this at all.
Infinifactory is a recent game designed by Zach Barth who is known for his puzzle games where the solutions are open-ended. Say, you’re given some X and Y and you have to create Z out of them by using the tools given. The player doesn’t so much guess the solution that the designer has intended, but rather creates it on their own and can be creative about it. In many ways, this process is similar to programming.
Also, Zach made Infiniminer, the idea of which was then picked up (or “stolen” as some prefer to think) by Markus “Notch” Persson, and this then has resulted in Minecraft. Oh, and in the newest TIS-100 by Zach you have to literally do programming in an imagined assembly language.
In his previous game, SpaceChem, you had to combine and pry apart various chemical elements on a 2D field. Say, combine two hydrogens and one oxygen to obtain water. That game, however, is very hard and pretty abstracted, even if you take the story into account. Eventually I just gave up on it (but it’s really good!).
In Infinifactory, everything is friendlier and easier to understand: some alien species make you build factories for them for producing or sometimes repairing all kinds of stuff — spaceships, radars, missiles, shuttles and whatnot. Mechanically, it works like this: you can freely traverse a 3D level from a first-person perspective and place blocks of different types anywhere you want in any numbers. Pretty much like Minecraft in creative mode, but in space. And without the pixel-art.
These blocks are your tools here: conveyors, welders, “eviscerators”, sensors and so on, that will help you with creating something complex from simple input materials. Eventually you get a factory that looks something like this:
The number of possible solutions is limitless, and you may end up with a monstrosity as in the GIF below. If you want you can then optimise it or even possibly re-create it from scratch entirely. And you will likely want to do this because the leaderboards will tell you that your friends’ factories work far more efficiently than yours.
And here we get to the most interesting bit. On the last planet, the first level is called MEAT PRODUCT TYPE 57 and you’re asked to create vacuum-packed meat… from live critters that look like gophers or squirrels. You need to make a factory in their natural habitat, too — you can see them jumping out of their burrows not far away.
The tools and gameplay remain the same, but the story of this level becomes wholly different. The player is tasked to do the same job as the people who work at meat factories and the people who design them. Those very same meat factories that daily bring meat to your plates. Unfortunately the game doesn’t tell anything about forceful inseminating and reproducing of the animals, but the player first has to push the critter out of its burrow, then transport it on a conveyor to its death where it will be packaged. Since the critter is alive, you have to make sure it doesn’t run away. So, to ensure that your factory is effective you will build walls around the conveyor. This is the same principle that meat factories are designed with in mind — they have to be cost-effective, and the conditions for the animals are horrible since it doesn’t matter.
I was seriously impressed by how brilliantly this level portrays this idea of the day-to-day consumption of animal meat. In this unique way it is only possible in a game — the player has to build the factory on their own, not just read about it in a book or watch passively in a movie. I got interested in knowing whether this was the intended message of this level, or just a plot device to progress the story with the aliens. Zach kindly responded with the following:
It was absolutely intentional. […]
To me, the meat puzzles (there are two, to really hammer home the point) are about my relationship with factory-farmed meat. As a hypocritical omnivore I’m abstractly offended by the way that the majority of our animal protein is grown yet also a direct supporter of it by choosing to purchase and consume it. As you’ve pointed out, the puzzles are an interesting way to look at the situation, as someone just trying to do their job and engineer the factory, without necessarily meaning any harm in the process. Interestingly, they’re also completely optional; since the game lets you skip a few levels you don’t have to do the meat puzzles, but it makes the game tougher by forcing you to solve harder puzzles on the last planet instead. Despite that, most players willingly participate in the meat puzzles… much like in real life. It’s mundane and fucked up at the same time.
Infinifactory is great on its own merit as a quality puzzle game, but seeing what I saw made me appreciate it even more, and I’m grateful for this.