Conveyor Belt Pleasures
by Kavi Duvvoori
I learned to game by building networks of 2D, grid-aligned, sidewalks and amusement machines. I had never been on a roller-coaster. These games told me to become a Tycoon, but their real pleasure was just to watch the assemblage hum: the accumulation of bodies (the same sprite body, repainted) filling sidewalks and roller coasters, buying burgers and soda (from stores shaped like burgers and soda) to cash-register dings, screaming when a coaster leaves the belt and starts falling. When rain dashes the screen the sprites sprout umbrellas; outside the steepest coasters paths bloom identical vomit stains.
What fascinates me now about these games is the ways they start to play with, not hide, the workings and the material history of the hardware and software system that comprise them, from network logic, to industrial processes, to, yeah, extractive capitalist fantasy. The first two Roller Coaster Tycoon games understood that the screen’s visible pixelation, its isometric diagramming rather than eye-level detailing of a world, could be central to its pleasure and compulsion. This fantasy of controlling a territory with maps and graphs (from some office tower above) is about what is not made visible, as much as about what is. The power-trip of management games is not to be a chiseled supersoldier with a jetpack and no sense of pain, but to be a narrator’s eye without apparent body—rearranging a territory instantly with an immaterial hand. To hire a park employee you dangle them, legs-kicking, before dropping them onto a path.
The early-access game Factorio, despite it’s opposite surface—industrial grays and browns to RCT’s carnival, mines and factories to RCT’s Amusements—brought me back to that exact childhood fascination of linking up footpaths and coasters. In Factorio, playing an engineer stranded on an alien planet, you lay conveyor belts between factories to carry minerals to build bigger factories. In the complexity of its production lines and spatial puzzles, Factorio takes the underlying network logic of 90s-00s simulation games to such an extreme that the genre becomes or reveals something else. In Roller Coaster Tycoon you organize overlapping coaster tracks, sidewalks, bridges and tunnels, to carry guests around until they are sated and broke (then, past the ATM). In Factorio these networks expand across screens, into blueprints, and past the limits of memory. Belts proliferate stuttering ore and iron plates; mineral rivers fray into tunnels and spaghetti, which only their maker comprehends.
The screen surrounds a tiny sprite in a solitude only broken by bugs you build turrets to shoot. This is not a subtle colonial fantasy: the land is imagined uninhabited (despite signs of life), foreign or primordial (despite its earth-like plants and the 20th century industrial aesthetic), and its terrain is laid out strictly to be extracted from, emptied, and organized. It brings out the attraction, the loneliness, and the unsatisfiability of this desire to bring a territory into the confines of an expanding machine; I cannot tell whether this is intentional critique or symptomatic accident.
Conveyor belt sims show something of the pleasure and narrowness of mass-market video games themselves, thrilling and exploitative at once. Pass through the queue, pay entry, be tossed around, vomit through the exit, buy a soda, repeat. I buy into this messed-up fantasy because I want to see what happens when the next belt of copper fills a train; when the final S-bend closes the track by the path, and the painted cars start swallowing figures, then spitting them out again. ◒
Kavi Duvvoori is an MFA student in Experimental Play in the Digital Arts and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz, making and researching digital language (arts), and structure and nonsense. They have not done anything ever. Kavi can be found in certain corners, under fabric or trees, at this website with digital writing and a couple “games," at this email, or (as the bio format demands) at this unmaintained Twitter: @KaviDuvvoori, which follows good bots.