I was over the moon when I was invited to oversee the layout of the process facilities at the Bumpkin Bros manufacturing plant. True, I didn’t know at the time what exactly was being manufactured there, but I’d heard whispers about their revolutionary human-factory interface. It would just be like playing a computer game, according to my acceptance letter. Now, with the perception granted by experience, I realise how terribly naive I was; blinded by the enormous pay packet, dazzled by charm of the Bumpkins and enamoured of their technology.
Certainly, the program that controls the factory isn’t much to look at. It doesn’t have to be. The space is represented by a simple grid floating against a plain grey backdrop. Usually, upon opening the program, the “product” dispenser is already in place, as is the bin for finished items. For some reason, the program came with a single music track that was pleasant at first, but became grating through repetition. My task was to process of quotas of cubes to certain specifications, say 5 medium red cubes and 5 small blue cubes. The specifications were delivered in terse messages each morning by one of the Bumpkins. It may sound strange, but I never learned their real names, despite working for them for over 30 days. I couldn’t even tell them apart.
My first days at their rural office were uneventful. The quotas were simple to begin with, usually requiring only one colour and size of block. The instruments I used to shape and shade the blocks were chunky, simplified, and brightly hued, like something you’d find in the Early Learning Centre. Paint sprayers, splitters, combiners, conveyors, and a number of other tools were introduced to me gradually, usually with little fanfare, and for the most part I was easily able to divine their correct implementation, if not their ultimate purpose. The factory itself was allegedly located under the building. The one entrance that I was aware of had no handle, and was made of a high grade metal that I associated with tanks. I was not allowed inside, though faint rumblings and whines seemed to indicate the presence of machinery.
The job ad implied the work would be primarily physics based, yet I soon found that it reminded me most of the few logic classes I took while at school, or even of circuitry, since the cubes must be set on paths that may or may not take them past the splitters and sprayers. This is usually accomplished by placing a conveyor that switches its direction at a regular rate, creating divergent paths on the grid.
Gradually, the complexity and size of my assignments grew. I met the challenge and relished the cerebral work. Deadlines were never set, and there didn’t appear to be any direct supervision, yet I attempted to complete each layout as quickly as possible. Curiously, I was only able to reach one correct solution for each of the tasks, and managed to use all of the tools the Bumpkins provided each time. The few times I ran into a brick wall, I was able to send a message to the mysterious office above mine via an archaic capsule tube. I couldn’t walk upstairs and deliver it myself, as the staircase appeared to fold in on itself and return me to the ground floor through some Escherian trick. In a remarkably short time, the solution would arrive in the form of inhumanely precise calligraphy on heavy paper. Why did they need me to do the work if they knew what to do already? Why didn’t they include a solution within the program itself? A simple diagram would have sufficed for all of the tasks.
I began to notice more strange things. The splitters, combiners, and cannons seemed violent in their efficiency. The conveyor belts, with their simple arrows, were signals of the inexorable march of the process, whatever it was. Some of the blocks seemed to catch on the conveyors, to relish in falling to oblivion off the grid, or to pile up obstinately due to an error in my work. When this happened, sometimes the floor would shake, or the glass of water on my table would ripple.
My hours grew longer to cope with the new sophistication and difficulty of my tasks. The Bumpkins never appeared to leave their lair on the top floor. The last communication I received from them, before my escape, detailed supposed improvements and additions to the program. Extra tasks sourced from the clients directly, fanciful backdrops to alleviate the greyness, and so on. It only made me wonder more about what I was working on.
The door to the factory taunted me. It loomed like a gunsteel obelisk at the bottom of a long ramp. I had seen no one open it, no one in the corridor. No one in the building, aside from the mute cleaner and myself. I had dreams of the blocks screaming as they were split and mashed together. The red paint took on the aspect of blood.
One fateful day, the front doors didn’t open after I finished work. The windows were locked and reinforced. I was trapped. I ran to the staircase and up to the Bumpkin office. It wasn’t there. The space where the door had been was now a plain wall, seamless under the high ceiling. I returned to the console. There was a new assignment, again with no explanation. Remembering the rumbles below me, I deliberately set the cubes piling up on the grid. The heap grew and chunks of product spilled off and into the void. The floor shook and an alarm I’d never heard began to wail. The door to the factory below was opening, crowned with a halo of flashing warning lights. I darted through and down into the darkness.
A parliament of pongs assaulted my nose as I descended. The darkness was not absolute, since there seemed to be a directionless glow that reminded me of cave phosphorescence. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I could see organic shapes, rounded and corrupt, moving in the dimness. This was not the clean, futuristic factory I’d expected. I stumbled as my foot snagged on the lattice of roots that covered the floor. It was the grid.
My eyes adjusted to the horrors before me. All of the instruments I’d seen rendered in bright primary colours on the computer screen were here, yet they were gnarled and blackened things, the embodiment of alien malevolence. Before I could tear my eyes away, I saw the product dispenser. It was like a giant pumpkin with a squelching sphincter in the centre. From the orifice, I saw grey cubes the consistency of tofu being extruded and dropped onto the leafy conveyor belt. That was not what froze my heart, however. Behind the dispenser I could see faces. Hundreds of people wrapped up to their necks in asphyxiating vines. Suckers connected the tops of their skulls to the machine-monster. Grey cubes—grey matter—piled up where I’d created the obstruction. The grid seemed to convulse as the cubes tumbled away, shaking the foundations of the building. The dispenser heaved and it seemed to have difficulty forcing more product out.
I ran back upstairs. The basement didn’t seem like a good place to hang about. The turmoil below made me feel like I was surfing concrete as I made my desperate way to the door. I was a few steps away, wondering how I’d get out, when the “factory” exploded. I don’t remember how I ended up in the field, my clothes covered in slime that I’d be happy to present as evidence to you. The Bumpkins are real, the factory was real, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the new drugs on the street, the ones that are giving you and your fellow officers so much trouble, are called “cubes”.
TL;DR: The Machine is a mostly satisfying physics and logic puzzler that could do with a hints system and a little fluff to stop things feeling so much like work. User generated levels and plans to prettify the game should go a long way to enhance its longevity.