Little Big Workshop // Indie Review

Updated : Jan 13, 2020 in Articles

Little Big Workshop // Indie Review


Hi, my name is Ryan. Today I’m going to review Little Big Workshop
from Mirage Game Studios. It’s a management simulation game where
the player builds a factory and decides what products will be manufactured by its staff. It’s a game that poses a compelling challenge
of efficiency to players but it comes at the expense of a tone deaf representation of workers. For this review I was provided a steam key. As a genre the management sim has been around
for a long time whether it’s restaurants, beach resorts or entire cities. It’s a curious genre where spreadsheets
of incomes and outgoings are strangely engrossing for players where otherwise they are to be
condemned as monotonous. The mechanics then feel right at home within
the setting of factory production. Little Big Workshop has the player take on
the role of a factory owner and manager: purchasing machines, hiring staff, taking on contracts
and generally overseeing the flow of operations as you might expect in a management sim. The first thing that is arresting about the
game is its framing. The whole game takes place on a sheet of graph
paper on the tabletop. Vans motor along the edge of the table to
ferry equipment, supplies and goods. It’s one of the cleverest framing devices
I’ve seen in years and instantly transports me back to playing Micro Machines on PCs of
yore. Aside from this flourish of perspective Little
Big Workshop embodies a cartoonish aesthetic of 3D curves and bouncing animations. Everything is nicely contrasted and communicated
well through this art style. But the setting does have one inescapable
disadvantage: it can seldom be said that the sound of drills and machinery created a relaxing
atmosphere… Crucial to the enjoyment of this game is the
challenge it poses players: maintaining a kind of cyclical efficiency across the factory. What is special about this is how the game
demands this efficiency across multiple layers of planning. In taking a contract to manufacture an item,
a player must have three things: workers, equipment and a blueprint. Workers come in two general flavours: operators
and haulers. The latter will carry stock to supply areas
and carry products waiting to be exported. The former will operate the machines to produce
a product. Each product requires multiple machines to
achieve completion from bandsaws to painting stations to assembly workbenches. These levels of production are planned for
during the blueprint phase where a player links up each individual stage of an item
to a machine or group of machines to share the load. In this blueprint phase they can also choose
materials and particular component designs. It all makes for a complex chain of efficiency,
but where enough time is invested it all begins to make sense. As each part is crafted certain pieces of
equipment might take longer than others. So it has a cascading effect on the rest of
the product getting made. Players might be allured by the brute force
approach of more machines and more staff but there can be other more subtle ways of managing
these problems with a curious eye. The game really rewards the efficiency of
workflow from machine to machine. But there are things that get in the way of
a players understanding. The tutorial at the start guides the player
through the fundamentals of contracts and managing the workforce. But some crucial information is left to the
in game encyclopedia. Though it’s advertised as a sandbox, for
the game to eschew important pieces of information makes the process of overcoming this efficiency
puzzle all the more opaque. As pipelines are established and production
underway, the factory can be beset by a few types of unique problems reminiscent of Theme
Hospital’s infamous rat minigame. Gnomes may burrow underneath the factory,
mould can grow, and spies can infiltrate the workplace. Each requires a slightly different solution
and throws a spanner in the works as you wait for the cash to flow in. These are welcome distractions from constantly
pushing fast forward and waiting for productions to finish but they can grow repetitive. This pursuit of cyclical efficiency provokes
what only a few games can do: furious notetaking and diagrams on pieces of paper outside of
the game. From equipment lists to factory layouts that
the game requires this level of engagement is a testament to the challenge it asks of
the player. However, there are troubling elements to the
game. Its representation of labour is worrying at
best and outright tone deaf in places, especially in this particular point of late capitalism. There is a day/night cycle in the game but
it seemingly has no purpose beyond communicating the idea that your workers stay at the factory
24/7. They have no lives outside the confines of
these walls. Each worker has an energy limit. When reached they’ll go in search of a break
room. But workers can collapse on the floor and
remain there for an extended period of time whilst they recover. The reason for these collapses can be that
there weren’t enough decorations in work rooms like plants or water coolers. These decorations can come with snide remarks
about ‘pesky workers needing breaks’ as if the game really regrets having to implement
these items. Of course it’s all in the name of parody
and Mirage Game Studios have folded that within it’s cute aesthetic. And this is a slap in the face to those that
have collapsed and died in Amazon factories or the 5000 preventable deaths of workers
in American factories in 2017. With a cute aesthetic a game can establish
gaps in the system: if it’s not supposed to represent absolute verisimilitude then
it can sidestep certain representational shackles. But at what point did the developers decide
not to implement representations of workers rights? Negotiating with unions for better pay and
working conditions? Implementing safety features like fire doors
and sprinklers? Organising workers shifts? Or at the very least having a shift change
where the factory employs a day crew and a night crew? The problem with this is how benign it makes
these problems look. There seems to be no point or argument they’re
trying to make through parody of the workers situation. They just exist as another cog in the machine. Little Big Workshop is unashamedly a celebration
of capitalist gain at the expense of workers, especially as it gleefully rubs its hands
at the thought of unpaid interns. It’s a game which asks you an interesting
question on efficiency but it comes at the cost of sanitising the very idea of workers
rights and making the struggles that workers face across the world a benign issue.

18 Comments

  • Oh bud you had a good review going. But you started including unwanted unrelated real world troubles. No one is going to think about how the workers in a video game are being handled. Many like me play games to escape not to think about what amazon is doing with workers. Trust me I do care about real world politics but I would consider not bringing them into your review unless it's super relevant to the games content. This is a cutesy management game and should be reviewed as such.

  • Next time you review a game you should start with your political view of it first. That way I know to click off and look for a good review sooner.

  • I for one appreciate the comment about real world labour and the way the game ignores it. There's enough reviews out there that only talk about the gameplay, without linking it to reality. But I think computer games are an art form and they are a product of the zeitgeist.
    Cheers

  • It's a game about toy workers in a toy factory politics need not be brought into it.

    I work in more or less the same environment that this game depicts and the idea that toy workers stay on all day and night wasn't even something that raised an eyebrow. The game you are looking for is an old abandonware game called Free Enterpri$e and while interesting and very sun-like, it's boring as hell.

    It's a game and not every game has to be a political statement.

    Did you complain about the fact that your staff in Rollercoaster Tycoon stayed on all day every day of the year?

  • If games are to be taken serious, serious analysis is needed. If I cannot look at a game within the framework of workers rights even in a game about the work place, games will never be able to be considered important or worth anything. They will remain blinking pixels worth only derision.
    People who "Don't like politics" in their game are deaf to the politics inherent in every piece of media and art, namely the one they most strongly agree with.

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