The Peculiar (Dis)comfort of Slime Rancher

Home on the range

It’s 6am, and I’m ready to begin my morning chores. I gather up my feed – carrots, strawberries, and some very unfortunate chickens – and head out to the ranch. For some of the living things waiting in the pens, it’s the start of a good day: they get their favorite food, their pen is cleaned of waste, and they can go about their business largely unbothered. For an unlucky few, however, it is the day of reckoning: they have been made redundant and are no longer profitable to keep feeding. I bundle them up, say a fond and slightly sad farewell… then jettison them immediately into the ocean.

So as is obvious from the featured image, I’m talking not about real-life animal husbandry, but about Slime Rancher, released in 2017 (early access in 2016) by developer Monomi Park. In the game, you boldly go where some other colonizers have gone before and set up a ranch on an alien planet, to farm different variants of the dominant life form: adorable spherical balls of slime. These slimes come in all different colors, from a basic pink model that functions as a living garbage disposal to the delicate Phosphor slime, who requires a diet of exclusively fruit and needs to be kept in a netted and shielded enclosure because it flies and can’t stand the sun. Your job as a rancher is to profit off the goop you have acquired, via feeding them and collecting their oddly pointy excrement, known as “plorts” which are apparently a panacea of a natural resource and thus go for big bucks.

So, you explore the world collecting new kinds of slimes and then bring them back to your homestead and domesticate them to turn a dollar. Seems fairly harmless, yes? Well, as Ty Galiz-Rowe pointed out in their article for Uppercut, cute things shouldn’t get a pass on critical examination just because they make us feel warm and fuzzy. In fact, these games can often use their very cuddly nature to mask some pretty horrific themes and messages (I’m looking directly at you, Bugsnax). So it’s important to keep our eyes peeled for anything hinky in our play experiences even if they’re cutesy.

And, reader, there is definitely some hinky stuff in Slime Rancher, which makes sense when you think about how it’s essentially a farming sim and how the industrial meat industry in real life is largely the stuff of nightmares. But let’s start off with the basics: the care and feeding of the slimes. Each slime has a type of food (meat, veggie, or fruit) that it will eat, and one specific type of food within that category that is its favorite. If you feed a slime its favorite food, it will produce double plorts and you get double money. Thus, it is advantageous to keep a supply of the slime’s preferred nosh on the ranch with you. But this comes with certain issues: some favorite foods are grown in smaller quantities and take up space with less output, such as chickens. So if a rancher wants to keep all their slimes fed and happy, they have to dedicate a lot of ranch space to food supply, which costs money.

This is what I did in the beginning: I maintained each purebred slime group in its own pen and had a dedicated food plot for each kind of slime. It wasn’t much, but it was a decent living, and I quickly maxed out my ranch upgrades this way. However, care and feeding of ten different kinds of slime and maintaining twenty plots grew cumbersome. So, naturally, I turned to genetic modification.

In the game, there’s a very simple slime-breeding mechanic that’s not gross if you don’t think about it: if a slime eats a plort of a different kind of slime, it becomes a “largo”: A slightly larger slime with properties of both the original slime and the slime that produced the plort. Largos are beneficial because it effectively doubles what you can feed a slime: Don’t have a briar chicken for your boom slimes? Mix them with rad slimes and now you can feed them common carrots and get both rad AND boom plorts for next to nothing. So, with a new eye for efficiency, I began pairing my slimes up: Pink with Tabby to solve the need for chickens and because both plorts are low-value, Rad with Boom to consolidate the types of slimes that can cause damage to one pen, and so on. And since I could now get the same number of plorts from half the number of slimes…. ocean-jettisoning began happening. I told myself it wasn’t bad, that they maybe didn’t even die, really. Because I certainly couldn’t release them back into the wild, that was far too dangerous.

My reasoning there is where the game veers from “normal capitalist hellscape” into “literally Lovecraftian nonsense”: If you have too many different kinds of slimes together, and they eat each other’s plorts, they don’t just keep adding on new features: if a slime has taken on too much of different kinds of slimes, it becomes a Tarr, an evil technicolor monster that hurts people and slimes. The problem here is fairly obvious: since all slimes can technically interbreed and are part of the same species, making an argument for genetic purity gets us into weird Shadow over Innsmouth territory, where the horror is actually just miscegenation because the author is racist. I’m definitely not saying that Monomi Park intended this: it was almost certainly a means of cutting down on code for the endless permutations of slime variants and to add complexity to slime-ranching logistics. But the choice to make the slime an actively harmful monster due simply to too much genetic diversity is something we need to be aware of.

I’m not letting myself sit in the comfort of thoughtlessness even as this game soothes my rattled soul

At this point in my life, I’m fairly lost in the slime sauce: I’m coming to the end of a degree and the job search is becoming more and more pressing, and logging off at the end of the day to tend to my slimes has been helpful to me in many ways. But I have to admit to feeling somewhat complex feelings about the shades of slime eugenics present in the game. And then I feel complicated about feeling complicated, because I eat meat and I own purebred cats (though through entirely serendipitous box-on-porch happenings and not conscious effort), so this feels like something I sort of shouldn’t have much of a stake in because my real-life investment in the cause is pretty low.

Which is, I think, exactly why it’s good for me to feel uncomfortable about this. By recognizing that stuff in this game is a little hinky, I’m doing some meaningful critical work in examining my own preconceived notions, values, and beliefs – I’m not letting myself sit in the comfort of thoughtlessness even as this game soothes my rattled soul. I’m still working through exactly how I feel thinking through the implications of slime breeding and profitability will affect the ways I walk the meat aisles of my local grocery store. But I’m almost positive that it will. 

By Emma Kostopolus

Emma Kostopolus is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Kansas, where she studies how we can use games in the classroom to teach writing, especially through role-play and game design. She plays exclusively squishy comfort games and nerve-shredding survival horror and enjoys existing in that duality. You can find more of her words and games she’s designed @kostopolus on Twitter

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