One of the biggest running jokes among game journalists are the methods in which developers and publishers exalt their morality systems and mechanics before heavily neutralising them in the final product. A common example is in Mass Effect – where the complex “ethical dilemmas” are really anything but – the sacrifices generally mean that you can’t use a certain skill but the repercussions are generally based on story branches rather than any strong impediment on the player difficulty. In the end, like most morality systems, it also just deviates to a “good or evil” archetype – do you kill the orphan children for their precious lifesaving blood or do you let them run free into the wilderness?
Frostpunk is developed by 11-bit Studios, the Poland based house that brought us This War of Mine, one of the most (emotionally) difficult games I’ve ever played, succeeded only by its DLC – “The Little Ones”. TWIM didn’t want you to win, it wanted you to experience what it was like when everything you had was stripped away, and what was left were the primordial, rudimentary decisions to keep yourself and your family alive. It removed the jingoism of bullets to the brain of the enemy, and reminded us that the real unseen causalities of war are the civilians (especially women and children) who have to make the choice between food, safety, shelter, and medical care.
Each different scenario and encounter in both games tapped into an element of what keeps human societies and the families within them functioning - trust, cooperation, charity and routine – and how these things break down during extreme stress against a fallen state. When resources are so finite, and the social structures we’ve formed become so blurred, what choices need to be made to keep our humanity in check while, at the same time, preserving our future survival? In Frostpunk, 11-bit widens the scope of these problems and puts you at the head of the whole table – what would you do, and what would you sacrifice, to save our species from extinction?
At the heart of Frostpunk, and your very existence, is the generator. A fierce hulking behemoth forged by London’s best engineers as society collapsed into a frozen wasteland around them, functions as the literal boiler room of the world’s last city. It not only provides centralised heating against the fierce sub-zero temperatures, but provides electricity to your buildings. The generator must run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and cannot stop for a second – facilitating the first of many constant anxieties that will plague you as the days drag on. Ironically, there are no concerns about climate change in these times – coal is your lifeblood and your location in the Arctic means there is plenty of it available.
But heat isn’t just enough. You need hunters to source whatever animals still manage to roam. Cooks to prepare food for hundreds of workers. Scouts to seek our survivors and scavenge whatever resources exist from failed encampments and to seek out the possibilities of other successful generator colonies. But there are only so many people left – and they have fears too. One of the first decisions you make – and one that will resonate until the very end of the game – is how you deal with the cities’ children. You can put them to work of course – isn’t every hand necessary when the end of the world is at stake? Or do you attempt to give them a semblance of a childhood, a stave from the likeliness of death inside a coal mine or sawmill?
Every day seems to bring new challenges. Frostpunk communicates these via multiple choice prompts, with the options available wholly dependant on previous choices. For every reprieve – something that provides a bit of hope to the people – there is also a downside that may hit you at the worst time. Just when you feel like you have an edge – the temperature drops dramatically; your workers strike after their colleagues freeze to death on the job while desperate citizens steal food from the stores or murder their fellow citizens via public duels. Each citizen in Frostpunk isn’t just a number – an ant on the map – but a life. They get overworked, they starve, they freeze, they feel disempowered and hopeless at each word that a camp you scouted is full of frozen corpses. They bind together in fear, desperately waiting for you to instill something that gives them a reason not to attempt a suicidal trek back to London.
It’s this constant switch between micro/macro, that sense of always being on the cusp of the next disaster, feeling the cold and the hopelessness of your fellow citizens makes this experience extremely visceral. Every single death means something – you know why they died, how it could (or sometimes, could not) have been prevented, and are then left with the real repercussions of grief and despair. You also now have a body that needs to be disposed, or honoured, or neither. When people go hungry or they lose their limbs to cold or industrial accidents because you overworked them... you feel it. I don’t feel like I’ve ever played a game that found me so invested in the ultimate outcome of my populace. I was genuinely upset when I had to abandon a town that I had hopelessly damned to destruction – I had failed them.
Sure, given enough rounds, the system can be figured out. But I feel like Frostpunk is less a competitive strategy game and much more like a simulation in the same way This War Is Mine was. Even in the manner in which a new game is presented – via a scenario rather than a “skirmish” or “endless mode” like Civilisation or Starcraft for example – means that each playthrough is an attempt to succeed, or fail, based on the sacrifices, ethics and morals of the player. Each scenario has an ending, and those endings are satisfying, particularly the last few hours of play that leads up to them. In those moments, the society you built from scratch is tested to the ultimate extremes to see whether it can, in the end, survive.