My Initial Thoughts on Frostpunk

Frostpunk-Cover-Art

By the skin of its teeth, New London had weathered the storm. In no small part this was not due to my leadership, but in spite of it. While I had build infrastructure and homes, I had neglected to fully exploit my coal resources, and I had disbanded my outposts far earlier than I should have. By the fourth day of the blizzard, the generator was running on coal dust, and was desperately trying to keep the great machine running while I held services, delivered sermons, and organized public displays of penance to keep the people from losing all hope. Though conditions were awful and many died, the city and most of her people survived. The people rose to greet the day, rebuild, and turn their eyes to the future once more. Overall, a happy ending.

The game, however, had different ideas. As the ending title cards played, the game painted a picture of New London as a theocratic society, viewing everything through a religious prism, and worried the people had “gone too far” in adapting themselves to this new world. Given all of what had happened, I couldn’t help but feel a touch let down by this pronouncement from on high.

I suppose that sums up my current feelings towards Frostpunk, the new game by independent Polish developer 11 Bit Studios. While the game is quite enjoyable on the mechanical level, its thematic concerns don’t seem to be quite in line with my own interpretation of the game.

11 Bits Studios’ biggest claim to fame before Frostpunk was 2014’s This War of Mine, a survival-focused RPG that had you try to keep a colony of survivors alive in a war-torn city. From what I’ve gleaned from interviews and the like, Frostpunk was an attempt to take TWOM‘s focus on the compromises and sacrifices required for survival in extreme circumstances and examine it on a societal level. For this, the developers decided to get creative.

The game proper opens in 1887, shortly after the end of the world. For reasons unknown, the Earth’s temperature drastically cooled earlier in the decade. The great snows came, killing crops, burying cities, and scattering all who came before them. In its twilight days, the British government embarked on a great final program to preserve some remnant of civilization. All across the glaciated north, giant pits were excavated and equipped with great coal-burning generators, engines that would serve as the center of new communities for those few hardy refugees who took their chances in the north. Though Frostpunk currently tells the story of three such groups, your first game places you in the shoes of a groups of Londoners of all walks of life and asks you to protect and lead them during their first weeks in their new home.

While Frostpunk is mechanically a fairly standard city-building game, it is unique in that it the focus is more on emphasizing the limits of the game rather than the freedom of the player. Your city can never physically expand beyond the edge of its crater, and every building save the resource depots have to be connected to the generator by roads. While some of the stress of building placement is alleviated by the use of a system of radials and concentric circles, it is still a challenge to fit everything in nice and neatly. Manpower is always at a premium; the timescale of the game is too short to allow the organic expansion of the population to take place, meaning that you have to assemble teams of scouts to explore the “frostlands” outside your crater to find new citizens. In the meantime you have to juggle your population between resource extraction, food production, research, medical care, manufacturing, and construction. On top of all that, you have to keep their homes and workplaces well-heated while preventing them from rising up in rebellion or wholly losing any hope for the future. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of plates to keep spinning.

Rather unusual for a city-builder, Frostpunk also places narrative limits on the player. The initial stages of the game are fairly hands-off, with the focus being on developing New London and exploring the Frostlands for Winterhome, a older, more established research outpost. However, whether by hook or by crook, it is eventually discovered that Winterhome has destroyed itself, sparking a crisis of confidence in your citizens and setting the stage for the real meat of the game.

As ruler of the city, you have the ability to issue a new law once every one or two days, which unlock buildings and abilities, change how certain classes of citizens are treated, and change the overall attitude of the populace. Initially these laws, grouped under the loose rubric of “Adaptation” by the game, are relatively utilitarian. Do you legalize child labor to expand your workforce, or do you build child shelters to appease the populace and later apprentice them to engineers to boost your research rate? Do you the gravely ill people in palliative care forever, or do you operate on them and run the risk of leaving them short a limb and requiring a prosthesis? Should you open a public house? However, with the news of Winterhome and of a party of “Londoners” who want to return to the south, the time comes to establish a guiding philosophy for New London to get her citizens back on the straight and narrow. The game offers you two philosophies: Faith, which inspires the people through religion and ritual, and Purpose, which is more suited for law-and-order types. The struggle here, of course, is figuring out how to keep the people loyal, hopeful, and pacified without becoming a theocracy or a police state.

While this phase of the game seems to be the real ethical meat of Frostpunk, I couldn’t help but feel unmoved by it. Part of the issue stems from the fact that the game stacks the deck against you, pushing you into a scenario where it only gives you two choices, forces you to make issue perfect commandments that cannot be negotiated or reinterpreted, and offers judgment based on “your” choices. The other issue is that the game seems to have been built with a sort of humanist mindset where the greatest good is to keep the greatest number people possible alive and free of oppression, with the ethical dilemma arising from having to compromise one’s values in the name of survival and civic order. The problem with this framework, however, is that if a player does not share these values, or even place the same premium on them, then the ethical dilemmas become clear-cut and the player feels like the game is complaining about them even though they did nothing wrong (so to speak). While I can’t really hold 11 Bit Studios responsible for not anticipating the worldviews of every potential player, I still feel the matter of ideology could have been handled better. (To be honest, I feel that a novel might have been a better avenue to explore this issue. The great advantage of books is that you can explore whatever facet of an argument you wish without worrying so much about how “fun” it is or having to stage-manage everything for the player to bumble through.)

After the issue with the Londoners has been resolved, the game heads on to its final test, a week-long blizzard with lows of around -150°C that keep you from producing food and stress every aspect of your city. If you survive that ordeal, a second scenario unlocks in which you take charge of a group of scientists from Oxbridge trying to preserve a seed bank from the elements while dealing with a shortage of workers. Successfully completing that scenario then unlocks a third one in which you rule a city of London’s proletariat and have to deal with waves of upper-class refugees fleeing to your citadel against the cold. As of this writing I have only played the initial scenario, so my thoughts about the game are still in the air. At the moment, though, Frostpunk is a game whose physical beauty shines brighter than the ideas it wanted to explore.

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1 Response to My Initial Thoughts on Frostpunk

  1. Pingback: Measuring the World in Science Packs Per Minute: Factorio | The Futurist Dolmen

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