One of our workers is crippled. Frostbitten from his work hauling fuel from the coal piles far outside our city and hungry because the cookhouse ran out of food, he collapsed and was taken to the medical post. But, instead of curing him, the doctor lamed him and now he’s unable to work, a burden on our society. The people ask if we should build a care home for him, but the notion is ridiculous. We can’t even feed everyone.
Frostpunk is a new city-building strategy game from the studio that developed This War
Of Mine. It imagines an alternative Victorian Britain which has been stricken by the sudden onset of an ice age, and tasks you with saving your people by building a city for them in the heat thrown from a huge, smoke-belching generator. But as the temperature plunges and resources dwindle, building becomes only half the challenge, since this is a mash-up of the long-term strategising of city-builders such as Sim City with the minute-by-minute coping strategies of survival games like The Long Dark.
Like This War Of Mine, Frostpunk explores what people are forced to do when under great stress. “This War Of Mine was very much about the different consequences of survival – the human costs,” lead designer Kuba Stokalski tells us. “We wanted to build on that and the natural way to scale it up was to ask what a society would do if it was faced with survival.”
The doctor’s mistake was our fault. We decreed that our medics should risk difficult medical procedures in an attempt to cure patients so we could free more of our few beds for the newly sick. The hunger was also our fault. We didn’t appoint enough hunters to forage for food, and instead asked them to find steel so we could build a workshop. The cold was our fault, too. Though the temperature had dipped to -40°, we didn’t overdrive the generator for fear of putting too much strain on it. Because if the generator fails, we all die.
Mistakes, oversights and best intentions collide and cascade. And now the people are protesting about being bitterly cold, and we must make them a promise that their concerns will be met. But should we promise that we’ll make them warm immediately? Or give ourselves more time so we don’t risk undermining their faith in our leadership? Now night has come, the workers must rest, and our coal supply is running low.
Despite its name, Frostpunk is a sober and thoughtful game in which you don’t make evil decisions, or even bad ones. When you choose to make an edict that children can be put to labour, it’s for pragmatism. It will relieve the pressure on our adult workers and ensure we can gather more food and build warmer housing so fewer people have to live in
tents. But if a child should be hurt while working, it will have a major effect on the people. Sickness, hunger, cold and death are constants, but the moral effect of your decisions are two gauges, Hope and Discontent. A discontented populace might revolt and hang you. A hopeless one will abandon your city.
“It proves to be a really interesting philosophical area to explore, especially with what’s happening right now with different social movements and changes all around the world,” says Stokalski. The Victorian setting is an explicit attempt to situate Frostpunk within the British Industrial Revolution and among the works of social theory that surrounded it, such as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition Of The Working Class In England, and also into modern themes of climate change and the rise of automation.
As the leader of this society, you’re faced with a stream of subtle nudges to remember the people who toil beneath you. They’ll regularly express their concerns and pose problems for which you’ll have to make difficult decisions. If a child is injured in a work accident, you might be asked to review your law. Perhaps you should prohibit child labour again. But then you’ll lose productivity. How about limiting them to safe jobs? Maybe that’s enough? If the pressure is mounting, however, keeping the children working might be a necessary risk.
Sometimes they’ll demand that you make an improvement, such as to end homelessness in the city, which you can opt to make a promise for, either to fix quickly or in a number of days. Effectively mini-quests, these requests often point towards a better way to play, but their delivery also hits an emotional note because they relate to human needs. Sometimes they run counter to your strategy, such as wanting a pub when you’re trying to focus on sourcing enough coal for the generator to keep running. “Making sure you might not always agree with what they want is one of the layers that allowed us to put more empathy into the society as a group,” says Stokalski. “We built channels for you to empathise with each and every one of them: you know their names, who they are, what they’ve been through. But when you have 80 people and later on even more, you can’t emphasise with them individually, but at the same time we want you to feel emotions for the society as a whole.”
You also feel for your people as you watch them huddling on the bare ground next to the generator and trudging to the tasks you’ve set them, leaving paths through the thick snow. With daylight hours so short, and considering how long it takes for them to get to the stacks of wood and other resources out in the wastes, changing plans can be a disastrous waste of time. The pressure of having too few people, working too slowly, is constant.
Frostpunk is a grim game, a work of moral greyness and pragmatism. But its preoccupation with the people and what it means to have responsibility over them opens a world of nuance which recalls the work of other Polish studios such as CD Projekt Red, maker of the
Witcher games, which also tackle deeply human stories about what people do when the chips are down. “Maybe it’s our history as a people,” Stokalski says. “Up until the First World War we had no country of our own, because we were occupied by Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary. Then there was this brief period of independence, and then the Second World War happened, and then the Communists. Having this in our collective mindset might mean we want to see deeper meanings in what we do. This history reminds us of bad things not long before our modern one that make us question our way of life, our system of values, what’s good and bad. That’s maybe one of our inspirations.”
The result is a game that feels very different to the often US-made city builder and strategy games that came before it. Instead of domination and winning, Frostpunk is about the journey you take to ensure the survival of your society, and how you feel about the way you achieved it. Could you have made better decisions? Probably. Was survival at all costs ultimately worth it? That’s for you to judge.
You feel for your people as you watch them huddling on the bare ground
Lead designer Kuba Stokalski previously designed indie 4X game Spacecom
Though Frostpunk is first releasing for PC, the concentric nature of the city makes console joypad control more than viable