In the early days of the industry we were largely concerned with questions regarding technical and gameplay matters: how far could we push this hardware? What new avenues of gameplay can we explore? In 2018, though, we’ve got a little more breathing room, so we can add questions of artistry and ethics to that list: what can we learn from a game about this? Can we learn about ourselves as people by making decisions in a game?
2014’s This War of Mine is the poster example for this sort of game design. It’s a relatively simple resource-management survival game in an era where survival games had already been around for some time; in order to stand out, it attempts to humanize the genre and make you care about your survivors and the decisions you make for them. Whether or not this works really depends on the player and how deeply they’re willing to empathize with the characters.
I’m not a fan, personally, though I can see how one might be. With Frostpunk, the same concept is applied to the city-management genre, and again it does so with varying degrees of success.
Things are getting cold. Really, really cold. We’re talking ex-partner at an ice skating rink in the middle of winter on the Moon cold. At this point, things are so frosty that the only real hope of staying alive is to gather around a giant steampunk generator and hope for the best. As the leader of a group determined to do just that, you’re responsible for managing resources, assigning manpower and making all the hard decisions. In this case, being in charge might not be such a good thing.
Frostpunk is a combination city builder and ethical quandry-simulator, with the latter aspect serving as an obvious nod to the team’s earlier title This War of Mine. City-building is simple enough, with most of the depth on that front being “make sure you keep buildings somewhat warm where possible,” so Frostpunk is more of a resource-management game than anything. The resources you’ll spend on survival include coal, wood, steel and food, to say nothing of the manpower required to gather any of this; you’ll rapidly find that you never seem have enough of any of it.
You’re encouraged, then, to use the Book of Laws to modify society toward more pragmatic ends. Initially, for instance, manpower is the most serious issue, as you don’t have a large workforce and people will only work regular shifts. If you need to push things a bit, you can do so in several ways, such as by extending the work day or by legalizing child labor. Laws will unlock other laws, eventually resulting in a more significant branching decisions that determines the ideological focus of your society.
Frostpunk is very interested in forcing you to make hard decisions, though admittedly the decisions aren’t all that hard if your choices come down to “do this or everyone dies.” While This War of Mine reveled in personalizing this sort of quandry, offering shades of gray and compromises, Frostpunk often places you situations where there’s not actually much of a choice at all.
The question of how far you go tends to be binary, not a spectrum of good or bad options. Sorry, kids, if it’s work or everyone freezes to death, you’re going to work. Even if this sort of emotional manipulation works for you it feels a little more transparent here than in other games. Your reward as a player for getting better at managing a city is being able to make less “harsh” decisions, which seems like it defeats the point somewhat.
It’s not a bad concept necessarily. Frostpunk certainly tries its best to make the most of it and the associated setting. Post-apocalyptic landscapes are nothing new in games, but Frostpunk’s emphasis on the hopelessness of the situation feels fresh – something about the man-sized trails through the massive snowdrifts surrounding the generator is certainly memorable. Combine that with some fantastic audio design and you’ve got one of the more unique experiences in the genre.
While the city-building isn’t exactly packed with depth and the “how far do we go to survive” questions probably won’t keep you up at night, Frostpunk is still successful from a presentation standpoint. This is a relatively short title, as befits its price, so you can see what it’s got to show in a weekend or so. While not the video game Oscar nominee that This War of Mine was, Frostpunk is an interesting experience that’s worth checking out.