How did it come to this? Public executions are being made in the name of a divine ruler. Propaganda hangs from buildings. None of us in our right minds would implement these regimes, and yet in Frostpunk I did. What drove me there? I didn’t suddenly lose my mind; I did it because it was better than the alternative. I did it to survive.
Like developer 11 bit Studio’s previous game This War of Mine, this is where Frostpunk exists, on the edge of coping, where you’re always put between a rock and a hard place. You never make a decision in the game from a position of comfort – a mixture of dwindling resources and ever worsening cold ensure that. You never have quite enough. You think you’re safe and then something happens to wrongfoot you, be it a scripted event or the temperature plummeting again. It’s a heart-pumping scrabble for survival, a thrill I’ve never felt in a city builder. As I hung on towards the campaign’s end, I genuinely held my breath.
In Frostpunk you’re in charge of building the last city on a completely frozen Earth, and you’re up against it from the off. The temperature is -20 degrees and you need to find coal to keep your generator stoked for warmth, wood to build shelters for your people, and food to feed them. Around you lay piles of coal, wood and steel, and you assign groups of people – workers or engineers – to gather them.
But soon you need these people elsewhere, in cook houses, hunter’s lodges and medical tents, and your gathering force thins. You still need more of everything but you have no one to get it. Then one of your people suggests putting children to work, and in the cruel moment it makes sense and so you pass the law.
Then resource piles begin to disappear and you need engineers to research an alternative, and quickly, so you pass a law enabling 24-hour shifts in the workshop. But you will need people to work the sawmills and coal thumpers and steel works. Fortunately the beacon you built attracts some survivors and you’re glad for their extra help, but you’re not glad for the extra mouths to feed so you pass a law enabling soup rations to make food stretch further.
By now the warm space around your generator is taken and the tents you need to build for the newcomers are in the cold. People start to fall ill, some gravely, and they die. What will you do with their corpses? A snow pit seems easiest so you pass the law and build one, plus it gives you the option of recycling their frozen bodies for food later on.
But these decisions do not go unnoticed. All the time Discontent rises and Hope falls within your city, and if you let them reach their negative extremes, you’re done for, turfed out, game over. It’s why you pass a law enabling fighting pits to let off Discontent each evening, and why you enable prostitution in public houses. It’s why you enable a neighbourhood watch and guard towers, enabling guards to be used in various encounters which crop up, such as protests. People get hurt but that’s the price they pay. You’ve got bigger things to worry about. What choice do you have?
It’s a fascinating position to be put in, a layer which gives Frostpunk a whole other dimension and a kind of soul. Through your decisions, the consequences of which you see played out on the people sagging or prospering under your rule, you city builds a story. A child died because they were exhausted and even though their mother pled you kept them working. How do you feel about that? Your scouts came across a ravaged group of survivors and instead of helping them, put them out of their misery and took their stuff. How do you feel about that? You may survive the cold but will be proud about how you did it?
The other layer Frostpunk uses, in addition to intricate city building, is the pull of the unknown. Beacons allow scouts to be trained and sent out above and beyond the crater your city exists in. What’s out there, you don’t know. Are there other survivors, other cities like yours? Are there answers to your bigger questions? All you see are points of interest on the map, and it takes time for scouts to reach them. The more your explore, the bigger picture of survival you uncover. It’s an added layer of interactive fiction in a way. You’ll see the grisly and you’ll find some relief, and eventually you’ll come upon something which will make or break you.
This is all brought to life gorgeously before you, in a kind of lavish and living wrought iron Victorian playset. Smog pumps from chimneys and furrows are ploughed in deep tracts of snow, and little torches light sorry workers as they shuffle about their business. Select individual buildings and you hear the industry inside them, the coughs, the shouts, the machinery, and zoom out and the blizzardy wind howls around your ears. The attention to detail is incredible, and the simulation purrs, designed coherently and thoughtfully, with heat maps for seeing where you’re coldest, and menus for tracking inefficient consumption when you can’t see everything at once.
But in a dozen hours, it’s done. You either move onto one of two smaller scenarios, which are deceptively hard and focused around unique themes – one protecting the last seeds on Earth, the other housing an influx of refugees before the oppressive, rich lords arrive – or you play the main campaign again. The thrill, though, dulls considerably a second time around. Not only will you know what’s coming, which I found spoiled the fun much more than I was expecting (though you can tinker with difficulty sliders to give yourself more of a challenge), the other, mutually exclusive law-path you can follow feels almost exactly the same. One is Order and one is Faith and Spirituality, and both are eventually as totalitarian as each other.
I hoped Frostpunk would have something to say about employing this kind of rule. I hoped at some point my conscience would be presented with a bill: “You made all these reckless decisions and now you will answer for them.” But nothing beyond the grumbles of my populace ever came, and I had complete control over them. It was as though the game was missing an outside voice, a disapproving onlooker. I passed my judgement on others but none did the same to me. I answered to no one but myself and Frostpunk’s decisions felt thin, like a facade, as a result.
Perhaps the point was to show me how extreme regimes are attractive and effective under the right circumstances; to offer me a glimpse at how they came to be in the destabilised countries of our past – or perhaps how they could come to be in the turbulent countries of our present. Perhaps the more humanitarian types of rule I was after only become possible in times of security and plenty, which definitely aren’t Frostpunk.
It’s in this way Frostpunk feels like only the beginning: the first chapter of a larger survival story. You cling on and do what it takes to survive the first handful of weeks, but that’s it. You never begin implementing the deeper infrastructures of a civilisation because the game isn’t concerned with what comes next. It means by city builder standards Frostpunk’s vision and playtime are limited, although at £25 it is priced to reflect it.
While it lasts, though, Frostpunk is spellbinding, a breathless battle against the odds, oozing dark charisma and exquisite quality. The underpinning of survival and ever decreasing odds breathe so much drama into the formula as to make other city builders dull by comparison. But it’s over too abruptly and fizzles at the conclusion, and the political feast it teases ends up more like hors d’oeuvres.