Of all the things I wasn’t quite ready for in Frostpunk, it was the snow deformation that hit me the hardest. Frostpunk is a brutal game, and as your little community trudges off through the freshly fallen snow at the start of each day, you know you are sending some of them to their eventual death. The crisp, white snow hammers the point home. The possibilities of mistakes and casualties hang over you constantly, as you try to make the best decisions for your people. You are regularly balancing their needs and resources, and it can feel like every decision you make is life or death. With This War Of Mine, 11 Bit Studios gave us a microscopic view of the effect of war on a community, with Frostpunk they are telling a harrowing tale on a larger scale, but with that same emotional impact.
One of the most interesting aspects of Frostpunk is that it is not just another city builder. Many games in the genre want to give you room to relax, to consider your decisions and sometimes even allow you to operate in a very low-risk setting. In Frostpunk, climate change has destroyed the world as we know it, plunging your 19th-century community into a world of strife and risk. There is a constant need for things to be done, from building, finding resources, managing food, or dealing with the sick. It presents a continual balancing act between the hope your community must feel to survive and the discontent that can set in when things are going wrong. It is also story driven, using beautifully realized animations and art styles to get you fully invested in the community struggle that you are managing.
Do you want to build a snowman?
The main body of the gameplay takes the form of a city builder. You must decide what resources to gather, in what order. What to build, and where. Your town will build outwards around a central generator, a vital provider of heat and energy that can keep your village alive. You never seem to have enough workers to do everything that needs to be done, and deciding on what to prioritize is a constant battle. Things are complicated further by a day/night cycle. You can, for the most part, only work during the day. Nights are brutally cold, driving your workers back to the town. Those without beds to sleep in risk illness, or even death. This world is harsh, and in many ways, it has been designed to challenge your ability to separate the needs of the many from the potentially frozen few.
A vital aspect of the gameplay is the Book of Laws. As the community’s leader, it is up to you to make the hard choices and forge the relevant laws that will govern your people and drive them toward their survival or death. Often they will take the form of difficult ethical and moral decisions. When things get hard, will you force children to work? What lengths will you go to in an effort to stretch dwindling supplies? Once a person has died, have they paid their debt to society or is there more than can be done, even with the fallen? Decisions can have far-reaching consequences, which are not always obvious at the time, and this is what makes the game so fascinating to play. While the city building aspect is tight and controlled, it is this ability to operate in a morally grey space that makes the game so enthralling.
You will also need to deal with personal requests from the people who live in your struggling city. Decisions will need to be made around providing housing for those who need it, sending search parties to find survivors, or resources. As always, everything needs to be balanced against the pressing needs of the city itself. Sometimes, survival games like this run the risk of losing their human focus, as the little people scurrying around become little more than a mechanism by which a city lives. Frostpunk’s expert design and balance means that each death, each lost citizens, feels like a hammer blow. When your people lose hope, and turn against you, it really is quite the strong feeling of failure. They might learn to hate you, feelings of betrayal causing them to strike out on their own. If enough of them learn to loath you, they will send you out into the snow and the cold, cast down from your place as their leader. Frostpunk is not a game you play to relax, it is a game where failure really does hit hard.
On top of being very well focused, Frostpunk is also impeccably paced. Just as you finish one challenge, or get comfortable with a system or aspect of the game, something new is unveiled. It is almost always complimentary to the steps that have come before it, you are never asked to focus on something trivial. Everything you learn, every system, every choice, is vital and important. While the main focus is on the city, and the people within it, Frostpunk does take place in a massive, albeit, frozen hellscape of a world. Build the right things and you can go exploring, sending scouting parties out to see what they can find. It is entirely possible you might find the remains of some other person’s efforts to build a new society. Sometimes finding more survivors can feel like a burden. More people to keep safe, and fed, and warm. Most food to be found and sleeping quarters to be built. A damning echo of the real-life fear and tribalism that can occur when people are struggling to survive.
The needs of the many
Eventually, your fledgling town will grow, through a combination of human toil and ingenuity. It will stand against the desolate cold, the last bastion of humanity’s effort and will to live. In the later stages of the game, which lasted about 14-15 hours for most of my playthroughs, I found myself becoming worryingly cold. When I was close to the end, I would allow nothing, and nobody, to be more important than the imagined majority. Soup could be thinned, and children could be worked, I just needed one more day. Somewhere along the way, I allowed my circumstance to make me cold. I try to play most games as something that I would vaguely think of as a good human, but once again 11 Bit Studios had me asking myself if I wasn’t just one step away from being a cold-hearted dictator. In most games, it doesn’t seem to matter, but there is a vein of human struggle at the heart of this game that allows for a genuine stirring of concern for the fate of your tiny populace.
Graphically the game is beautiful. The combination of pristine snows, dappled sunlight, and the ever-growing reach of your metal and wood city combine to make something visually engaging. Even how the game interacts with you, menus and popups bleeding across the screen, is a thing of some carefully considered beauty. It can be somewhat of a tough game to run though, those with systems less powerful that I might struggle at the higher graphics settings. I never ran into a single issue though. Not a minor hitch, nor lost frame that I was aware of.
Frostpunk is a carefully balanced, tightly focused and deeply considered game. No sacrifices to its primary aim have been made, no areas of bloated design have been permitted. The focus is always on the idea of surviving, and the physical and emotional cost that this can have in a hard and unforgiving environment. It is a game that challenges you to consider your humanity, and weigh carefully the fate of those who trust you. It is also a game that rewards experimentation in different playthroughs, providing a deeply emotionally affecting, intellectually challenging experience every time.