Frostpunk asks why we survive, not just how

In the first week, we put the children to work. They weren’t forced into dangerous jobs, so we told ourselves, but when you’re living on the brink of extinction, what work is truly safe? One afternoon, a man collecting coal complained of numbness in his arm. Frostbite had taken hold. We could have left him to die but instead we opted for an experimental treatment.

He lost the arm and he’s no longer capable of contributing to our dying society. One more mouth to feed with no body of work beneath it. What should we do?

Frostpunk [official site] is a city-building survival sim from the studio that brought us This War of Mine and it is beautifully bleak.

Though it’s a science fiction story, set in a frozen future barely capable of sustaining human life, it shares some of that previous title’s contemporary concerns. Climate change is the obvious one, this being a world undone by a dramatic temperature shift, but as you dig into the details, there are questions about equality, labour and the scarcity of natural resources that make the crater-town of Frostpunk an unhappy microcosm of just about every society you might choose to name.

It’s also an icy cocktail of cinematic and real world inspirations: the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (filmed as Alive), Aron Ralston’s Utahmputation (filmed as 127 Hours) and Captain America and the railway children (filmed as Snowpiercer), among many others. There’s also a rich vein of Victoriana, but not simply in the [Blank]Punk sense; here there are shadows of the workhouse and Blake’s ‘weeping chimneysweep.’ The beating hea(r)t of the generator that keeps these people alive is also the new birth of an industrial age, and the factories and mines operate on blood and sweat.

Your job is not just to plan, it’s to inspire, or at least to ensure that hope doesn’t die out. It’s as vital to survival as the flames of the generator and how unusual it is to see Discontent and Hope listed as gauges of success. There are more conventional resources as well, particularly coal in the early stages, but you’re trying to support life rather than mere existence.

That means you’ll have to be careful not to make promises you can’t keep. I’m the kind of person who will always try to do right, as I see it, where a game gives me the choice. Frostpunk certainly gives choices, but sometimes there are no good options, or presenting a manifesto of unattainable optimism will simply lead you down a path where the epitaph reads: “It’s the hope that kills you”. Or, to be more precise: “It’s the false hope that made them kill you.”

I’m not sure if a possible endgame has the survivors turning against their leader (you) and casting them out into the cold, or stringing them from one of the generator’s girders, but breaking promises will see hope crumble and discontent rise. Early on, your people might ask for tents to protect them from the cold, to provide at least a thin layer of protection. That should be an easy promise to fulfill, but when they start asking for changes to the laws of your new society, or for construction that would require sacrifice or postponement of other plans, you should think long and hard about whether to make those promises.

All of this goes back to the game’s own initial promise, that this is a game about finding reasons to survive rather than just the means to go on living. And that’s why you might decide that giving food to people who can no longer work is important, because a society must look after its own, but it’s also why you might have to reverse that policy if injuries pile up or the weather deteriorates. In an RPG where moral choices spring into a dialogue tree, I only ever pick the nasty options if I’m roleplaying a nasty character. By framing these choices in a citybuilder, where management of resources is key, 11bit are aiming to create genuine dilemmas. There’s a very real chance that playing my way, trying to do the right thing, will create a chain reaction that leads to death and ruin down the line.

And that’s why you might end up clicking a button that legalises, and actively encourages, cannibalism. Not because you’re the edgelord of Coldsville and want to call your people The Eaters of the Dead, but to save the lives of those who haven’t already become meat. It’s why you might marvel at the trails your workers cut through the snow as they trudge to work at the fringes of the crater on day one, but will shrug when they fall in the deep white and stop moving by week three.

It’s important to note that even without the complexities of moral choices and policy-making, Frostpunk makes the most of its setting. The crater that contains the generator, right at the centre, allows for construction that treats the layout as spokes on a wheel rather than lines on a grid. Buildings snap to the generator and then to each other, creating circular layers that suit the setting perfectly. The form fits the theme, naturally creating a shantytown sensibility as tents and medical centres cluster and huddle around the warmth of the generator.

Frostpunk is a difficult game. Not in terms of the challenge it presents but in the way it is marrying two distinct genres and forcing bleak decision-making that is tied to its systems rather than its narrative. There is a story to uncover, which will presumably tell us something about how the world came to be as it is, and whether anything like a happy ending is possible. You can learn a little about the world beyond your crater by sending out expeditions, and through balloon-related observation, but the generator is home. And home is where the heart breaks.

Frostpunk is scheduled for release this year.

41 Comments

  1. Nokturnal says:

    Finally we get an idea of what this game will be. It looks gorgeous, and I was a big fan of This War of Mine so I’m happy to give this some attention while we discover more.

    On a side-note, why does RPS not upload pictures that we can enlarge to more easily read that itty bitty text?… I’ve wondered this for a while now, always tiny pictures with no option to view properly. Bandwith saving?

    • davethejuggler says:

      May be totally wrong here, but I imagine it’s because the CMS they use is terrible (probably resizes them on upload to fit the “theme”, a more modern one would resize multiple options for different device sizes, including a bigger version for zooming in). Hopefully they’re working on getting a new one now that they’ve got big parents. Along with decent login system and mobile friendliness! It’s a big job shifting all that content over though, so good luck to whoever’s doing that!

  2. TheAngriestHobo says:

    First off, this sounds great. The whole “strategy with a layer of narrative choice and consequence” is vaguely reminiscent of CK2.

    Secondly…

    He lost the arm and he’s no longer capable of contributing to our dying society.

    Does the game actually write off anybody missing a single limb as being unable to meaningfully contribute to the city? Can a one-armed man not cook? Or manage inventory? Or sing? Hell, I knew a one-armed guitarist in real life.

    If they go full-on Black Knight from Monty Python, then fine, write them off, but come on, son. Losing an arm is just a flesh wound.

    • thanosi says:

      At the very least he could play drums for the Def Leppard tribute band on Friday nights

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        CrackedMandible says:

        Holy shit that’s good.

        Outside Def Leppard tributes, this sounds like a game I will admire from afar, but not want to play because it will depress me too much…like Papers Please seems to be. Which is really a compliment. Maybe I’ll buy it to support the developer but let it sit in my growing list of games I’ll get to “someday”

      • Blad the impaler says:

        What has nine arms and sucks?

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      Ghostbird says:

      …or teach, or raise children, or keep records, or tell stories, or be a sympathetic listener, or babysit, or even be the one who spots problems because they’re always looking for things to complain about.

      It’s hardly news that some kinds of work don’t get counted as “contributing to society”, but a game that measures Discontent and Hope ought to take them into account.

      • Kollega says:

        My grandfather lost one of his legs when he was something like 13 years old. He spent his entire adult life teaching mechanics in an engineering college. Which is vital for any technology-dependent society, and a society that has to keep a massive generator running so that it doesn’t freeze to death is as technology-dependent as it’s going to get.

        So, yes. Anecdotal evidence is pretty clear on this one.

      • fco says:

        “…and that’s why you always leave a note”

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      As someone who is disabled and still useful in many ways, I heartily agree with your question. Being disabled is all too often portrayed as being a parasite in society. I hope their game is more nuanced. I’m not a ‘drain on society’ . I contribute.

    • Archonsod says:

      “Does the game actually write off anybody missing a single limb as being unable to meaningfully contribute to the city?”

      I don’t think anything that consists of a significant amount of protein with a taste somewhat reminiscent of bacon could be said to be incapable of meaningfully contributing to the city.

  3. Sin Vega says:

    Getting a definite echo of Hidden Agenda here, except much more bleak and speculative. Like the ice age thing, too.

  4. Hyena Grin says:

    This looks excellent.

    I really appreciate the human component and I hope it’s not just a surface-level thing. Too many building games are socially abstract, and too many survival games take place in a human vacuum.

    Definitely going to keep an eye on this.

  5. poliovaccine says:

    Awwww man. Dont ask me why we survive, games. I come to *you* precisely to *avoid* my unsunny answers to that question!

    Fortunately this game looks like fun. And sometimes fun has to be my answer. That’ll be good enough, then.

  6. Raoul Duke says:

    “the crater-town of Frostpunk”

    Wait, wait, wait, is the town actually called ‘Frostpunk’?

    Also, I trust the only similarity to the utter drivel that was Snowpiercer is that it’s cold. My god, that movie was bad.

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      Captain Narol says:

      That movie was great. Your taste is bad.

      And God has nothing to do with it…

      • durrbluh says:

        I’m not sure how giving Snowpiercer positive reviews actually became an ironic internet meme, but I would appreciate it if you and your kind would move on to the next “hilariously” ironic joke du jour.

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          Captain Narol says:

          I can understand that not everyone enjoyed that movie as it’s quite subversive and different from the standard formated blockbusters, but it’s definitely not a bad movie and it got a quite decent 84/100 rating on Metacritic.

          link to metacritic.com

          Now, there is a lot of people who like the Transformers movies, so bad taste is quite a common thing.

          PS : I don’t give a damn about hilarious memes and never heard there was one about Snowpiercer, I make my own opinions as a cinephile and I’m not here for the lol.

          • Raoul Duke says:

            You are misunderstanding the problem. Well, misunderstanding is too strong a word, you are making enormous and unfounded assumptions about the problem.

            It’s not that it’s “quite subversive and different from the standard formated blockbusters”, which is presumably your “cinephile” assumption about why someone would dislike it. It’s that it’s sophomoric, juvenile and idiotic, yet presents itself like it’s some sort of profound statement about the world. It tries to be ‘subversive and different’ but is more like the cinematic output of a pimply 13 year old who has decided he is the next genius auteur creating what he believes to be history’s most edgy and compelling story. In fact it’s a totally illogical series of non sequiturs and deus ex machinas all cobbled together as some abortive metaphor for society and its ills.

            In my experience people who rant and rave about how brilliant it is tend to unironically think of themselves as deep and different, standing apart from the herd, etc. In my opinion, it’s a movie aimed at people like this who don’t realise how ordinary they are and want to associate with this work of cinematic genius.

          • April March says:

            Yeah, I even liked Snowpiercer, but I wouldn’t call it ‘subversive’. In fact, I daresay I’d make very harsh judgements on the character of anyone who thought it was a good example of ‘subversive’. It is a movie about a dude wot fights other dudes, row row fights the power and wins. It muddles things a bit with an ambiguity as to the happy ending and the whole baby-eating thing but just because you wouldn’t ordinarily see those things in your average Hollywood blockbuster doesn’t mean the film isn’t a very by-the-book hero’s journey.

        • Raoul Duke says:

          I actually think Snowpiercer’s reviews online are strong evidence of active tampering by its studio/distributor to astroturf in its favour. I can see no other plausible explanation.

    • ThornEel says:

      The original Transperceneige graphic novel was pretty good. If you didn’t like the film and can enjoy very, very bleak 70/80’s black and white franco-belgian school Bandes Dessinées, give it a try.

  7. Kollega says:

    How wonderfully optimistic and encouraging. Especially to those of us who are already seen as “undesirables” and “dead weight” by their crappy societies.

    Next time, can we please have some solarpunk on the offer? Please?

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      As a person with a chronic condition myself:

      Just because a given bad thing (i.e. discrimination) exists in reality, does not mean it should be off-limits for fiction. If anything it should be even more ENCOURAGED to be explored in fiction. The worst thing you can possibly do for any given problem is try to mute any dialogue or expression that so much as touches on it – however bleak.

      • Kollega says:

        I think I failed to articulate my point well enough, because I was too annoyingly-sarcastic, but… said point is not “this game shouldn’t be a thing!”, but rather “the opposite sort of game should be a thing too!” By all means, continue making games that touch on real social issues… but making them horribly bleak and dismal isn’t the only option.

        Which is to say, a solarpunk game could also center itself around the subject of discrimination, horrible living and working conditions, and other things that disadvantaged people have to deal with… but have the heroes, some of whom may in fact be disadvantaged and neglected/exploited by society to the point of abject misery, actually fight and prevail over them, and build a better world for everyone. I have to deal with bleakness every day, despite having a good enough living standard. So I’m tired of bleakness. Instead, I want hope.

        • poliovaccine says:

          I mean, there’s totally 4X games like Endless Space 2 or Stellaris, where there are absolutely “win” conditions, but you can achieve them as a xenophilic pacifist. Though they certainly do lack the personal touch.

          Winning a Civ game by non-violent means is almost depressing, though. It’s like peering into the parallel reality which, in an infinitely spatial universe, you just *know* must exist out there somewhere, you can almost feel it out there, wrapped in void like a splinter in your thumb. But like any Xanadu, you cant bring the world into it.

          Maybe better to wallow in our imperfection – cmon in, the mud is warm!

          • Kollega says:

            No can do, Comrade General. I am rather pointedly tired of the “shut up and be thankful for what you have, because things always sucked!” attitude, and I definitely don’t want to wallow in fictional worlds that are even worse. That simply doesn’t constitute “fun” for me. >_>

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          Right, I see what you mean now, sorry for the misunderstanding. And aye, I completely get where you’re coming from, it’d be a nice change of pace.

          Don’t take this the wrong way – I’m not saying it’s wrong to expect devs to make such games, I wish they would too – but have you considered making such a thing yourself, if you can’t find it out there? I wholeheartedly believe most of the best games come from people making what they just want to play, after all.

          • Kollega says:

            Funny you should mention that… because right now, I’m about to start doodling some more concept art for an anti-war, anti-nationalist satire game that I and my friends want to make, and I have something like half a dozen game ideas in total that in some respect center around social responsibility and building a brighter future. It’s just that I’m phenomenally bad at gamedev and generally have a very poor work ethic, so I don’t know when any of my ideas will reach the audiences.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Well, as a schizophrenic drug addict, I know my uniquely specialized skills and knowhow arent entirely useful to the world I live in. But that’s only because our society doesnt have any sort of paid position for shamen.

      Instead I work in IT. You’d be surprised how well it suits me.

      • Kollega says:

        Reminds me of how the Russian IT guys I know refer to their work as “dances with the tambourine”. So I totally get the analogy, if that is what you mean.

  8. Sound says:

    This does look great.

    But I gotta still rag on their use of the -punk suffix. I appreciate the theme of raging against a world that wants you demoralized and then dead. Great stuff. But IMO, calling it -punk denotes that, one way or another, the enemy is ultimately your fellow modern people, of some sort, and that you’re an underdog among them.

    Subbing in the environment, or the simple proles *beneath* you, doesn’t work. That’s not punk.

    Still, I’m excited for the potential in this title and it’s setting, style, and gameplay.

    • Nokturnal says:

      I get the feeling that the ‘punk’ is there more to relate it to steampunk, with this focusing more on frost/ice/snow based machinery rather than steam.

      Having played their last game I do think the ‘enemy’ will be man like you say, but I don’t think it is labelled punk to seem punky in that regard.

      • Sound says:

        I agree, in suspecting that was their queue. But that just means they’re riffing off a mistake.

        Like Steampunk, Frostpunk appears to be more authoritarian-leaning, by virtue of being aligned with managers and/or a privileged class/society in general, and therefore precisely the opposite of -punk, in the original cyberpunk conception. Or hell, even the enemy of punk in general. And if there’s no class dynamic at all – everyone’s struggling equally – then that’s not punk either.

        When your fellow man is the enemy, it’s still not yet punk until that fellow man is THE man, someone with power over you, and you are a sort of champion of the underclass. In that regard, it’d be rather challenging to have a city-sim kind of game that’s any kind of -punk…
        …But boy that’d be an interesting thing to see, if someone attempted it!

        PS: Don’t take me seriously, people, it’s just semantic quibbling because I think it’s fun.

        • April March says:

          Well, the ‘punk suffix in its original meaning from cyberpunk is more dead than the dudes in Frostpunk’s trailer, so I don’t even care much about it. ‘Punk nowadays just means an alternate reality genre based on a combination of technology and social mores that didn’t exist in real life. Even cyberpunk doesn’t meet that definition!

  9. Blackrook says:

    Sorry I got distracted half way though and thought it was a game about BRITEXIT.

    That means you’ll have to be careful not to make promises you can’t one of the generator’s girders, but breaking keep.

    I’m not sure if a possible endgame has the survivors turning against their leader (you) and casting them out into the cold, or stringing them from promises will see hope crumble and discontent rise.

  10. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    I didn’t really have a whole lot of interest in this title until just now. I like the experience that seems to be being presented. The world is doomed, everyone is suffering, and you can only survive by doing unsavory things to your fellow man. Under those conditions, what is the virtue of survival? There is no happy endgame, everyone will die eventually, and probably horribly, so how can you justify your decisions that increase suffering for the sake of living a little longer? Certainly evolution has imparted us with a desire to survive because anything that didn’t have that desire wouldn’t and thus isn’t around anymore, but humans have minds, and minds are capable of predicting the future and knowing that survival is ultimately a futile exercise. This existential dissonance and how we come to terms with it is a part of the human condition too often ignored I think. If the game really communicates that experience to the player well, then I think playing it will be worthwhile.

  11. brecherbernd says:

    I’m a little disappointed in the article. Yes, this sounds interesting, but there is much too little information on how they want to achieve this and how it will be woven into the actual game mechanics.

  12. Meatpopsicle says:

    This article just made my level of interest Sky Rocket, and also reminded me that I have to actually play This War of Mine.

  13. Rainshine says:

    I was previously interested. Now I am anticipating.

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