According to all major Sci-Fi tenets, there is only a couple of ways how humanity could end its long and eventful journey. The first one is very optimistic and states that we’ll somehow manage not to destroy ourselves – instead, we’ll realize our destiny and soar to the stars as mighty homo-sapiens conquistadors of planets and stellar systems. Unfortunately, the other two are more probable and also considerably bleaker. We’ll either blow ourselves up in some conflict over this or that piece of land or we’ll be condemned to slowly regress and diminish both technologically and as a species, waiting for the bitter and humiliating end.
It seems that Frostpunk mostly favors the latter scenario, recounting the story of a community which is desperately trying to fight the ruthless elements and survive. Just that, not to prosper, not to expand their territory or political influence, but merely to make ends meet. In the world of Frostpunk, mankind will go not with an atomic bang, but with a whimper, clutched in the grip of the eternal ice.
Developed by Polish developer 11 bit studios (you might remember them by their successful survival title This War of Mine), Frostpunk represents a compelling mixture of city-building, survival, and society simulation game. Although this is doubtlessly a boldly envisioned game with an intriguing steampunk post-apocalyptic premise, its main strength is that it always remains firmly within the realm of possibility. Set in the alternate 1800s, its particular doomsday scenario starts with a major climate change. As subzero temperatures conquer the planet and once proud cities fall one by one before the snow and raging blizzards, a wretched group of people travels north in desperate search of salvation. After a long journey and countless sacrifices, they find it in the form of a remote crater in the middle of nowhere with some sort of abandoned steam generator. This generator will become their only means of survival – around it, they will build the last city on Earth and you’ll be their chosen leader.
At the first glance, the scope of Frostpunk will be somewhat limited: you’ll be stuck in your small crater, surrounded by snow, ice, and bitter cold. All that admittedly sounds restrictive, with limited possibilities for exploration and events, but it’s actually more than enough to provide you with genuine drama. As the restlessness of your people slowly rises towards open dissatisfaction and escalates into full-fledged rebellion, you’ll realize that this poor godforsaken crater is not only your home, but also the small-scale version of the dying world you escaped from. This is the world where lack of coal might cost you the life of your citizens, and the inadequate shelter turns to tragedy resulting in casualties and decimation of your population. Here, there are no trivial decisions, no insignificant actions – virtually your every choice has far-reaching consequences for your community.
In the center, almost like some ancient run-down medieval keep, stands your steam generator, the most important structure in the world, because it provides you with the heat necessary for the survival of your small community. Around it, clinging to it for warmth and shelter, you’ll build other structures. Unlike some other, more casual simulations or strategies, where you’ll have more liberties regarding the building sequence, there are things that you simply must do here if you want to ensure the optimal conditions for the survival of your community. Now, since you have limited space at your disposal, you’ll most likely opt for the radial arrangement of the buildings. Except for the logical reasons of the spatial planning that are imposed by the restrictions of the terrain and the shape of your base, this is absolutely the best way to use that last square meter of precious space – buildings come in the form of 2 to 4 fields wide, so any irregularity in your planning may cost you in the long run.
The thing with Frostpunk is that you’ll never have much time nor opportunities for casual experimenting because your every decision will directly influence the quality of life of your community. For instance, what will you build first, utilitarian industrial facilities such as Gathering Posts, or some sort of shelter for your people? And, when you get to build shelters, you’ll be forced to decide whether you’ll provide for all your people, or just some of them, thus cutting back on precious building materials. Or, since you’ll immediately be faced with the lack of manpower, one of your first major dilemmas will be whether you’ll employ the children as workforce or if you’ll train them to be apprentices (for medical and engineering professions). All those important legislative decisions can be made via the Book of Laws.
Two meters placed right at the bottom of the game screen – one for hope, other for discontent – like the weighing platforms of some existential scales that will help you to track and balance the happiness and discontent of your people. Every measure that you take, every law and structure you build will be reflected on one of these two indicators.
As the leader of your community of survivors, you’ll be forced to make some tough decisions. They might prove to be the right ones in the long run, but until that happens, your community might react unfavorably. You’ll frequently get suggestions on how you should proceed, but as a wise leader, you occasionally must choose to disregard them. As is often the case, people sometimes just aren’t aware of what’s really good for them, so you’ll constantly be tempted to enforce some desperate measure or other, which will make you stray into the dictatorship by popular opinion. On the other hand, if you’re too lenient towards them and respect their every wish and whim, that can be extremely counterproductive. Remember, your ultimate goal isn’t to fill their stomachs and make them happy for a few moments – your role is to give them a fighting chance for survival.
The popular measures will result in the rise of the happiness, the unpopular ones will increase the discontent of the community. If the discontent bar reaches critical levels you’ll get the list of wished-for solutions, such as providing various municipal buildings for the community. Of course, as always, you can still persist in playing the role of the headstrong leader, and you can escape the disaster by enforcing your own set of actions, just as long as you manage to sufficiently appease your people (which basically means that your goal will be to modify discontent scale for about 15%, which will take it out of the critical zone). Failure will result in your banishment and certain extinction of your small community.
Although these aren’t qualities that are so commonly associated with games of this type, Frostpunk possesses great aesthetical and narrative value. Graphics perfectly conjure the feeling of extreme cold, desolation, and severity of your situation, while vignettes that accompany numerous in-game events possess a dreary quality of the best (and most depressive) Victorian realist painters. Those various events, not only considerably enrich the overall value of the gameplay, but also add a very touching and personal note to the game and force you to sympathize with the plights of your people.
And all the time, through all the difficulties and small triumphs of your community, one deeply unsettling thought breaks through. What will happen that fateful day when perhaps some new cold wave strikes, when the coal runs out, when other resources are depleted, and when fires die out one by one? There is no denying that Frostpunk and its setting are extremely hopeless, all the more because of the ultra-realistic design and gameplay, everything seems so painfully plausible; you’ll almost be able to feel the cutting wind or the anguish of the people. On the other hand, it is a testimonial to the resilience of the human race and its unwavering will for survival. Thanks to those two factors and your skilled leadership, this small community at the end of the world has the chance to make it through the winter.