I am not sure how long it takes for society to crumble under pressure, but I can tell you that it only took one failed scenario in Frostpunk for me to temper my kind, bleeding heart style of governance. Frostpunk mixes survival with city building and the tough narrative choices that made This War of Mine a great but tense experience. Your small group is replaced by hundreds of souls trying to get warm in what might be the last town on Earth and boy do they moan about it.
People complain. Just hop on Twitter and you can see pages of complaints being rattled off in between the jokes, news and memes. So too do the people trying to survive the coldest winter on Earth. You with your decidedly steampunk technology, have discovered what might be the last generator. This spire burns coal to generate heat and without it, the cold will kill your people. With nothing but a few boxes, steel wreckage and a coal pile you need to put your people to work and get them a place to stay, food and warmth as quickly as possible. I initially started playing the game like I approach most city building games: slowly amassing resources, reading all the descriptions, trying to plan out the best way to build roads and buildings… then the temperature dropped. It rose again for a while a day later but then it dropped again and now my cooking hut is so cold that they can’t cook in there…
Frostpunk leans a lot heavier towards the pressured, efficiency-focused city builder/management style game than I initially realised. You aren’t playing this game for long enough that your children become adults to replace people dying of old age. Instead, you are trying to survive situations that will take a little less than two months so it really is important that you keep people healthy and make sure you don’t waste time. While I enjoy games about eking out as much efficiency as possible and watching balances grow, there are two elements of the game that run rather counter to that efficiency and you either have to live with them or ignore them. Firstly, buildings in Frostpunk are really inefficient. I don’t mean I expect a tiny building in the cold to generate massive amounts of resources, but the housing is the one that gets to me the most. It is freezing cold, with the best weather in the game being around -40 degrees Celcius and you build a bunch of tents for 10 people. Someone then has to sleep outside. Surely you could fit another person into your tent just for the night until more wood has been collected? There is no way to overcrowd a building (except the hospital with an edict) and as you upgrade the tents into permanent structures it seems laughable that a group of tents on one spot houses the same number of people as the large looking home. The second major block in the way of your efficiency is your people.
Despite this being potentially the end of the world and the last warm place on Earth, wow can they complain a lot. People are sleeping outside because there isn’t enough wood, but the lumbermill won’t work overtime without complaining bitterly. Even the coal miners who provide the fuel to keep the only source of heat humming will complain about a long shift though the supplies are close to running out. I understand this is a game about managing people and their needs but sometimes I feel these people don’t behave in a way that makes sense considering the high stakes involved. Also, it isn’t being overworked for months, it is just a day or two. It just runs against the grain a bit much.
Just like This War of Mine, you will need to make some tough choices to survive. Some of these are presented in a narrative as your scouts explore the area around your city, finding resources and survivors. Do you leave the sick and weak to their fate, or escort them back to the city? Do you accept all the refugees? Your edicts also shape your society as you set laws that decide if children will work or spend time in shelters during the day, whether you use military might, propaganda and rewards for snitches or if you go the path of giving people faith to give them a purpose in life. In my first game, I let the children stay in shelters during the day. I accepted all the refugees with open arms and my cooking houses froze over because I had the wrong technologies and building placement and slowly I watched people die of exposure to cold and starvation.
Unable to meet their final ultimatum they cast me out and I think exile was a quicker death than what waited for my first city as a massive storm arrived and froze the water in the pipes.
Every death causes people to lose hope in me, but if I had chosen to turn people away, they would have lost hope too. Unable to meet their final ultimatum they cast me out and I think exile was a quicker death than what waited for my first city as a massive storm arrived and froze the water in the pipes, with it too cold to go outside. I was numb. I tried a different scenario, learnt a lot about building and what is good for what and tried again, this time being harder on people and saying no to the sick while keeping my infirmary tents toasty warm for as long as possible. When you finally win, the game says “We tried our best” and it tells you about the choices you made, with a fair heaping of judgement on your head for letting people live without houses (something I didn’t do except for when upgrading houses but it seems to have counted) or refusing to let sick people in. The city survived, the game says, but at what cost and the first time it did this it felt like a punch to the gut, but afterwards it feels rather preachy, a sing-song lesson about not saving everyone, despite the odds and everything not being in your favour at all until you play a few times and learn how to game the scenario and until they add more scenarios (there are currently three with another on the way) or different modes (I would love something more sandboxy).
Having to go outside
Being in a crater out of the brunt of the cold winds sounds good, but there are two resources you can’t make inside your safe depression: people and cores. Steam cores are a handy resource that you don’t have the technology to make more of. These are the same technology as your massive generator in the middle of the area and can be used to power automatons or more complex buildings like mines. Many upgrades are tied to them too so you need a healthy number of them to beat a scenario. You will also need more hands to get all the work done and because you are here for maybe two months, there are no new people being added to your workforce unless you find them clinging onto life somewhere in the frozen reaches. To get them back safely means they need to be escorted by your scouts, using precious hours they could be using to find other resources, but having hands arrive means all your buildings can run efficiently, if you can house and feed everyone of course (along with the added drain of coal when heating new areas and jobs).
Frostpunk is a marvel, an achievement worth praising. It creates an atmosphere so believable that you feel the cold as you play the game, the winds howling and creaking ice transporting you to a terrible place, a Mad Max of cold. You are faced with tough choices, not enough resources and hands to do all the work and time presses down on you as you navigate treacherous moral and ethical quandaries. Do you let people die merely because they are children, or are currently sick? Do you dismantle machines for immediate gain or leave them to be used again later? Will you turn the heat off and let some people get ill so that your coal reserves make it through the night? At what point do you stop seeing names and faces and just see numbers and possibly roles? I remember saying to a friend that unlike This War of Mine you don’t have a connection to the individuals, so their plight and complaints feel flat in comparison. In reality, it was me that had allowed portraits and names to fade away, never paying too much attention to people as more than a number and function. This made it much easier to make tough decisions, but it also bothers me that it only took a few hours of gameplay for me to stop worrying as much, to just see the mission, the objective, and nothing else and that says something pretty scary and shows that 11 bit studios knows what it is doing.