If Video Games are to evolve as a medium, it is essential that they not only take strides forward in their presentation but also that they continue to advance the kinds of stories they tell, not just trying to be more cinematic but actively showcasing storytelling that would not work in a non-interactive medium. City Management and Strategy games have long given people the abilities to play out the moral dilemmas of being the man in control but they have rarely felt to be as emotionally involved in showing the full human tragedy of the choices that come with that power. That is, properly, until the recent arrival of Frostpunk
Frostpunk is a game set in an alternate history of the late 1900s as following the 1883 Krakatoan eruption, the Earth’s climate has shifted to a much colder temperature and some of the last remaining settlers who’ve fled London find themselves somewhere that feels like the Arctic, huddled around a towering generator that is all that keeps them from freezing, as long as they can keep mining enough coal to keep it going. Obviously, along the way, there will be some tough decisions to make as you, the city’s de facto Mayor, must choose what industries will thrive in this frozen new world, what will be done with those who die and what to do with the children in regards to putting them to work. Along the way, you will try to balance out those all-important Discontent and Hope meters because if either should go beyond a certain point, there is a strong chance you could have a mutiny on your hands.
What works so well in comparison to other city builders like Sim City or indeed RTS games like the Total War series is it really places an emphasis on the survival of the individual against the success of the many. Gone are the perverse urges to build something merely to destroy it, as every decision – even if it’s just to send people out to work – has consequences and the game likes to make sure you know when you’ve lost someone.
Yet, quite cleverly, in no situation is there one correct and one incorrect decision, merely various shades of success and failure in equal measure. There is still a certain disconnect between you and the people you’re attempting to keep alive as though they have names and families, they don’t have individual faces or personalities, keeping them more as worryingly increasing statistics (though I do still feel choked up about the Woman who ran my research lab seeing her husband and two children be the first three to perish when the cold became too much). It is a surprise this sort of video game packs such a more emotional punch than a visceral one, though, in all circumstances, it retains the need to engage cerebrally as getting too invested in your citizens won’t turn out to be in their best interests.
There may be later achievements and game styles to be found, but for the most part, the game’s major issue is a lack of variation. As much as the moral judgement system and ability to decide what directions the laws passed take, can provide different outcomes, the actual core gameplay doesn’t really change very much. Even with an award-worthy art-style and a fresh setting, it is very much at its core a City Builder game. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but it does feel a little like the actual game is nowhere near as revolutionary as it seems to hope. Equally, some of the interfaces can feel a little unresponsive as its menus are not the sleekest I’ve ever seen. Yet, it’s hard not to be drawn in, with the literally apocalyptic stakes to survival lending the game an additional gravitas.
Don’t go into this if you’re looking for some Command & Conquer-esque escapist fun, this is only escapism in the sense that it will make you value the real world as an escape from the game. It is hard, punishing, brutal but very, very addictive. It makes you work hard, it doesn’t let you get away with your mistake or let you ignore your decisions, it pushes you to try harder and accept that nothing is perfect and as a result, whatever success you do get feels all the sweeter. It’s a superb expression of what video games can be capable of as a medium and I would say an essential play for every PC gamer, just maybe leave it until after the Summer, it’s not really a bright, sunny day experience.
Frostpunk is available for PC now.