If city-building sims are the epitome of relaxed, rewarding gameplay, then Frostpunk is the polar opposite. While it shares the same hallmarks of the genre — such as using resources to design a functional, self-sustaining town — everything else about the game is brutal, unforgiving and nerve-racking. And yet, as badly as it often makes me feel, I could not stop playing it over and over again.
Other games in the genre might start you off with blank plot of verdant land and a pile of cash to build the city of your dreams. Frostpunk, on the other hand, thrusts you into the center of an apocalyptic snowstorm with nothing more than a space heater and a few lumps of coal. From there, you have to scrape for resources like coal, wood and metal to keep your growing community of survivors alive.
It’s a constant struggle to manage dwindling supplies, the ever-increasing cold and downward-spiraling hope. Moments of calm, where resources seem to be in good supply and everyone is fed and calm, are few and far between. Every respite I gained, I earned through bearing the burden of keeping the city functional. Yet this relief from the arduous task of maintaining stability can be thrilling, even if it’s fleeting. My fellow survivors get to awake to a new day because I fought to make that happen. Creating order in unraveling chaos is oddly calming, kind of like tidying up my entire apartment when it’s a mess.
Frostpunk’s virtual stakes feel far more important than simply just building a dream city like I would in other titles because I’m not mastering socioeconomics; I’m mastering survival. I’m not building a perfect town for a league of faceless citizens — I’m trying to take care of lost, hungry and vulnerable survivors. Every time I bring a glimmer of hope to the rest of my group, I feel more hopeful too. We’re in the same boat after all. I just have to be brave and hold my head up high in the face of futility. I can’t show that I struggling. Someone has to be the strong one. And in Frostpunk, it’s me.
I haven’t poured so much time into Frostpunk because I want to fantasize about building a perfect world. I want to see if I have what it takes to make a dark world better. I want to know if I can muster the strength to confront the worst situations and challenge myself to rise above them. That’s the real lesson I gained: Being a good leader in Frostpunk makes me feel like I can make it through the darkness in my real life, or at least with more courage than I could before. If I can weather Frostpunk’s storms, what else can I accomplish?