Frostpunk, the latest offering from 11 bit Studios (known for This War of Mine and the Anomaly series), is a colony simulation game with a twist. You’re not just building a city, say the developers. Instead, you’re forming a culture.
11 bit goes so far as to call its newest product the world’s first “society survival game,” and that may be laying it on a bit thick. In truth, it’s an amazingly well-realized, thematic narrative experience bolted on top of a skillfully crafted city simulation. But while I’m excited to see where the storyline takes me, I’m simply not sure that I have the stomach for it.
Based in Warsaw, Poland, 11 bit has a penchant for morally ambiguous games. The studio’s previous title, This War of Mine, put players in the shoes of civilians trapped inside a war zone. They went so far as to research the siege of Sarajevo and hire on consultants with experience fighting protracted conflicts in Iraq. That game was critically acclaimed, but it also made you feel sort of nauseated while playing it.
Frostpunk is just as dark as This War of Mine, but it manages to produce that same queasy feeling on an industrial scale.
Set near London, England at the time of the industrial revolution, 11 bit’s take on historical fantasy is equal parts classical steampunk and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The Earth’s temperatures have plummeted for some reason and a small band of survivors is holed up in a sunken crevasse with nothing but a ramshackle heating element that’s four storeys tall.
Like many colony simulation games, much of the early game is spent foraging for resources like wood, steel and coal. Frostpunk introduces the concept of a formalized work day, with time spent toiling in the fields and time spent resting at home. Your little citizens will trudge through piles of glittering snow, carving new paths as you send them on their way to work. Then, at night, they’ll spend time making improvements to their shelters.
Eventually, the game mechanics veer hard into totalitarianism. There’s simply no other way forward but to rule by fiat.
Each individual citizen has a name and a portrait. They have familial connections as well. There is even a small population of children running around. In that way, the game resembles 2014’s Banished, a medieval colony simulation that was known for creating emergent narratives all on its own.
But where players in Banished have to hunt for those little narrative vignettes, digging down through layers of menus to read names and determine relations, Frostpunk pushes them to the fore with choose-your-own-adventure style decision points.
At one point I lacked enough workers to both feed and heat the population of my small city. When the first of them began to die, I denied them the right to be bury their kin. To increase their labor output, I made them dump the dead in a freezing pit on the edge of town where the cold preserved them until the bodies could be put to some purpose later on. Several days after, I found a woman kneeling in the snow clutching the frozen hand of her dead husband whose body she was forced to pass each day on the way to work at the sawmill. She pleaded with me to allow me to bury him, but to do so would have made the my other citizens spiteful. For the good of the city I forced her suffering to go on indefinitely.
In pitching Frostpunk, 11 bit said that by playing the game you will learn something about yourself. That’s because the kinds of decisions it throws at you are never easy, and rarely are they fun.
On the flip side, the game’s systems are both robust and elastic. Because there’s some downtime each day, and because different tasks must be accomplished at different times, there is a flexibility in the workforce that’s uncommon in similar games. By quickly shifting workers from foraging or working in the mills to food production or mining coal you can quickly avert disaster and keep your small group going for just one more day.
Where the game truly begins to open up is with the exploration system. There’s an overworld all around you, filled with mysteries to uncover and other souls to save. If Frostpunk has a bright spot, it’s to be found here in the game’s frozen wasteland outside of the last city.
You just need to be able to push through the horrors of being a tyrant, and of leading a group of people in an endless quest for survival — day after day after day — in order to get there.
Frostpunk is available now for Windows PC via Steam.