Argument: excellent gameplay, engaging city-building with a unique twist and coherent theme, muddled moralizing that clashes with the spreadsheet side of the game. Worth your money if you like the genre.
At first, I didn’t really want to play Frostpunk. Steampunk, as a rule, is stupid. It’s unimaginitive, semi-futuristic babble that attaches a warped fetish to the brutality, inelegance, crudeness, and comical inefficiency of early industry, a necessary evil that we were right to shed as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to preside over the deaths of theoretical humans within such a cruel universe. But I also really wanted to scratch my regular simulation itch that comes on me about once a quarter. I tried that with Anno 2205, which was fun, but ultimately shallow, getting me about 30 solid hours before I got bored. The itch was not sated, so I fired up Frostpunk on a whim.
That first hour or so was heartbreaking. I had to restart my first playthrough several times because the game hands you 30 wood and some tooltips that display only at specified points at inconvenient times. In my first serious playthrough about 20 people died the first night for reasons I don’t exactly remember. They probably had something to do with freezing. I took in bite-sized chunks of Frostpunk for my first few days, both in game and out: an hour here or there, just enough to progress with satisfaction without pitying my humans too much. Heavy food, as it were.
Until I got used to it.
Frostpunk posits you in an alternate-universe 19th century where, against all reason and science, boom, instant volcanic/nuclear winter on earth. It’s up to you to get your initial band of 80-ish meatbags through about 40 days of unending tribulation. The worldbuilding isn’t the best I’ve seen. It’s hard to believe people would retreat north in search of coal instead of, I dunno, south, like intelligent beings. The passing in-game excuse of “rich cold deposits are up north” is absurd. Rich coal deposits are everywhere because trees have been on this earth for hundreds of millions of years. You don’t have to head in the worst possible direction in this scenario to find steamcoal because we’re in steamworld and steam is maaaaaaaaagic. The thought lingered in my head throughout the entire game: “maybe northern England wasn’t the best choice for Great Britain’s last refuge from the White Frost, you morons.”
Yes, that insult is deserved. There are two true enemies in this game: cold and human sentiment. The latter manifests in dueling meters of Discontent and Hope, as if the former has anything to do with the situation they’ve found themselves in. It’s easy to render the Hope meter irrelevant with a healthy sprinkling of honest (the “Order” path) or dishonest (the “Faith” path) fascism, but Discontent never goes away, because the Brits in this game seem convinced this is a debate about local sewage policy and not an existential battle with the merciless elements. They whine with eerie consistency that their homes aren’t warm enough (oh, I’m sorry, Your Majesty, let me turn the sun up for you) and threaten to overthrow you if you don’t give into their ridiculous demands for comfort. The ubiquitous end to the Second French Revolution is shocking: you get executed and the leftover humans die leaderless because, no, their brilliant ideas amount to murderous incompetence, not the liberation of the repressed human spirit.
Fortunately, robots exist.
The major complaint I heard about Frostpunk is that the game’s choices for dealing with the cold are illusory, which I’m afraid bears out in practice–although not in a way that troubled me much in the end, as it fit well with the scenario. The endgame (spoilers I guess) involves you staring down a week-long Storm to End All Storms that paralyzes your food production capacity and threatens to freeze your tiny meatbags in their makeshift homes. The obvious solution to this is to automate everything as much as possible, particularly coal production. There’s really no other way to win the game: the temperature drops with predictable consistency, forcing you into an unwinnable war of attrition for heat, coal, and insulation. Eventually you find yourself at a point where it costs too much time, energy, and resources to keep the meatbags in the coal mines satisfied or hospitalized, so you start prioritizing giant robots that work 24/7 at 80-90% efficiency without complaining. Manage to assemble 5-6 of them and you have a coal production force that is immune to weather conditions and won’t start singing La Marseillaise at you because they forgot the sun stopped working under mysterious circumstances. Metal doesn’t revolt, it just squeaks. I like metal.
Which brings us to the game’s overarching themes. As far as gameplay is concerned, Frostpunk is sleek and succinct. The main elements mesh nicely together to produce a compelling take on keeping a pretend human city together against all scarcity. It’s fun to optimize your city, to minimize human suffering as best you can, maintain a high coal surplus and get those magical food crops growing despite no real sunlight. The music is melancholy at most moments, but knows how to crescendo when the stakes start to ramp up. That last night of the Great Storm is nail-biting, hoping enough humans don’t freeze to death and throw you out just as dawn is starting to break. 20 hours all told, Winter sated, I’m eager to start another playthrough in a new scenario, which adds some more balls to juggle, most of them non-human related, thank God.
The emotions of the game, though, wear out far faster than the automatons that saved my small, ungrateful tribe of meatbags. My honed sense of practical morality kept me from shedding a frozen tear when I had to resort to honest fascism to keep the humans from making incredibly unwise decisions, like panicking. In the end, I got 381 people through about ten days of -120 C with almost a 1000 foot rations to spare and an inexhaustible coal supply. Am I supposed to be sad that I had to send 50 or so people to shore up the mines in the middle of that storm so we didn’t all freeze to death? Or I had to beat up some people who couldn’t stop waxing nostalgic for the past, those halcyon days of democracy, free elections, and average temperatures well above zero. I would think the monkeys had heard the words of Spock the Sage: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. When the temperature rose to a pleasant -20 and the sun poked its head out from behind the clouds, the game presented me with a sanctimonious aerial replay of my city unfolding into the snow like a defiant flower, asking me, the User, poignant questions about my methods: Order Became Despotism, Fear, Imprisonment, Brutality, blah blah blah You survived…BUT WAS IT WORTH IT????
Not only did we survive, we buried the dead with honor and won, our survival more or less assured for the foreseeable future. No, I didn’t feel happy about having to beat discipline into people and pour propaganda into their brains to counteract their endocrine systems. It wouldn’t have been necessary if people would just calm down and think about their circumstances. In the end, they barely did anything: it was the machines that did all the work. Maybe Arnold was right…
Anyway, Frostpunk’s a good game. I recommend it–if you’re a meatbag. If not, you might have better things to do, like a day of reckoning.