The Industrial Apocalypse of 'Frostpunk' Is More Truth Than Fiction

The developer behind 'This War of Mine' tells another haunting story of survival and desperation.

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Apr 23 2018, 9:43pm

Watch a video version of this review above.

As long as the furnace was lit, there was hope.

On its front page, the local paper started tracking how many days were left before the furnace at the massive LTV steel mill in Northwest Indiana finally went cold and silent. It was a kind of civic vigil for the mill—and all the people that depended on it. LTV was history—the writing had been on that particular wall for over a year—but the plant still had value as long as fires still burned in the heart of its titanic blast furnace. There was still time for someone to come along and keep the mill open, keep the paychecks coming, and hold the future at bay just a little longer.

The day the fire went out it was front page news. Beneath the headline, the Times ran a long telephoto lens shot of the caretaker crews leaving through the rusted chain link gates, the incomprehensibly convoluted, titanic shape of the rust-brown furnace complex standing silent and still behind them. It felt like a death.

Which I suppose is why Frostpunk—the new post-apocalyptic city builder from 11 bit studios, the team behind This War of Mine--reminds me so much of home. It’s a survival-focused city-builder in which the last remnants of Industrial Age Britain huddle for warmth and safety around a single massive coal-fired generator in the far north, while the rest of the world perishes in a sudden and unrelenting Ice Age. As long the city keeps the generator powered, their homes provide shelter, their kitchens provide food, and their hospitals provide care. If that generator falters, however, then everyone perishes amidst the ruins that used to be a community’s civic infrastructure. Within the game it’s a metaphor for a lot different things, but I come from a place where it was profoundly literal.

The generator sits at the heart of Frostpunk’s small, frigid maps and gives them their novel layouts and character. Everything is laid-out in concentric rings around that generator: Buildings inside the generator’s radius of effect are kept considerably warmer than the outdoor temperature, but those beyond it are at the mercy of the weather and their own insulation.

You can see the effects most drastically in the map’s thermal overlay, where the generator and its surroundings burn merrily in reds and yellows, while buildings on the edge of the settlement appear in colder aquamarines and deep blues. But the effects are almost as dramatic in the normal view thanks to 11 bit Studios’ gorgeous and detailed artwork: snow melts to slush and mud in the streets around the generator, and homes and buildings glow with warm light from their windows, while in colder areas you’ll watch work crews struggle through dense snow drifts, and buildings become encrusted in frost. It’s a game that captures the subtle differences between a harmless, heavy snow and a terrifying, lethal blizzard, and makes its struggle for warmth and survival feel almost palpable as you play it.

The goal in Frostpunk is to survive each of its scenarios for a fixed number of in-game days (the main campaign scenario ends after 60), and as the days go on the weather keeps getting colder. At the start, most of the map is only “chilly” and the generator keeps buildings nearest it “comfortable”. But as the temperature plunges deeper below freezing, you’ll need to run the generator hotter to keep the temperatures livable for your citizens, which means you need three other things: New technology upgrades, raw materials, and a healthy workforce. And here is where the Frostpunk begins to get brutal.

You only have so many people to start with, and it’s not long before you have more jobs than you do sets of hands to do them. As the weather worsens, your citizens are increasingly likely to get sick and even die, which means gaps start opening in your workforce. But your need for ever greater resources to meet the rising energy demands of the cold weather means that you need your people to get more productive as the game goes on. Adding to the pressure, you can adopt brute-force solutions like 14 hour workdays or 24-hour emergency shifts, but those both take a toll on health and morale within the city. Inevitably, you start facing choices between working people too hard, or underpowering the generator, or to start running your city at a coal deficit that will eventually cause that generator to shut down. If you don’t balance these bad options effectively, you’ll enter death spirals of cold, illness, declining production, and facility shutdowns.

If I have a criticism of Frostpunk as a strategy game, it’s that each of these scenarios tend to unfold in very predictable fashions, which makes it far easier to avoid these traps after your inaugural playthrough. If you’ve seen an event once, you’ve seen how it will play out in every subsequent game. Once you’ve seen the endgame of each of the game’s three scenarios, you pretty much know the exact bar you’ll have to clear in order to win. That hasn’t stopped me from trying to do better as I try to navigate these crises, but it has meant that the game feels much less suspenseful and much more manageable than I think suits its end-times tone.

But if you don’t stay ahead of your problems, or if your solutions end up causing new problems, it’s just a matter for time before your people banish you from the city for your mismanagement. Because as you institute austerity measures or wring more labor from your workers, discontent rises. And as things go wrong and people start dying from exposure or passing out from overwork, their hope declines. Let the “Discontent” bar get too full, or let the “hope” bar get too empty, and you’ll quickly find yourself with just 48 hours to turn things around before it’s game over and your people banish you from the city to die in the snow. As your little avatar struggles through the blizzard, you’ll see your townsfolk express grudging satisfaction that you’re gone, and now they can start putting things right without you.

There are two systems that exist on top of this city manager that help you escape these traps and pressures, one that expresses Frostpunk’s fiction and one that expresses its politics. On the fictional side, you can send scouting teams out into the world to search areas of interest where you’ll often be rewarded with some extra resources and a snippet of text that sheds light on both the disaster that’s befallen the world and how that world differs from our own. It’s generally well done and supported by some terrific artwork, but it’s also where Frostpunk reveals a deeply generic steampunk backstory.

As an aesthetic, steampunk is often defined by a collection of affectations and stylistic tics that bound-up with nostalgia for Victorian and Edwardian Britain. We get a taste of that in the intro to Frostpunk: zeppelins circle the London skyline, giant steam locomotives churn forward across endless snowfields. More of it pops up in the game itself: giant automatons lumber between factories and the generator, capable of replacing entire work crews with ceaseless, weatherproof productivity. Your scouts uncover relics of the lost British Empire: beached dreadnoughts abandoned in the ice pack, scientific outposts with grim notes and warnings from the royal explorers who saw this disaster coming. When you come across what’s left of some American expeditions, Frostpunk completes its steampunk bingo card with some references to Nikola Tesla.

But I don’t think Frostpunk falls into the trap of being an ode to the British Empire and its exploitative social order. After all, most of the government’s plans clearly ended in disaster, and at least two of Frostpunk’s campaigns heavily imply that the ruling class intended their generator as a salvation for themselves, and not for any of the workers they meant to abandon to the cold. Rather, I think what Frostpunk is nostalgic for is industry and labor in an age of mechanical and analog technology. A time when you could touch and observe the workings of the devices that made the world run, and they still left a place for you to contribute with the strength and skill of your own hands. A time when the factory meant life, security, and a future for everyone.

The second of Frostpunk’s meta-layers is where it paints its picture of the politics within this ad-hoc company town. Every 24 hours you get to pass a new law that starts to change the character of your little community, as well as how people feel about living there. For instance, if you’re desperate for additional labor early in the game, you can repeal child-labor restrictions and put kids to work in “safe” workplaces, which will give you some extra hands to expand resource production at the cost of upsetting everybody. On the other hand, you can also choose a “child shelters” option that lets you build insulated daycares, which will give your citizens greater hope for the future.

Those choices all happen on the “adaptation” policy tree. But In the main story campaign, you also choose between two other “law” tracks: Order or Faith. As their names imply, both offer different ways of handling both discontent and creating hope for the future. Order presupposes that what your community really wants (and needs) are cops and staff meetings, while Faith means churches.

If that dichotomy makes you skin start to crawl, I think it’s meant to. Each tree provides some very useful bonuses at the start. For instance, the Order track starts out with morning meetings of the full workforce, where the shift supervisors will outline the day’s plan and how things stand with the city as a whole. It gives people reassurance that their efforts aren’t being wasted, and they go to work happier. Likewise, you start out building local neighborhood watches that protect homes and depots from theft, and people feel a bit safer and happier knowing that their neighbors are working together to safeguard ration and coal stores.

But as you proceed down that track, things get questionable and then outright fascist. You can unlock the option to build a prison, which isn’t inherently a bad idea (my prison was empty for most of the game) but the prison has an ability that lets you round-up malcontents and toss them in lockup for a cooling-off period. But why stop there? As long as they are in prison, you can unlock a law that lets you perform some reeducation on them. For that matter, you can establish a propaganda center that will provide a bonus to hope… at the cost of raising overall discontent. Before you know it, your mouse is hovering over the “loyalty oaths” law and your settlement has basically turned into a labor camp.

However, you don’t have to pass these laws and the end of the game seems to suggest maybe you shouldn’t. The game’s tagline is “The city must survive” but in the end the crisis may pass, at which point you and your people will be left with the ramifications of how you survived. You can either fuel the generator or make human sacrifices to it, and perhaps the best thing I can say about Frostpunk is that it seems to know the difference.

Not everyone does. When the blast furnace at the LTV mill slowly shut down in the early 2000s, it felt like people in the region would have sacrificed just about anything to bring it back to life. But what was too quickly forgotten was that those jobs weren’t really anybody’s dream back in the postwar decades when that work was hard but plentiful. For all the talk about bringing those jobs back to the region, it wasn’t really the jobs people missed. It was the safety net they provided, the place you could go to start building toward whatever future you wanted: a decent retirement and a pension, or a move into gray-collar management or the trades, or maybe—like it was for my father—a place where you could have enough money to raise a family and go to school so that you wouldn’t spend all your nights feeding the coke ovens, only to head home in the early hours covered in a film of oily soot that never quite washed-off.

But it was the blast furnace that our newspaper’s camera lingered on, gazing past the out-of-focus workers in the foreground, as if just by keeping the furnace lit we could have preserved the comfort and security we had so long taken for granted. It’s hard to capture in a headline—and impossible to capture in a single photo—that the jobs that furnace supplied required decades of work and effort to transform into livelihoods. The furnace was just a source of heat and power for steelmaking. Workers are the ones who turned it into the heart of a community.