'Frostpunk' Treats People With Disabilities As Complex Humans, Not Gimmicks
Rather than erasing or dehumanizing people with disabilities, 'Frostpunk' puts some of their experience at center stage.
screenshots and radiograph by author
On Day 41, in the middle of a snowstorm that drops the temperature below -110°C, the mines on the outskirts of New London almost collapse from the cold. Thirty volunteers offer to descend into the lower levels and replace the hydraulic roof supports that keep the tunnels open. Without coal powering the titanic generator at the heart of the colony, every citizen would freeze to death in hours. I send in the volunteers. All thirty die.
I pull up a list of New London's citizens, looking for a specific name, but I don't find him, either because he's dead, or because refugees recently grew the list to an indecipherable six hundred. I check the amputees list—nothing, maybe because of his prosthetic limb?
After the funeral ceremonies—enacted by law on Day 17—I click on the cemetery to view the deceased. There he is: Gideon Fleet. No family. Thirty-seven.
I was nineteen when I enlisted in the Air Force and shattered my tibia and fibula into shards. My NCO, guessing I had a sprain, ordered me to walk to the nearest clinic, two miles off. Although I wouldn't show him pain, my troubled gait irritated him—maybe he saw it as a performance?—and while I limped across the asphalt, trying not to fall over, I heard his voice screaming for me to hurry up, still screaming until I was all the way out of his view. The radiographs looked like spilled Doritos.
From his name to his age, Frostpunk randomly generated every aspect of Gideon Fleet, the same as any other citizen in my colony of hundreds. Most people in Frostpunk remain abstractions, just frail cogs in a machine dedicated to keeping an entire community alive through the apocalyptic onset of an ice age.
The first time I met Gideon, the hair on my arms stood up. A story event popped onto my screen with artwork, some text, and a simple choice: Gideon needed an amputation due to frostbite, but instead, he wanted to die. I could tell the doctor to perform the surgery, or let gangrene take his limb and life. Already, this reminded me too much of other post-apocalyptic fiction, where people with disabilities are burdens to be killed, no possible future but suicide or abandonment.
I decided to trust the writers. That story could be insulting, or it could explore the social model of disability, which identifies how society's structure causes impairment. After all, I created this moment when I enacted invasive surgeries through the Book of Laws on Day 6, and Frostpunk is a world that defines citizens by their labor, much like ours.
Stories about impairment hit on my life’s lowest, rawest moments. The failed surgeries, the denied benefits. The fistfight with the fellow Airman that abruptly stopped when he stomped my leg, still swollen from surgery—whatever sound I made, it made him freeze, lower his fists, and ask if I was OK. I take in disability narratives with a guarded emotional detachment. Too many disappointments, too much dehumanizing bullshit.
After my choice, Gideon Fleet chose, too, to live. In a follow-up event, he thanked me and described the meaning he’d found after a period of mourning. I was grateful his story would continue, and pleasantly surprised with the narrative design. I enacted the Prosthetics law on Day 13 and built a factory to produce them. Gideon returned to work in a newly opened coal mine, the one that would be at risk of collapse not a month later.
Though it’s in bad condition, I still have the limb all those bones broke inside. I get around with mobility aids, mostly canes, instead of prostheses. When I spoke with Harrison Barton, a fellow narrative designer, he vented some frustrations about stories where prostheses are perfect limb replacements. "If you don't remind people that these are tools that have limitations, not just the person, they don't notice,” he said. We talked about stories and characters we like (Furiosa!), and those we don’t. We talked about the future.
Gideon Fleet wasn’t the only amputee in New London, and among the sick, he shared company with hundreds. The gravely ill in Frostpunk are among the first to protest, and the fiercest. Dozens upon dozens take to the wooden roads outside the generator. They demand medical posts, infirmaries, warm and staffed, or they’ll find a new leader.
When the GOP attempted to gut the Americans with Disabilities Act through H.R.620, activists with disabilities threw their bodies on the floor of their representative's offices. It was only months after the attempt to cut Medicaid benefits and protections for pre-existing conditions. My own senator in Arkansas helped draft the ACHA; his town hall in Springdale was met with all the rage and energy of a banishment.
What my senator doesn’t understand about our anger, Frostpunk understands through its mechanics. Discontent can be balanced through two core methods: the hard, slow work of building public institutions that support the marginalized, or through lies and fascistic oppression. The anger of protestors can only be calmed with infirmaries or prisons.
There's other ways Frostpunk would have let me build New London, other visions. In another session, the gravely ill rested in chilly carehouses while great steam automatons mined coal for their furnaces. No dangerous surgeries, no prostheses. Even in a world so cold a person can freeze to death while standing next to an enormous generator, Frostpunk still leaves support structures for people with disabilities on the table.
At the Game Developers Conference, a game I wrote for received an award nomination, and I was excited to work at the booth. The convention set up the game kiosks in a neat row, like a bar, with a single chair for players, and no chance of accomodating a developer who can't stand. I had to back out, embarrassed. Still, I got off lucky. Cherry Thompson, accessibility advocate, described how few of the booths were wheelchair accessible.
When I spoke with Cherry, we tried to think of good disability representation in games, but the subject turned to film and TV. They expressed frustration with quick cures, where the character’s impairment gets reversed. “Whether that's exosuits or medicine, it always seems to be the goal of writers,” they told me. Even in settings where such technology exists, it’s disappointing when games are in such a hurry to leave the topic behind.
Talking to other folks about disability representation, it starts to feel like there’s not enough data points to draw conclusions from. Every criticism gets followed by, well, I’m glad it exists, at least. “I would much rather creators keep trying and getting it wrong than not try at all,” Cherry told me. When there's barely enough examples to discuss, the first step becomes visibility. It hurts that discussion, too, when the table can’t accommodate us.
I watched the funeral of Gideon Fleet and his coworkers with Frostpunk’s camera zoomed in on the cemetery, down from the God-like, bird’s-eye view of the city builder camera. The citizens of New London walked past the tombstones holding bright lamps, into the ramshackle mausoleum. Gideon had repaired the mines and saved the settlement. Hope surged, a scarcity during the crisis of the snowstorm, saving me, too, from the cold.
Our lives are beautiful contradictions, worthy of inclusion in spaces, in stories, in societies. Creators don’t even have to get it right, because they can’t. Disability is too complex for a checklist, and empathy by itself isn’t enough, not without listening and a wild imagination, not without inclusion and accommodation. Let the camera linger, not cut away.
Listen to Waypoint's Rob Zacny and Austin Walker discuss Frostpunk, labor, and family right here
I wish Frostpunk went even further. I want a scenario where the explicit goal is to build a frozen utopia of automated physical labor and palliative care. I want story events where civilians reject prosthetic limbs, where they break and malfunction, where their experiences with illness and disability are as disparate as our own. I want complexities.
Even better, I want more games than Frostpunk to do this, so all the burden isn’t placed on one work that someone else with my same experiences might feel totally different about. Many games are ripe for analysis from a perspective of disability, but few engage with it.
On Day 43, after the death and funeral of Gideon Fleet, hero of New London, the snowstorm reaches its apex. The hothouses freeze over, inoperable. The sawmill workers refuse to leave their homes for fear of frostbite. Still, the citizens keep the infirmaries staffed at a liveable temperature, burning internal heaters and reinforcing the walls with insulation, knowing any one of them might be admitted there at any time.