Play Games, Save the Planet: Frostpunk

HOPE. DISCONTENT.  Now we’ve got your attention, welcome to the second entry in our world-famous series, Play Games, Save the Planet! This is where we rave about great games that support good causes, depict the climate fight in interesting ways, or have a fantastic message. Last time, we talked about Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, a delightful, warm hug of a game! This time we’re looking at Frostpunk, which is more like receiving a hug so someone can stab you in the back with an icicle. Uh, great?

You’re the leader of a group of settlers in a dismal, frost-flavored future where the world is a barren, icy wasteland. You know those terrible ice levels in platform games where the floor gets stupidly slippery and all the fun you were having slides away? It’s like civilization is living in one of those. Yippee!

Looks a little overwhelming? Get uuuuuused to it!

It’s a city-building game where you don’t have enough materials to build a city. Instead, you have to quickly instruct your hungry, freezing survivors to gather the worryingly finite amount of nearby resources, build shelters, ways of cooking and gathering food, and a medical outpost for when everyone inevitably catches a cold. Oh, or frostbite. Why did I pick this game to play again? Did I decide living through a global pandemic was too uplifting?

Cheer up, everyone. The game’s got polar bears in it! Er, don’t read the text.

Oh, yeah! Because the bleakness is exactly why it’s worth playing. After a few hours of Frostpunk, I paused to take a walk outside on a pleasant sunny day, breathing a sigh of relief that I don’t live in a chilly hellscape. I’d quite like to keep doing that! I do not thrive in a chilly hellscape! Because remember at the start of this paragraph, when we were both young and optimistic, and I told you that I ‘paused’ the game? Well, that wasn’t quite true.

I was actually banished:

Believe it or not, I’ve had worse exit interviews.

Frostpunk is either very tough or I am very stupid. For now, let’s assume the former. This is a game about desperately gathering resources, carefully managing the ones you have, and getting your workers to fetch you more and keep the whole settlement running without mutinying against you. Within two in-game days, Frostpunk was tantalising a very nasty part of me with an offer to let me sign a law that would make my people work 24 hour shifts. Not even a could-you-stay-an-extra-hour-and-I’ll-get-the-donuts-tomorrow middle ground, Frostpunk?

This blog post is full of what we’ll charitably call ‘jokes’. Frostpunk hates jokes. This is a dour, serious game, from the soundtrack that sounds like a violin bursting into tears, to the endless whining of your populace (yes yes, I’m sure burying your friends is pretty tiring when you’re starving to death because of my incompetence, but come on – we all have problems). That’s particularly galling since the two main bars you have to watch throughout are these:

 We’ll give you three guesses about which one is easier to fill.

Hope? Hope? How am I supposed to do that in a game that doesn’t even have a ‘recommend Alba’ button? Apparently one of the ways you can raise hope is by building a Propaganda Centre. Yeah, it’s fair to say that the makers of Frostpunk think about as highly of humanity as I do of the Koch brothers.

So the game’s about as welcoming as someone beating you with an exit sign. But it is undeniably compelling. 11 Bit Studios get our weeping respect for committing to an incredibly grim vision of the future and sticking to it 100%. You can build propaganda in-game, but there’s no room to blast climate change denial here. This game makes it clear that living in a videogame’s ice level will be horrible.

Am I implying that the ice level in Mario Bros 3 is pro-Climate Change propaganda because the music’s quite jaunty and Mario is wearing an adorable outfit? According to Climate Replay’s lawyers – no. No I am not.

Most video games try to be fun, for obvious reasons. But some of the biggest sleeper hits in this medium have shown that games are surprisingly good at exploring the darker side of humanity. Silent Hill 2 isn’t ‘fun’, but is a horrifying and fascinating exploration of guilt and grief. Dark Souls’ combat is entertaining, true, but that’s just a thin layer of joy wrapped around a world trapped in an endless cycle of pain and despair. It’s the sort of thing I imagine the makers of Frostpunk play when they fancy a laugh.

We should be proud of games that commit to a grim vision and entice players to immerse themselves in it. Frostpunk isn’t explicitly a ‘climate change game’ (the cause of the world’s cold snap is more sci-fi based) but the parallels with climate change are obvious. The game’s exploration of what’ll happen if we let the world fall into such a state of icy ruin, and how cutthroat humanity could become, makes for a fantastic, galvanizing experience. One that should make anyone who just shrugs and accepts climate change as inevitable (and therefore not worth trying to stop) realise that’s truly not an option.

We said this series would cover games that had a ‘fantastic message’. This might be a slightly darker interpretation of the word ‘fantastic’ than you were expecting, but Frostpunk’s dire warning of the struggle to survive in a colder tomorrow is still a message well worth heeding. Just try not to shoot the depressing messenger, eh? Although we are running out of food and shelter…

You have to burn a lot of coal to keep that generator running. Usually Climate Replay would tut at that, but given the extreme circumstances the poor citizens of Frostpunk are in, we’ll tut extra quietly 🙂

It might not be the game I turn to when I fancy an uplifting evening of gaming, but I’m glad I get to play things like this, instead of some patronizing platformer funded by the oil industry. Something like ‘Frostfun’ (which, thankfully, I’ve just made up) where you play an irresponsible snowman who happily bounces around HappyHappyIceLandHooray, encouraging children to use fossil fuels to help all the elves learn to smile again. Wait, why am I not pitching this? I could be so rich…

We have qualified artists at Climate Replay. Any idea why none of them are speaking to me?

Frostpunk is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Xbox Game Pass for PC and Xbox. Give it a try this weekend and see why a future where we don’t stop using fossil fuels will basically be a LIVING HELL. Happy Friday everyone! 😀