As a fan of any game with a temperature gauge, I’ve been excited about Frostpunk since the first snowy videos appeared. After playing a recent demo of the game’s opening hours, Frostpunk seems like it’s shaping up to be an interesting mix of city-building and survival.
Frostpunk is currently in development by 11 Bit Studios, developers of This War of Mine. Similar to that game, Frostpunk asks players to try to maintain their moral compass in the face of necessity. It takes place in an alternate 1886, when ice storms have rendered most of the world uninhabitable. You oversee a small group of people trying to build a city around a heat-giving generator in the middle of a frozen crater.
Resource-gathering is your first task: assigning workers to bring in coal to run the generator, gathering wood and steel to build homes and other structures, and sending hunting parties out in search of food. You build the city out in rings, upgrading buildings and researching technology that can let you mine below ground, cut down trees, and build a beacon to scout for more resources and survivors.
Things never quite go well. In the demo, I found myself flush with coal but short on food, only to get a handle on the food situation just in time to run out of the wood I needed to build more medical posts for all the people who got sick from starving. By the time I’d gathered enough wood to build the necessary number of medical posts, I didn’t have enough specialized workers to staff them, because they’d died from being sick. At times I found jumping from task to task overwhelming, but the ability to pause or speed up the game kept me from falling behind.
In addition to building your city, you also have to maintain Frostpunk’s “hope” and “discontent” meters. The population’s mood rises and falls in response to the conditions you provide for them. If things get too bad, they gather in the center of town to make demands, insisting you build enough housing in two days or feed them by any means necessary. Their mood is also affected by rules you pass from The Book of Laws, which lets you set policies that have benefits and drawbacks. These rules branch out from a gorgeously-illustrated menu, and they represent some of Frostpunk’s hardest choices.
At one point, my population was clamoring for better food. I could have passed a law allowing us to eat our dead, but instead I decided to pass a law allowing children to work in “safe” jobs. I assigned the city’s children to the cookhouse, where rations are turned into meals. When my hunting parties finally returned with rations, I passed an emergency 24-hour work shift to get meals cooked up. The populace was understandably upset about the all-night child labor, and even more so when a child got hurt, but I stayed the course to get food in their bellies.
Frostpunk doesn’t rub your nose in the morality of your decisions, and the city-building aspect of the game makes it easy to see your people as just numbers. It’s not as immediate as watching one of your This War of Mine survivors starve before your eyes, but when I found myself cursing aloud about the injured child because it meant they couldn’t work anymore but would still need to be fed, I was chilled by the gravity of what I’d done.
Even when your laws have positive effects, they still reinforce the harsh reality of Frostpunk’s world. In an effort to bolster hope after the child labor fiasco, I passed laws allowing the settlement to have a fighting arena and a public house. I built a little neighborhood around a steam hub, a miniature generator, for people to get drunk and punch each other. Hope rose greatly, and I liked the idea of my city having a grim little nightlife district. Of course, both of these required staff to maintain, but it least it made people happy.
Frostpunk conveys a lot of character in its wooden streets, flapping tents, and rumbling generator. Characters have names and biographies you can call up, and they’ll comment on conditions or their tasks. Though there were only two character portraits in the demo and I regularly saw repeated lines, the city still felt like a collection of individual people trying to make a life for themselves. My favorite character is the town crier, who announces the beginning and end of the work day, and new laws, while ringing a bell. It’s very Victorian, and combined with the rest of the rich sound design makes the city feel solid. The animations are subtle but excellent; characters trudge through the snow, warm their hands around the generator, and group up in an angry mob when they have problems they want you to solve.
Frostpunk’s demo only consisted of the first 10 days of the game, so I didn’t get to go too far into the tech tree or explore the wasteland as much as I would have liked. But the tiny taste definitely made me excited for the full release.