Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky never wrote a dystopian sci-fi novel together, but if they had, it might've looked like Frostpunk. 11 Bit Studios’ post-apocalyptic city-builder wears 19th-century social politics on its sleeve, putting the player in the position of Dickens’ exploitative industrial-era authorities, amid Dostoevsky’s icy landscapes and philosophies. You will face difficult decisions in Frostpunk's icy wasteland, and you'll almost certainly hate yourself after making them.
Following in the snowy footsteps of the studio's previous game, wartime survival sim This War of Mine, Frostpunk's scenario and mechanics constantly keep players on the back foot. In its Victorian-era world all but destroyed by a new ice age (for reasons unknown even to the game's characters), players control and care for a group of English refugees, establishing a city in the newly-formed tundra. But though New London is moderately sheltered, conditions are bleak. That's where you come in. How will you build your city, keep everyone alive, and avoid succumbing to despair?
Spoilers: you probably won't. At least, you won't do all three.
Cold is, at least initially, your worst enemy in Frostpunk, as its ice-encrusted UI suggests. Citizens start huddled around a generator, seeking to mitigate the -20°C weather. As the temperature drops to -40° and below, that generator becomes the heart of the new city - and of Frostpunk’s gameplay. Your city builds out radially, with heating a top priority to prevent citizens from growing ill or freezing. You’ll build accommodation, cookhouses, workshops, and medical posts (in my case, lots of medical posts) - plus more advanced buildings later on - but everything needs heat to function well. A thermal visual overlay helps keep track of how warm (or cold) everyone is, and if the weather shifts, you can always crank the generator into overdrive. But put the generator under too much stress, and it'll blow. Game over.
Game-overs are more likely to eventuate, however, from two meters at the bottom of the screen: Hope and Discontent. Your city's social structure is just as important as its physical structures, shaped primarily through the laws you enact. Sometimes you’ll be forced to make sweeping calls - will you demand obedience to the church or the state? - but most laws are more specific. This being pre-workers’-rights Victorian era, child labour and extended working hours are very much on the table - and they’re only the beginning. Frostpunk slowly, surely, brilliantly backs you into a corner where suddenly, you realise all of your laws add up to authoritarianism. It’s easy to see how overbearing governments emerge from harsh conditions - you might feel like an asshole sending children to work in coal mines, but it’s all hands on deck at the end of the world.
Your decisions in this regard - plus which buildings you construct, population density and employment rates, and the overall health of your city - will impact those crucial Hope and Discontent meters. No hope left? Game over. Too much discontent? Game over. Maintaining Hope and mitigating Discontent is the core of Frostpunk - everything else feeds into them.
Unlike a lot of city-builders, Frostpunk comes with a story attached. I’m not just talking about “emergent story” either, although that's present and correct. There’s a quest line that nudges you in various directions, and multiple campaigns that unlock as you progress through the game. You might send scouts out into the wilderness, discovering other settlements, recruiting more survivors, and learning about the ongoing apocalypse, for example; or face a growing revolution at home. As you develop new technology, you’ll construct more advanced buildings, and eventually steampunky contraptions and automatons, providing you have the resources to support them. At every turn, you’ll be faced with hard decisions, many with no truly positive outcome. Try keeping morale up when a distant city, viewed as a beacon of hope for your people, proves to be derelict. It’s tough.
One area in which Frostpunk surprisingly disappoints is in its citizenry. The game’s gorgeous 3D graphics allow you to zoom in and watch individual citizens going about their business, and you can click on people to see their names, family members, and work status. But unlike This War of Mine, which all but dared you to get attached to its randomly-generated characters, Frostpunk mostly paints citizens as statistics. You’ll fast lose interest in them as individuals, and start to see them as numbers to be managed.
But maybe that’s the point. This War Of Mine had you managing a single house, not a city. The numbers are just higher here, and it’s unfeasible to make everyone a fully-fledged character. But it’s also in keeping with Frostpunk’s intention: making you aware of how inhuman your decision-making gets when your principal goal is harsh, unvarnished survival. The game effectively places players in a post-apocalyptic trolley problem on a regular basis. Is it worth saving more people, further straining your limited resources, or should you focus on your existing population? Either way, people are going to die on your watch. Sure as shit did on mine.
Like This War of Mine, Frostpunk is a game about suffering. Your city constantly teeters on a precipice of destruction, death, or despair, and it’s a captivating struggle maintaining any semblance of hope. You’ll work people until they sicken and die; in the most brutal cases, you might even pull Thanos-esque moves, letting some people die so the rest can live. Some decisions will come from binary choices presented to you; others, via the basic game mechanics - but every decision has an impact. Frostpunk’s icy world may be starkly beautiful, but its gameplay exposes a lot of philosophical and political ugliness. That ugliness might be post-apocalyptic in this context, but look closer, and it becomes all too familiar.