At its core, Frostpunk a city-building game, complete with managing resources and exploring terrain. But creators 11 Bit Studios, who made 2014’s This War of Mine, also force players to make moral decisions that can have society-wide consequences as they struggle to survive.
Heat is life in Frostpunk, which is slated for release on PC sometime this year. In a 19th century world devastated by a new ice age, you lead a small band of survivors, building up a city and mining resources to fuel your steampower technology. If you run out of coal or don’t build enough shelters, your people begin to fall ill and will die.
“We took the idea [in This War of Mine] that survival is a matter of two people and moved it to a bigger scale. Here, you take care of a group of people by surviving under one idea,” said Karol Zajaczkowski, senior marketing manager at 11 Bit Studios, in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s not only about being in one place — it’s about following the same rules and believing in the same things.”
But in addition to resource management and the kind of technology trees you might expect from a city-building game like Sid Meier’s Civilization, Frostpunk features “law trees.” Players use the Book of Laws to make decisions, such as to legalize child labor. Another choice has you picking between sparing the resources to dig cemeteries … or forcing your people to bury their dead in a mass grave. All your decisions affect your community’s morale, which a hope and despair meter displays at the bottom of the screen.
You must consider the short-term and long-term costs and benefits of your decisions. You can force your people to work around the clock to mine more resources. However, if they get sick, then you’ll lose workers while still having to feed them. Occasionally, people will approach you and ask you to promise them things like more shelter or food. If you agree but don’t deliver — possibly because you simply don’t have the resources — then mistrust breeds within the community, draining the hope meter and increasing the chances of mutiny.
“So on the one hand, you have to take care of building the city because that would generate houses, that would generate food. But on the other hand, you also decide how you should build a society,” Zajaczkowski said. “There will be a lot of choices on your road, and the choices you make will shape how people behave.”
At the start, your whole world is a small glacial crater. As you build up your city around the central steampower generator, you can eventually create scouts. This opens up the map to you, revealing small pockets of civilization that are also struggling to survive the frozen tundra.
11 Bit’s previous game, This War of Mine, garnered critical acclaim for its grim, intensely personal take on what it’s like to be civilians trapped in a war zone. Zajaczkowski said that Frostpunk isn’t meant to be as visceral as This War of Mine; it’s zoomed out to encompass a whole community versus two people. However, there’s still a personal element to the gameplay, particularly when you’re faced with the consequences of your decisions.
“[The] people here aren’t like mindless machines. They have their own lives, they have their own names,” said Zajaczkowski. “They want to work to survive.”
In a steampunk ice age, the only thing that can be crueler than the bitter cold are the decisions you have to make to keep your people alive. But make too many tough calls, and the people may just turn on you.