Living in the UK, moaning about the weather makes up about 30% of my day-to-day conversations, and no doubt an even higher proportion of my small talk with strangers. It was in fact the topic of both the very first conversation I had this morning and the last one I had before sitting down to write this (and no, before you smart-arses ask, those were not the same conversation).
The point is, the weather makes up a distressingly large chunk of my lived experience. But equally, living in the UK, I’ve had basically no experience of real weather. Y’know, sub-zero conditions, sweltering heat, raging storms. Just like that myth that the Inuit have 100 words for snow (they don’t), the Brits have 100 ways of moaning about ostensibly identical temperate conditions. Sometimes it’s a bit ‘close’. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be ‘muggy’. If the temperature drops by a few degrees it could be ‘brisk’. Or, even worse, a bit ‘nippy’. These are all, to the outside observer, exactly the bloody same, but the mood of the nation shifts seismically in response to these atmospheric wobbles.
That’s perhaps why I took so naturally to Frostpunk, a city-building sim in which your citizens’ greatest concerns aren’t cleanliness or public transport provisions, but simply the weather forecast. I mean, admittedly, it’s on a slightly different scale to what I’m used to – a warm day in Frostpunk is a toasty -30°C (-22°F for you yanks) – but the principles are the same. Besides, in a canny move, Polish dev 11 bit studios (still best known for the crushing This War of Mine) even made the city up out of evacuees from Victorian London. Moaning about the weather is ingrained into their very being, so what difference should a few fewer degrees make?
And the weather is absolutely central to Frostpunk. We often like to talk up dynamic weather systems in games like Breath of the Wild, but games whose core systems are meteorological are few and far between. (A cursory Google search reveals nothing much beyond some geography edutainment titles, and I’m really drawing a blank on anything else).
“It’s kind of hard to overstate just how well Frostpunk nails its depiction of the cold.”
The climate isn’t just another stat to track or resource to make the most of in Frostpunk. It’s the chief antagonist of the game, the oppressive force you must resist and survive as the story progresses. It’s hopefully not much of a spoiler to reveal that the cold amps up as Frostpunk nears its climax, ultimately plunging into frigid depths that would seem unsurvivable from the perspective of the game’s opening. When the drop to -60°C prompts panic early on, surviving temperatures well beyond -100°C is pretty much inconceivable.
It’s kind of hard to overstate just how well Frostpunk nails its depiction of the cold. Every temperature drop is accompanied by the crackling sound of ice spreading across the screen, the whistling wind amplifying into a screech. The snow moves from light flurries into thick blizzards, and you begin to appreciate the pockets of bare earth around your heaters, as they melt down the blankets covering the rest of the settlement – until they can’t even manage that. Between the growing snowfall and the plumes of smoke billowing out of the heaters you keep building in a desperate attempt to keep up, the game’s visuals perfectly match the rising tension. By the time the frozen shit hit the fan, Frostpunk was pumping out more particle effects than my poor little laptop could keep up with, turning the final stretch into a perverse battle against both virtual cold and processor heat.
11bit describes Frostpunk as a cross between a city sim and a survival game, but in my mind there’s another influence lurking in the background here: horror. Not only in the sense of the game’s impressive commitment to the grizzlier side of this sub-zero post-apocalypse, but also in the cold itself, which by the final moments has morphed from a blunt force of nature into something approaching a movie monster.
Frostpunk teases the arrival of the real cold long before it gets to you, and it’s this anticipation which is killer, triggering a frenzied attempt to prepare – preparations that you know, even as you make them, will never truly be enough. Then the cold arrives, an onslaught of frost and fury, and the game morphs from a marathon into a sprint, tactics going almost entirely out of the window as you just crank up everything you can and hope you’ll somehow survive the night. This is a horror experience in the vein of Alien: Isolation or Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, an interminable battle against an implacable threat, where you can’t kill the monster or stop the baddie, and the closest thing to victory is mere survival.
It’s a sense amplified by the game’s thin plot, slowly teased out over the course of gradual expeditions out into the wilderness. As your explorers slowly make their way further and further afield they encounter fellow survivors, rival settlements, and hints at the modern ice age’s origins. Some of these groups seem to pose threats, with at least one mad tyrant out in the frozen wastelands, but there’s a purity of focus to Frostpunk that means it never gives into the temptation to merely pit you against your fellow man. Outsiders may threaten your expeditions, but the danger always passes. You only have one real enemy here, and it doesn’t discriminate. Winter came a long time ago, and everyone’s just as fucked as each other.
“The climate isn’t just another stat to track or resource to make the most of in Frostpunk. It’s the chief antagonist of the game.”
If you played This War of Mine, you might come at Frostpunk excited to explore the game’s lawmaking systems, which see you shift the direction of your society in an effort to keep it going. Perhaps you’ll force children to work down the mines, build propaganda centres to spread word of your benevolent rule, or foster religious fervour to keep your citizens in check. It offers occasional moral dilemmas, but the divergent paths don’t prove so different in the end, and the whole system is ultimately a bit too indebted to that old adage about living long enough to become the villain. You either establish a dictatorship, or watch your fledgling city freeze and collapse long before the endgame.
Either way, it’s hardly where Frostpunk’s true strengths lie. As a morality tale, it’s heavy-handed and clunky. As a city sim it’s simplistic, if innovative. As a horror game, it’s utterly unique.