I love building sims. Games like Cities: Skylines allow me to craft a Utopian intersection of efficient commerce and transportation, and games like Tropico let me indulge in the fantasy of becoming the ultimate despot. Then there's Frostpunk, which blends the bleakest possible alternative history with a scaled-back city builder, all in service of an exploration of humanity, morality and the choices made in the name of survival. Whether deciding to send children to labor in the mines or add distasteful filler to the rations of soup, your choices as a leader will never be simple or sunny.
Beginning with a perfectly believable premise in which an ice age is visited upon the industrialized world, Frostpunk is a city builder that purposely limits its complexity and options in service of a more focused impact. A small band of survivors must form a tent city, then gather enough basic resources to fuel and restart a life-giving furnace in the middle of a vast, frozen landscape, thereby insuring the survival of the species just a little longer. Like the buildings that begin to radiate outward from the center heat source, Frostpunk grows in depth and complexity as the population grows - new resources are collected and new structures are researched. Unlike in some other city builder/strategy games, the tech tree is manageable and the focus is on the population rather than on the structures.
Frostpunk is a masterpiece of balanced systems, a collection of checks and balances that - like the real world - have sometimes unintended consequences. Driving fragile workers to collect life-giving resources improves the short-term outlook for survival but creates a sickly and eventually less productive workforce. Do you research medical facilities to treat the sick or build much needed housing or an upgrade to the central furnace? Do you send children into the labor force or attempt to create a new civilization that values its workers and families - at the cost of productivity? Frostpunk doles out a steady trickle of sometimes immobilizing practical, moral, and technical decisions. There are limits everywhere; on the population, on the hours of the day in which workers can gather and on the type and quantity of resources. This isn't a builder where the end product is a vast collection of neighborhoods or island cities linked by superhighways. Best case scenario, the ultimate success in Frostpunk is crafting a functioning enclave in the frigid wasteland in which fewer people perish than not, discontent simmers but never boils over, and there is a little hope for mankind's survival.
While the landscape of Frostpunk is unrelentingly bleak, it is not without interest or aesthetic beauty. Blizzards and other natural disasters come and go, and the time of day effects are haunting. The steampunk-inspired machinery and the beaten-down populace are filled with a derelict sadness that comes through in the zoomed-in details and in the art style illustrating the campaign. So many city building games rarely feel alive, but Frostpunk is in part memorable due to the stories it tells, stories triggered by the player's decisions that are never simply good or bad. Like its visuals and story, the musical landscape is bleak, lovely and understated.
I suppose that Frostpunk's main flaw is also its central conceit, because not everyone will be attracted to experiencing its icy apocalyptic wasteland or the uncomfortable ethical and moral decisions that the game forces at nearly every moment. Nobility, zealotry, authoritarianism and egalitarianism are hardly the stuff of sunny escapist fantasies. Kudos to 11 Bit Studios for crafting a game that is as addictive as it is dire, dour, and determined to make us regret our choices, no matter how well-intended.