I played so much of the incredibly well-realized Frostpunk that I wrote cheesy first-person fan fiction to my group chat. I went into a kind of Cormac McCarthy fugue-state and wrote flash fiction, apparently? This is new, and weirdly embarrassing. And here it is, because I have no shame.

Day Eleven update: the city swells, but the townsfolk are unaware of our precarious food situation. In a day and a half, a blizzard will arrive, a storm almost certainly sufficient in strength to knock out our remaining gathering posts. Every night the hunters restock the larder, but by morning it’s emptied again in full. Children have been brought in to run the cookhouse; every adult hand is needed for the gathering of coal, of wood, of steel. The research towers lie empty and cold, the engineers needed elsewhere to man the sick houses, and eventually, to bury the dead. I mull over adding sawdust to the rations to make them last just a little longer, but worry about stuffing the hospitals any fuller with the sick. To the east, a windswept road juts out into the haunted, frozen wilderness; at its end, the splintered remains of a storehouse, ripped down to be rebuilt elsewhere. That road leads nowhere now, the cold has taken it. There is no time. The cemetery to the south is, as yet, empty: but tonight we run out of food. No cookhouse staffed by children will save us then, no sawdust-stuffed rations will suffice when the meat is simply gone. When the temperature plummets again tomorrow night, what will we eat? What will we be driven to do to see another cursed sunrise? For now, spirits are high. False hope fills the air. But my people have no idea the imminent death that hovers on the horizon of our crater home, our soon frozen prison. I have kept the truth secret. They cannot eat coal, after all. 

We should not have stopped the train. 

This hole in the earth is deeper than we know, and there will be no climbing out. 

There is no God but the cold. 

11 Bit Studios’ Frostpunk is a post-apocalyptic city-builder, at least on paper. But its mastery of tone and presentation so perfectly communicates the absolute, desperate and overwhelming misery of its subject matter that it’s really more of a Human Misery Simulator. On paper, yes, you’ll build and design a steampunk city. But your city exists (as long as it can) on a knife’s edge, far beyond the blasted, frozen wasteland that was once Northern Europe. You’re told (and shown, through a gorgeous, hand-painted cutscene), how the world came to end. How the eruption of Mount Tambora – which in real-life 1816 cancelled an entire harvest season and led to The Year Without A Summer – instead ended summer permanently, locking (apparently) the entire planet in a snap ice age. You watch as your few survivors, bound from London, rig a tremendous steam engine up to sleds and flee across the sea, for reasons that escape me. Everyone dies but a few, and you take over their leader as you all descend into a crater, and find a generator, and try to kickstart humanity again by building a city-state to survive the ice age.  

You’ll fail immediately. But with any luck at least maybe, like me, you might briefly turn into Cormac McCarthy and start writing Blood Meridian 2.  

At its core, Frostpunk is a game about designing a city and then watching it slowly (or quickly!) die, while making agonizingly difficult policy decisions about how best to survive. Sure you built a little power grid, good. But now your people need food – and suddenly Frostpunk becomes a game of impossible questions. Do you water down the existing food supply to make misery-soup, and extent rations at the expense of morale? Do you perform the necessary evil of the sawdust-additive thing I considered above? Do you put kids to work? And when people get sick from your sawdust soup, do you let them die, or treat them? What about your unqualified surgeons, do you let them practice emergency surgery, and risk producing amputees that can’t work? Would you have these people die instead?  You can click them and see: these are people with names, families, homes. For now. 

This is the extreme shallow-end of the decision-making you’ll be asked to spearhead in Frostpunk. There are no right answers, just shades of survival or death. These terrifying, occasionally amoral decisions – and the frequency with which you’ll be asked to make them – is literally the entire game. It’s where Frostpunk shines. 

The least interesting thing about Frostpunk is building a city. The scariest thing is attempting to build a nation.

It’s no surprise that Frostpunk comes to us from the same developers as the similarly-traumatic This War Of Mine. Polish developer 11 Bit Studios’ games use the familiar form of a management sim to probe much deeper, much more uncomfortable questions about human nature, survival and morality. Calling this a game almost does it a disservice, and fun often feels like an inappropriate word to describe the sensation. It’s not fun, it’s absolutely fascinating, and the extent and quality of their playable (ludonarrative) storytelling is such that the game becomes a kind of short-story generator, churning out a new, crushing tale with every fresh run. Their writing is as sensitive as it is overwhelmingly tragic, and wherever their writing stops, yours will take over: the drafty, empty workshop towers, the pile of frozen bodies when a cemetery would have taken too long to build, the passive surrealism of the cookhouse staffed by orphans. These are all images I made for myself, they’re all a part of my Cormac McCarthy novel that I write just a little bit of, every time I boot the game up. It’s not a game, it’s an art piece. Which also happens to be buried inside a BAFTA-nominated game.  

I love this about Frostpunk, and I think it’s something very special. I’m only a few hours in, but it’s been a while since a game left me wanting to write this much. This world of abominable snow-men might be disturbing, heartbreakingly sad and immensely stressful, but it’s mine. It is my awful little ship to wreck, and I can’t get enough of it. 

It is the perfect November game for this miserable month. After all, aren’t like half of you supposed to be writing novels right now? 

Back to the coal and the cold. ❤

[This has been Recency Bias, A mini-review column in which I write about whatever interesting media is crossing my path at any given moment, and show off whatever I think is special about it. I absorb a lot of stuff, and that means a lot of recency biases!]