Beyond being a great game, Frostpunk is a 4x game that reflects this particular moment in history. Millennials, raised in the aftermath of the “end of history” post-USSR-collapse, were taught that if we followed the rules, stayed in school, and said no to drugs, we had a bright future ahead of us. We did all that, and instead we got a devastating recession, a jobless recovery, and massive student debt. When we asked for help, we were accused of moral failure and blamed for participation trophies that we didn’t choose to receive.
The denizens of Frostpunk, British citizens at the height of their Empire’s power in the 19th century, are an apt metaphor for the anxieties of the millennial generation. Much was promised and much was expected, but all of it is being burned to ash in a giant coal generator. The early 21st century turned out to be the end of many things, but not the end of history.
In the 4x simulation games of yesteryear, you play the leader of one civilization of many in a landscape of plenty. You build on your choices, expanding and growing in power, prestige and status. In Frostpunk, you play a Captain (not a general, not an admiral) leading an expedition of survivors escaping from the frozen ruins of 19th century London. Your civilization, once at the height of its power, has been brought low by a rapidly cooling planet. You’re not a bold leader running a global society. You’re a dictator running refugee camp in an ice crater, subject to the meterology of a new Ice Age.
Time in Frostpunk is measured in hours, not years. Every day you work as hard as you can to gather enough coal to stay alive for another night. Much like an overworked millennial, you burn all the fruits of your labor in exchange for the privilege of not dying. I know so many young people struggling with student debt and insoluble medical issues who can’t look further ahead than their next rent cycle. Savings are a vain hope and investments, a distant dream.
As gamers, we are used to spending game time to purchase more power and skill. Frostpunk challenges this formula by throwing increasingly intense challenges at you, even as you build up your city. Have you gathered a ton of coal? A -60 Celsius cold snap will take that away from you. Have you managed to keep your people fed? Now they need better shelter, because the meager tents you built aren’t enough to keep out the cold.
In other 4x games, you choose from the best of several options. You have many roads to victory, and the game encourages you to specialize. In Frostpunk, no path is optional. Your society must develop in every direction at once. You can’t forsake cultural development, because new laws allow you to squeeze every last drop of labor out of your citizens, manage their corpses, and maintain order. Technology is your lifeblood, and without vital upgrades to your generator, buildings, and resource extraction, you’ll never survive the worst of the cold. And you have to exploit every last available resource or freeze to death. And it all needs to happen at the same time.
This is the gig economy on a macro scale. It’s not enough to work eight hours per day – you need to get in your car and work Lyft for another four hours if you want to handle your debt. Do you want a semblance of self-actualization via hobbies and interests? You have to squeeze that in somewhere alongside your twelve hour workday. Friends? Family? Romantic relationships? Lots of luck. Any accidents or crises will destroy whatever precarious balance you’ve been able to maintain. Hard work might just barely keep a roof over your head, but don’t expect more than that.
Frostpunk is also a stark warning about our changing climate. This is a game set in the past, but it’s also a vision of the globally-warmed future. It is a brutal reminder that our society is predicated upon a non-hostile biosphere. In Frostpunk, when a cold snap drags on for the third night in a row, you’re tempted to think that the earth is trying to kill you, but it’s much less personal than that. Rather, it’s wholly indifferent to your existence. This is the sort of cthulhoid horror that H.P. Lovecraft stayed up nights worrying about. Our dependence upon fossil fuels has all but guaranteed similar horrors for us, but on the opposite end of the thermometer. Indeed, we may’ve already seen some of them.
All the things that make our civilization civilized – rule of law, equality, freedom of speech, caloric abundance – are predicated upon having enough: enough water, enough food, enough cooperation, enough shelter, enough warmth. Scarcity forces us to question who we are, what we value, and what we’re willing to sacrifice upon the altar of survival. If you have any understanding of climate change, it’s impossible not to worry about what the future holds.
In games like Hearts of Iron IV, you can’t really be voted out or usurped. Even if you manage to transform Nazi Germany into a liberal democracy, you, the player, remain in control. In Civilization, you really have to screw up to lose your empire to your people’s discontent. The consent of the governed is more or less guaranteed. In Frostpunk, you have to carefully balance people’s priceless hope against your dwindling resources. You are not an enlightened, deathless despot. You’re always fifteen minutes from a societal collapse, citizen revolt, or panic attack. This feels like a reflection of American anxiety and precarity that has persisted since the Great Recession, and has deeply impacted young people.
The only people who have it worse than you are the citizens of your city, out of control of their lives and subject to the whims of a dictator. If Frostpunk’s Captain is an indebted, college-educated millennial, the citizens of the city are the working class for whom attending college was never even a possibility. They work every day and then come home to build more structures. The city survives on their labor and they live or die at the Captain’s mercy. At least in Frostpunk, coal mining is a growth industry.
So why play this game, if it’s so depressing? Because, by and large, it still manages to make you feel empowered. While I may not be able to conjure up affordable real estate in my actual life, I can slam down a bunkhouse for my people to stop them from dying of frostbite. Taming my own fears might be hard, but I can chase away frightened dissidents disrupting coal production.
Maybe my time in this job market has made me cold and cruel, but I’m excellent at becoming the propagandistic supreme leader required to keep order at the frozen end of the world. Frostpunk is definitely an experience worth cramming in somewhere between your three jobs, a reminder that this too is survivable.