Frostpunk: innovating the ultimate boss battle

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By JJ Robinson

Frostpunk on Microsoft Windows, published by 11 Bit Studios, 2018

Spoiler alert: This post discusses the finale of the first scenario in Frostpunk, the icy Victoriana survival city-sim for PC just released by 11 Bit Studios. Go in unprepared. No, Really.

Did I want to send a small child into the generator to clear the blockage, the game asked, or would I risk dooming the remaining 249 inhabitants to an icy demise in minus 180 degree temperatures?

The pressure gauge on the generator was flashing red. I’d pushed the building-sized coal-fired heater into overdrive, and it was belching steam as it hovered on the brink of exploding. Those killed in the initial blast were sure to be the lucky ones.

I’d already sent troupes of citizens, 45 at time, to their deaths in the frigid coal mines to shore up timbers cracking under frost. Coal meant heat. Heat meant survival. What was one more little life?

Frostpunk is a fantastically compelling mashup of the survival and city-sim genres. It was released by 11 Bit Studios, the Polish outfit responsible for This War Is Mine. Bleak but addictive, this put you in the shoes of a small group of civilians struggling to survive the siege of Sarajevo.

Your combat-inept protagonists battled sickness, starvation, alcoholism and depression just as dangerous as the soldiers and bandits that are out to get them. The player finds themselves in a situation that is perhaps just as desperate the in-game civilians struggling to live outside the door of your hastily-boarded up hovel.

Frostpunk is a game about the cost of big decisions, particularly on ‘little’ people – a tips thread for the game on reddit included recommendations for anti-depressants. It confronts players with confounding moral quandaries and demands: “Do you really deserve to win?”

Cold is the villain, coal its antagonist (“Just like living in Canada,” remarked one Letsplay reviewer).

Faced with sudden, catastrophic and worsening climate change, denizens of Victoria-era London escape the doomed city and flee to coal-fields in the north. Generators are erected in craters, survivors huddling around them in tents at night and venturing into frosty mines around the edge of the area during the day. Enforcing 24 hour working shifts or sending in their children might keep you alive another day, only to face the twin status bars of despair and discontent.

Order and faith

The game offers a choice of two paths to help you sideline the suffering of your citizenry: order and faith. The first starts out relatively benign: town meetings, a neighbourhood watch. Before long, your critics are imprisoned and burly men are tasked with ensuring your proletariat mine more ‘efficiently’.

As for faith – what harm a prayer against the cold? Warm meals for workers? A small shrine to inspire harder endeavour? A faith-militant to flagellate the idle? Perhaps a little overzealous. No matter – use the bodies as fertiliser in the hothouse, and keep that meals-on-wheels program running another day.

Frostpunk doesn’t force moral corruption, it lures it it with tiny steps. Choices sit in the tech-tree like a white van promising candy. The pinnacles sit tantalisingly at the top: a cult or a fascist dictatorship, both promising to free you from the vagaries of the status bar marked ‘hope’.

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But you can resist the temptation, if you are good enough. Or perhaps that is what the player is supposed to believe.

“I got this,” you think, as your city begins to approximate civilisation, the thermal overlay glowing brighter as you boost, upgrade, insulate. Then your weather balloon reports a storm on the horizon, a menacing icy wall of sleet marching across the map, cutting off outposts and engulfing scouting parties. “I got this,” you think, as the quest log politely suggests you stockpile some food.

You’re wrong.

“Best laid plans”

The storm hits, along with the soundtrack. Just listen to it. And prepare for the one of the most intense ‘boss’ battles in gaming.

The temperature plunges every minute. “How cold can it possibly get?!” I wonder, as it hits minus 160, 17, 180. I flounder to meet one disaster after another.

Dozens of workers sacrificed to keep the mines open, the rest forced to work 24 hour shifts as the generator flamed away on its highest setting. Riots in the street. Infirmaries and medical tents filled to bursting, bodies piling up outside, frostbite freezing limbs faster than the hacksaws can slice them off. The number of adult workers dwindling – send in the children. The frozen bodies do little good on the farms, which have frozen solid. Food runs low.

The faith-militant begin refusing orders, joining the starving protesters. Hope plunges, discontent spikes. Defeat is imminent. The final button on the faith tree glows red. Am I sure, asks the game. “No,” I think. The generator threatens to explode. The child is sent in, doesn’t return.

“Yes,” I click, proclaiming myself a God to the survivors – an all-seeing, omnipotent deity who will look down upon them and click them to salvation. A sacrifice is made to appease the discontented, chained before the altar of the generator and steamed alive. ‘Hope’ turns to ‘Devotion’, the bar turning as black as the coal I just ran out of.

The generator clicks off. The thermal overlay of the city fades to purple. Those left alive refuse to leave their homes to work, huddling with their families. The storm continues, the temperature plunges further.

Suddenly, it is over. The storm lifts. Sun.

You have won, the game tells me.

“But did you deserve to?”

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