After putting it off for a very long time, I finally booted up Frostpunk via the Game Pass. What I experienced is one the slickest, most engaging city-builder games that I never want to play again.
One of the reasons I put off Frostpunk for so long was because it was made by the same devs as This War of Mine. Which is a great game, but doesn’t actually make you feel particularly good while playing it. That is kinda the point, from a highbrow, tweed jacket game designer angle. “Here, experience what’s it’s like trying to be a civilian caught up in one of those wars you like to simulate. Have fun!” Aside from that, I also had an issue with the game having a lot of Blind Choices.
So, I had some dread going into Frostpunk.
The premise of Frostpunk is that there is some global cataclysm in an alternate timeline Earth that makes the world freeze over. You are charged with keeping your citizens alive next to a coal-powered Generator as you face increasing environmental threats from the outside, and social unrest from the inside. While there is an Endless mode, the base game really revolves around Scenarios, which have defined escalation points (within a range) and endings.
Like I said before, the game is incredibly slick. You see your citizens march around in the cold, making paths through the snow. Instead of a grid, the game is based on concentric circles around your circular Generator. Laying down roads is a requirement for buildings, but the roads helpfully follow curves by default. Even better, buildings allow new roads to be built beside them, so you never end up in position where you have to destroy a building to make a new road. Everything about placing buildings and such just feels great.
What is not so great is seemingly infinite gulf between utter disaster and zero worries.
Your citizens need food and shelter, and you need Wood, Steel, Coal, and Steam Cores in order to give it to them. No matter the Scenario, the overall world gets progressively colder as time goes by, so you are on the clock. In the beginning, you need to start collecting Wood and Steel from wreckage on the map, and start building tents for your people to sleep in. After about a week, you may be in good shape: you have a Coal Thumper producing infinite Coal (at considerable labor costs), maybe you have a Scoting party able to start exploring the wastes, you have enough food for the time being, and maybe a few buildings that allow you to get Steel and Wood.
Then things go to shit. Maybe refugees arrive. That’s technically good, because now you have a bigger labor pool. But you need to pump out a lot more tents to house them, and they are unlikely to be within the normal heat zone of the Generator. So you research expanding the heat zone, but turning that feature on consumes twice as much Coal as before. Oh, and the weather dropped down two levels, so all your original people are freezing their asses off, which makes them sick, which means they are out of the labor pool and piling up in Medical Centers. Less labor means less people getting food or gather Coal/Steel/Wood, which means you have less resources to build more insulated houses. Meanwhile, your Scouts are accumulating resources, but you have to make decisions on whether to keep going or return back to the city to hand over said resources and otherwise delay finding more/better resources later.
Now, challenging the player is Game Design 101. Starting the player off in an uncomfortable state and having them work towards feeling comfortable as a result of their own good choices is the Ideal. But what I have learned in my time with Frostpunk is that the inflection point is nearly a vertical cliff. Not in the sense of difficulty per se, but rather in how there is no gradient between struggle and success – one moment you are fighting for your life every day, and the next you have effectively solved the game. And each time it comes as somewhat of a surprise. “Oh… my Coal Mine shut down because I too much Coal. Let me just build more Resource Depots to hold more.” Then the Scenario is over and you’re done.
In this sense, Frostpunk is not a survival city-building game at all – it’s a puzzle game. Do A, then B, then C, then win. It is just a matter of figuring out what A, B, and C are. If you play Frostpunk like a steampunk Sim City, or an RTS without units, you will have a bad time. It is way too easy to get infinite resources, which is “balanced” by the fact that the game only lasts X amount of days for each Scenario. Which is fine, I guess. But why dress it up in such a slick package, including having five tiers in the tech tree, as if any of that matters?
Despite all of that, I nevertheless played through three of the four Scenarios in the base game and briefly contemplated the DLC. It’s fun-ish for the time I spent playing, and I absolutely ended up playing for like four hours straight in one of those “one more turn” Civilization traps. If you end up really liking the formula, there are higher difficulties and even “no death” runs for the ultimate masochism.
If nothing else though, the bar for city-building games have definitely been raised from a UI/feel perspective.
It is amazing how many games you can work through when you aren’t playing an MMO. For example, I cleared through Metro: Last Light, StarCraft 2, Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper, Wolfenstein: the New Order, and am currently plowing through This War of Mine. All in the last two weeks. Granted, many of those all had completion times below ten hours, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising, but nevermind.
While I am not entirely done with This War of Mine yet, I did want to talk about it a bit. Specifically, about how the game has one of my least favorite “features”: blind choices. Or maybe “blind choices” is not entirely the correct term, but rather (unintentional?) obfuscation.
I first complained about blind choices nearly four year ago:
Perhaps I am simply too far down the metagame hole at this point, but how can anyone consider a choice with unknown consequences as meaningful? I mean, fine, all decisions and choices we make technically have unforeseen consequences. But these game designers are literally giving you nonsense to choose between on top of said unforeseen consequences. I don’t consider the choice between door #1 and door #2 to be meaningful at all – I may as well flip a coin or roll a die for as much thinking as it requires.
The game I was referring to at the time was the original Witcher, when the game asked me which quest reward I wanted to choose. While the game didn’t hide the the rewards themselves, the relative utility of each choice was very much in question. A book about vampires, your own hut, or the Wreath of immortelles? I chose the latter because italics, and it allowed me to easily bypass a long, involved quest.
Despite having chose the one with the most overall utility, I did not feel particularly clever because the choice itself had no real meaning. Do we praise the stopped clock for being right twice a day? Avoiding a designer trap only highlights the fact that the designers included a designer trap in their game in the first place, which automatically lowers my view of the overall design. It’s a cheap gimmick – one that is overcome only with knowledge that a player obtains after the choice is made. “Giving players the choice to fail” really just means the designers were unable to give players two or more good (or bad) options to choose between.
This concept get a bit murky when it comes to the roguelike genre though. Many roguelikes specifically include things like colored potions that have randomized effects on each playthrough. Sometimes you can minimize the mayhem such potions can cause, by being at full health and in a safe place before sampling the rainbow of colors you have collected. Such testing technically involves risk assessment and valuing the odds, which are pretty high-brow player skills. I was fine with The Bind of Isaac’s random pill effects, for example, largely because everything else about that game was so random it almost didn’t matter. When you could find out early which pills did what though? It sets you way ahead of the curve.
This War of Mine is more or less a roguelike. While the loot you can scavenge is random, it is also random which “scenario” you might encounter when going to a new location. This is generally fine. Roguelikes need randomness to maintain replayability in what otherwise would be short playthroughs. What I found less fine was when I realized that you didn’t need a lockpick to open locked doors, you simply needed a crowbar. That “makes sense” in a sort of logical way, but not always in a game logic way, especially not in a game that also features vegetables that grow to maturity in four days under a heat lamp.
Should the crowbar’s in-game description mention it opens locked doors? I would say yes. There is still a meaningful choice between crafting a lockpick over a crowbar (specifically the amount of noise it generates) when you know the full depth of information about the two. At the same time… well, Minecraft certainly doesn’t give you all the information you might need for a successful¹ run. I haven’t played it in a while, but the last time I did, I knew there was no way I would have ever guessed the correct configuration of materials necessary to craft a bow or shears.
Examining my discomfort in more detail, I suppose it comes down to wasting resources when outside knowledge is readily available. I had no problem playing Don’t Starve for hours and hours despite dying and losing all progress to the most mundane of causes. Murder Bees are serious business, after all. But chasing down the mats to build a blowgun and darts in what ended up being a nigh-useless tool? That pisses me off. I will happily fail in service to muscle memory, even if I lose progress along the way. I will not, however, be so keen to fail because I didn’t read the Wiki first.
There is a distinction between the two that I can feel, even if I cannot enunciate it clearly.
¹ With what constitutes success in Minecraft being left undefined.