The Subgenual Anterior Cingulate Cortex is the part of the brain that scientists now say control generosity and empathy. You see a child suffering and this part of your brain wants to step in and help this child. It’s triggered when you see starving puppies, an expectant mother standing on a bus that you offer your seat. To understand this function, and more importantly, how to turn it off, is to understand Frostpunk.
Frostpunk is in all technical terms, a Victorian Steampunk, city management strategy game. The world has frozen solid and humanity has built enormous heat generators to deal with the dropping temperatures. Your job as, The Captain, is to make sure that your small group of refugees can survive this cold and cruel world. This is done in it’s most mechanical sense by obtaining coal, steel, food and wood through different means. But this is not why this game won my personal Game of the Year in 2018.
The Soul of Frostpunk…
Where this game shines is it’s ability to make you question your moral compass. Now, plenty of us have played games where you can choose to be good or evil. Frostpunk however does this in a way that makes you feel guilty enough that you question your own humanity when, and if, you survive. The very soul of this game is as cold as the weather, and it is beautiful. Throughout your gameplay you will have a bar at the bottom of your screen that holds the Hope and Discontent. These two concepts are the consequence of your actions throughout the game. Every random scenario, every choice you make, every death, every illness will shift these two bars and you will constantly be filled with anxiety as your decisions effect them.
Now, not many games take the risk to make their players do something as horrific as sending children to work in coal mines, and steel factories. (Where inevitably one of the children will be injured and you are given the option to let them rest, or send them back to work.) Options are given to you as the town leader in the forms of Adaptation and Purpose. Now bare with me, these options can be cruel, life altering, such as enforcing child labor in unsafe jobs, piling the dead on the outskirts of your city to be later used as fertilizer, public beatings, propaganda flyers, prostitution, and even mixing food with sawdust. All in the name of survival. (I wasn’t lying when I said this game will question your humanity.) Adaptation itself is fairly straightforward, just consider circumstances and judge accordingly. Feed them sawdust, open care centers, cut off everyone’s legs and arms. Make kids work the mines. But purpose, is where things get interesting.
The concept of Purpose in Frostpunk is quite honestly where this game hits me the most. There is such a beautiful political satire in this that is often overlooked throughout ‘Let’s Play’ videos of this game, even in my own. Purpose gives you two very distinct and different paths, Order and Faith. Order is your typical Orwellian system using watchtowers, propaganda letters, etc. Faith uses the governmental systems of church, public pentinence, shrines, soup kitchens. Now this seems like one would be preferable to the other, propaganda vs soup kitchens, I mean come on. But the game fools you as you rise in ranks of the Purpose system. You reach the end of your game realizing you have been drunk with power. That you have justified your actions to ‘survive’, but have all the while been subtly manipulated to become the most terrible version of either system.
The feeling you get after your first playthrough, the emotional rollercoaster, the realization that you are not as clean as you thought you were, and the slight guilt you feel leave you feeling like you need to tell everyone about this game, but tell no one the terrible choices you made. If you don’t believe a game can make you challenge the very essence of humanity, then you are sorely mistaken. So go ahead, crank up the AC for added effect, grab a pair of headphones, and find out just how far you’re willing to go to survive.