Leading a society is a difficult feat. Leading a society in a dying world that's frozen over is even tougher. This is the premise of Frostpunk, an upcoming city builder and survival game from 11 Bit Studios, the creators of the indie hit This War of Mine.
Being a leader comes with difficult choices, and your decisions will either haunt you or progress your people to better days. You manage your society by following different story-driven goals, such as tasking groups to mine for coal. In Frostpunk, you are constantly gauging which choices are better in the long run, even if their immediate effects aren't favorable. This makes for a thrilling concept, where you are constantly thinking about the future of your people.
"Morality rules that apply to individuals like in This War of Mine don’t apply to entire societies. The rules are different. If you’re a leader, you can make a decision that you believe is the right one in the longterm, but people may disagree with you," 11 Bit partnerships manager Pawel Miechowski says.
Frostpunk tells an alternate history, taking place in the 19th century. For unknown reasons, the world has frozen over and humanity is dying out. Lucky for you and a group of survivors, you find a hidden generator that is operated by coal. With it, you slowly rebuild a modest society, but each decision you make can have dire consequences.
Child labor, for example, may seem incredibly immoral, but what if it was the only choice you had left to ensure survival? However, such a decision could make your people unhappy. At the bottom of your screen, you have two bars, one for discontentment and the other for hope. If discontentment goes too high, your people can rebel. When hope goes too low, people may leave your city. If you fail either completely, it's game over.
"It's all about responsibility and power," Miechowski says.
As you progress, you unlock new books of law, which allow you to pass different legislation. These laws, when passed, are irreversible, but future laws can amend them. For example, radical treatment for frostbitten individuals gives them medical care and food. They eat up your resources and and are unable to work. It's a humane decision, but a difficult one when resources are so slim to begin with. Later on, however, you might develop more advanced technology to create prosthetic limbs so that these individuals can return to work.
The law system is a skill tree that you progressively unlock. New books of law can be found in many ways, such as when someone asks something of you or as you explore the outer depths of the frozen world.
Unlike Sim City, Frostpunk isn't a never-ending city builder. You can play through an approximately 10-hour campaign, or through two different scenario modes. The campaign has a story with a beginning and an end, and story progression is deeply rooted in exploration. You can eventually send scouts to explore new areas which moves the story forward and helps you piece together what caused these harsh frozen conditions. As you journey outward, you can create new settlements or bring back other survivors to your city. Bringing these refugees back with you, though, isn't always so simple.
"If you have spaces for 300 people and a big group of refugees come to the city, you need to provide households and all that for those people," Miechowski says. "If you don't have resources for that, maybe it's better to not let the refugees in.
Miechowski also teases that there will be a "big moment" that definitively chooses your path with future books of law, though he didn't specify more than that.
Much of Frostpunk's mechanics revolve around a risk/reward concept. Putting your generator in overdrive during a snowstorm may help keep your people alive or keep frostbite at bay, but it can also explode if you're not careful. You have a meter beside the generator to tell you how close your are to combustion. If it explodes, it's game over, but you can also lose if your people die or become sick from the cold. Keen decision-making requires you to weigh the odds in order to best protect your society. But even when you lose, Miechowski believes that the game portrays it as a learning experience. You learn from past mistakes so that you can better lead your people the second time around.
"Losing is part of the experience," Miechowski says. "You learn, you adapt, and you adjust."
Miechowski stresses that Frostpunk's decisions are often neither good or bad. They fall in the grey area, with consequences either way. He says that 11 Bit chose this approach so that the player can make choices without the game judging them.
"Playing with morality should happen within the game or in the player's mind," he says. "The game cannot judge you."
For more on Frostpunk, you can watch a trailer about automatons by heading here. Frostpunk releases for PC on April 24.