Whenever conversations are had about Poland’s game dev scene, they tend to revolve around CD Projekt Red, the developers of the acclaimed Witcher franchise and proprietors of the GOG digital distribution platform. However, when it comes to the indie scene, the current big name is 11 bit studios, the developers responsible for the 2014 indie darling This War of Mine. Similar to Spec Ops: The Line, the game was a reaction against the flippant way gaming treated war, only instead of focusing on a soldier, the player took control of a group of survivors with the goal of not winning or killing, but merely staying alive. With their next game, Frostpunk, 11 bit aim to continue to challenge the player to survive the harshest conditions imaginable. But while This War of Mine was mostly focused on the stories of individuals, Frostpunk sees the focus zoom out to an entire society.
Frostpunk takes place in an alternate history where an ice age engulfed the earth at the end of the 19th century. Humanity came up with the idea to continue its survival by created steam-powered heat generators and building new societies around them. The temperature dropped before their plans could come to fruition, resulting in most of humanity getting wiped out. You play as the leader of a group of survivors from Victorian London who get separated from their expedition and find a generator. Your job is to not just build your city, but to feed, house and care for all the citizens under your control. If their discontent gets too high or their hope gets too low, as measured by two bars at the bottom of the screen, you get overthrown and it’s game over.
At its core, Frostpunk is a city builder, but unlike other city builders, 11 bit didn’t want to make the player feel like a god. Rather, they wanted to place them in the shoes of a leader who’s hanging by a thread and could die or get deposed at any moment. While playing the demo on the Gamescom show floor, I overheard that only four people managed to reach the end point during the entire convention. Even I, a veteran Civilization player who managed to get a decent way through, got overthrown by my unhappy constituents before reaching the demo’s end. 11 bit senior producer Błażej Żywiczyński told CGM the game’s difficulty, as well as its setting, were influenced by our current political and societal upheaval.
“The end of 19th century seemed a perfect parallel to our current times. With the societal differences, societies changing and different political concepts boiling, as well as the industrial revolution... It’s all like a prototype version of what’s on the news nowadays, just... simpler, in a way. And London was one of the biggest centres of this cultural era,” Żywiczyński says.
In Frostpunk, your settlement is based around a heat generator, which only covers a very small area at the beginning of the game. You send your citizens out into the surrounding cold to work and gather supplies such as coal, steel and wood. However, as conditions are dire, the early parts of the game are spent scrambling to get enough food and shelter to keep your people alive. Despite being a city builder, Frostpunk is structured like an RPG, with main story objectives and sidequests. The ultimate goal is to finish the story objectives while completing sidequests that you take on by signing laws or answering your peoples’ demands and keeping their hope high and their discontent low enough to ensure that your society can continue. Żywiczyński estimates that it should take 40-60 in-game days for a competent player to finish the story mode, with my playtime of around 8 or 9 days taking about 60-90 minutes. However, the story mode is not all Frostpunk has to offer, with different scenarios, starting conditions, and additional lore also being available.
After This War of Mine, the expectation following the announcement of 11 bit’s next project would be that it would follow similar lines: resource management with a focus on individual survival. However, Frostpunk manages to be something completely different while still continuing the design philosophy that made This War of Mine so fresh and new. In a medium seemingly built around fulfilling the player’s power fantasies, Frostpunk aims to take as much of that power away as possible, providing a much more detailed look at what people would actually do in positions of power. In explaining Frostpunk’s focus on society over individuals, Żywiczyński stated, “This topic was on our minds for quite a while now and [is one that] we really wanted to tackle. 11 bit studios love doing new, exciting, experimental things and we feel there are many topics within the game medium that are severely underrepresented. We’d like to help fill those blanks somehow.”
Frostpunk still does not have a solid release date, but 11 bit would really like to release it this year. With the release of the thematically grotesque Ghost Recon: Wildlands a few months ago and the upcoming Call of Duty: WWII, now is as good a time as any for 11 bit to fill in the blanks when it comes to player agency.