My 2020 Game of the Year

Much of the media I’ve consumed has been in a subgenre of “going outside is bad, actually.” This partially extends to video games, except for when you consider I’ve played Death Stranding, Animal Crossing, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. But there has been one game which really helped me wrangle any sense of control in what I didn’t yet know was already a chaotic year of upheaval, changes, fear, and uncertainty.

That’s right, I’m talking about Frostpunk (available on PS4, XBox One, and Steam).

Logo by 11bit studios

What It’s About

The year is 1886 in an alternative history where the world turns to ice as a result of global volcanic cooling. In the years before, the U.S. and British governments built generators in the coal-rich North to serve as city centers in the events of such an apocalypse. You play as “the Captain” who is to shepherd a group and lead a city to survival, despite plunging temperatures, lack of resources, and incoming blizzards.

11bit Studios based in Poland created the game and it was released on PC in 2018, came out on consoles in 2019, but I didn’t really start plying until 2020. Since then, I have sunk well over 150 hours into this strategic survival game with varying levels of success per play time.

What is the Game Play Loop?

The gameplay loop centers on you providing for your people, acquiring resources, and passing laws. Generally, you start off with a group of new citizens with maybe some coal, wood, or steel. All but one scenario have a generator to maintain heat (temperatures start at -20C and don’t get much higher). Then, to win each scenario, it’s a matter of achieving its goals (or simply surviving for as long as possible in Endless Mode) while also ensuring the survival of as many people as possible.

This game is really freaking hard. The balance between Discontent and Hope is precarious. Too much Discontent or too low Hope (or both) for too long will guarantee a game over when you’re ousted. Almost every decision you make as Captain has consequences, intended or otherwise. Wanting to put children in shelters might affect your workforce. Electing to sustain life or introduce radical treatment for frost bite can affect recovery times. Resources also don’t just affect whether you can erect certain buildings. You have to do research to do things like activate coal mining because there are only so many coal piles available.

On top of that, each scenario presents its own challenges. There’s a moment in “A New Home” where Hope plummets and you get access to one of two sets of laws to maintain morale. In “The Refugees,” maintaining food infrastructure and keeping illness levels low means having impeccable food infrastructure and health care, while keeping in mind that more people arrive every day. The current bane of my existence is “The Last Autumn,” in which you need to build the generator while preventing strikes and fatal accidents (I keep running out of steel, help).

What is the Appeal Here?

There’s a certain cozy certainty to the nihilism which permeates the game from start to finish. But at the same time, you as the player have so much control. Project managing the apocalypse, especially with where I was at with my day job at the time and continuing into the pandemic, made me feel like things weren’t so bleak. What I also didn’t expect to be so charmed by was the fact that each person in your city has a name. It’s your responsibility to make sure they survive, and yes, it is heartbreaking when you forget to turn on your Generator and half of them die, but you know what you can do?

Learn from the mistake and try again.

Redoing the levels is part of the experience. The mechanics don’t change and the game doesn’t throw any unfair curve balls. Time after time, you can iterate your strategy, prioritize different research projects, decide when you want to start exploring, and so much more. I also enjoy the bit where you can do some urban planning to ensure heat distribution, but that might just be a me thing.

In short, if you love strategy games, hard choices, a moving soundtrack, and being responsible for the lives of others, definitely give this game a try.