Frostpunk is a linear, story-driven, strategy, survival game in which the player, the leader of the last city on earth, leads their people to survival while pondering over various ethical dilemmas. Frostpunk successfully delivers an intriguing experience where “every decision comes with a cost”; however, some imperfect factors in the game undermine the experience: the lack of emergence gameplay in the weather and heating system and the ludonarrative dissonance in the discontent system. Nonetheless, the pacing of Frostpunk is amazingly addictive.
The first flaw the player experiences in the game is the fact that the progress of the game is primarily driven by the weather forecast. One can easily maintain a self-sustainable village that has enough food and coal in a few in-game days until the temperature drops. The player is forced to progress and overcome challenges by the rule, not the player’s gameplay. For example, building a new bunkhouse does not require more heating if it is built within the range of the Heat Generator Tower, and a heater costs only one or two coals per hour. Thus, the expansion of production scale rarely comes with a downside, thereby making the optimal solution to the game too plain: accumulate as many people as possible and build as many productive buildings as possible at little---if not zero---extra cost. This obviousness of the optimal solution directly contradicts the theme of the game, “every decision comes with a cost.” In the book Clockwork Game Design, the author states that “elegant” game design always propels the player with the player’s actions, not with the pre-designed rules, yet Frostpunk pushes the player forward with the pre-designed weather system. While this design undermines the “meaningful choices” in the game, reducing the layers of ambiguous thinking, forcing the player to solve the only problem that comes within a couple of days---drop in temperature---this design presents a positive side: it tremendously accelerates the pace of the game and intensifies the challenge. Whenever I see a freezing thermometer symbol on the weather forecast bar, I know that I will be in trouble if I do not research the next-level heating technology and build more steam hubs. If I were to suggest one change, I would recommend that the player needs to install heaters on all housing buildings other than the tents to keep their people warm at night and that steam hubs provide less heating so that the difficulty flow increases as the player expands and familiarizes themselves with the game mechanics.
The second flaw, a more obvious one, is the ludonarrative dissonance in the discontent system. Frostpunk characterizes the player as the leader of the people who decides whether the workers should sacrifice some of their rights and values in exchange for survival, the ultimate goal of the player, and whether he should write the book of law to realize this sacrifice at the expense of raising the discontent. However, this system creates confrontation between the player and the people, as if the player were a tyrannical despot exploiting his 19th-century workers for his interests. This confrontation is the ludonarrative dissonance. The player’s goal is to lead his people to survival, not to oppress his people. Also, the player cannot empathize with his people since there is virtually no background story and characterization for the people in the game. Ethics in games do not work the way they do in real life. Players never feel sorry for killing someone, especially when the character in the game is confrontational with the player unless the designers give them a reason: characterization and resource rewards, the keys to building strong ethical dilemmas. For example, one does not feel guilty for killing cops in GTA V even this in real life is immoral and in the game is costing in-game money but does for bounty hunting a tragic beast in The Witcher 3 that never harms anyone yet is hated for its appearance. Frostpunk fails to humanize the people in the game yet threatens the player with “exile” for violating real-life moral codes. Moreover, although the designer tries to depict a moral dilemma where a decision is economically rewarding yet morally wicked, forcing the player to make a choice, sometimes the optimal solution in the dilemma is too apparent. For example, child labour is by all means economically inferior to letting children work with the engineers for research or in hospitals. The latter choice is both economically rewarding and morally right, making the former choice utterly meaningless. Lastly, the discontent system, in essence, is nothing more than a measure to limit the player’s progress: the player only needs to consider how much more discontent he can take after he orders the miners to work another 24-hour shift. Thus, this system distorts the purpose of the game: every decision comes with a cost; instead, it makes the game too calculating.
However, Frostpunk has done an excellent job pacing the game, galvanizing the player’s nerves. While the weather forecast system undermines the elegance of the design of the game, it paces the game in a way that the player always has a demanding goal approaching and later a sign of hope that eases the tension. You are freaked out when you see the approaching cold weather, desperately researching new technology for the Heat Generator Tower and signing the law that enacts 12-hour work day. Two days later, you see the icon for warm weather and the 80% overdriven heat generator, knowing that you now have a second to breathe. Also, all the subplots in New Home are well paced. The Londoners, the refugee crisis, and the final storm are so well-paced that you cannot pause the game to have a break; you just want to survive the current crisis. The time limit of these missions is just perfect: you are stressed and driven but always make it in the end. Also, each task is harder than the previous one, fitting the curve of the cognitive flow. The climax, the last day when it is -150° C in the final storm, is genuinely sensational: all the hospitals are full, and your heat generator tower is 95% overridden. You can foresee the rising of the sun yet never know whether or not your overridden heat generator can sustain to the last minute. Eventually, at the last minute, you have to shove a steam core in to avoid the explosion---luckily, you have one. When the sun finally rises, you breathe a sigh of relief.
In conclusion, Frostpunk is imperfect regarding design elegance and ludonarration, but a great paradigm of game pacing. I would recommend playing it and hope that 11 bit studios can bring forth more amazing games.