Actually, I should have sensed that things would get inexorably worse since “Frostpunk” is the latest creation of 11 bit studios, the Warsaw-based video game development company responsible for “This War of Mine,” a moving game about shepherding a tiny flock of civilians through the depravations of war. Like its predecessor, “Frostpunk” is a game built around resource management systems that inspire moral and ethical trade-offs — should you allocate extra food rations to the sick to help them recover faster or hoard what you have as a future safeguard? Both titles highlight the fallacy that people play video games only to relax. Here, the notion of eustress or “good stress” is helpful to think about. Eustress can occur when one feels a bit overwhelmed by a task but pursues it anyway with an eye toward a larger goal. In that sense, 11 bit studios’ games could be classified as clever engines for recreational stress. At least that’s the thought that flashed through my head when I found myself barking, “work, damn you!” to the people on my computer monitor.
My early forays into the arctic-shrouded world of “Frostpunk” were humbling. When I started playing the game’s main scenario, “A New Home,” I wasted my stock of wood by having my workers build streets to nowhere. I mismanaged my engineers, who can research new technologies and oversee medical units, by giving them menial tasks or keeping them idle while I waited for other workers to gather supplies for new research initiatives. My biggest mistake, however, was that I neglected to regularly toggle on a thermal map that showed how cold the buildings near the generator were. If I had I might have been able to reduce the number of sick people that placed such a drain on my resources.
After a couple of false starts, where I simply dabbled with the gameplay systems trying to wrap my head around them, I weathered a little more than two weeks of in-game time before people deposed me for my inept leadership which led to my restarting the campaign.
A word to my fellow obsessives out there: I found it better to muddle along making mistakes than to load up new or saved games to incorporate new concepts I’d learned. Over the dozen-plus hours I spent running through of the main scenario I found myself continuously reassessing my survival strategies. If anything, the game reminded me that it’s often better to be a tinkerer than a perfectionist.
For much of my playthrough I thought I preferred the micro setup of “This War of Mine” to the macro setup of “Frostpunk.” I remembered losing myself in the inner struggles of the individuals in the earlier game. But I reconsidered my opinion as life-or-death decisions barreled down on me with exponential fury, particularly during the latter part of Frostpunk when the temperature plunges to undreamed of levels. When I turned away sick refugees and lost children and pulled my engineers away from medical rounds so they could labor in the mines with blue-collar workers I could only admire how skillfully the game teased out my latent ruthlessness.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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