Over the past few days, I have been watching Christopher Odd play Frostpunk. Developed by Warsaw based 11 bit studios, the game is essentially a city-building simulator. However, game’s story centres around a small group of people who are trying to survive a very severe coldsnap. As a captain of this band of survivors, your goal is to ensure that your city has adequate shelter, food, medical care and most importantly, warmth.
Watching the gameplay, two underlying environmental themes strongly stood out for me. The first was climate change. Although the game was unclear at the start about the cause of the coldsnap, there were some hints along the way with mentions of ‘global glaciation’ the ‘north-pole’. There are two theories among climate scientists that could actually lead to an actual global coldsnap. The first is the shutting down of the great ocean conveyor belt that helps circulate ocean temperatures. And the second paradoxically, can be caused by the warming of the Poles. As the Poles warm, the polar vortex (area of cold trapped in the atmosphere) weakens and the changes in air pressure led to the trapped cold escaping south.
In fact, earlier this year, Europe experienced an unusual, week long coldsnap that brought snow from the North-pole to as far as the Mediterranean. A number of people died, including in Poland where temperatures plunged to as low as -20 degrees. To help the most vulnerable such as the elderly and the homeless cope with the weather, emergency shelters were built across many European cities. In Greece and Italy, many Syrian refugees living in shelters reportedly died of hypothermia and many had to be moved to heated tents to prevent further loss of lives. The popular belief was that the coldsnap was due to a weakening of the Arctic polar vortex.
Frostpunk’s virtual world (perhaps inspired by the European coldsnap) is very, very cold, with temperatures ranging from -40 to -70 degrees (even colder). The deep snow and ice makes the world predominantly white. Trees are hard to comeby and the ones that are found in the game have no leaves and lean with the wind. To survive, the limited amounts of timber, coal and steel need to be harvested and used to build houses, medical facilities, streets, steam heaters and mess halls.
The second environmental theme evident in Frostpunk is overpopulation. As the city grows, more streets are built, the houses get bigger. To maintain warmth, more coal needs to be consumed and the chimneys and steam towers subsequently spew more smog into the atmosphere. Difficult decisions need to be made to keep your population safe as resources continue to dwindle. Do you burn your precious coal to keep the medical tents warm for the night or do you use the coal to keep the kitchen going? Failing to do so leads to hunger, illness and even death.
Watching Frostpunk made me wonder what we would do if we were in a similar situation. How would city and government officials prioritise precious resources? And more importantly, what will our society look like if we were to experience a global, natural disaster? Perhaps we will have to introduce new ethical and moral norms to survive. Even if they are controversial by today’s standards such as passing laws to legalise child labour (like Christopher Odd).
The team at 11-bit studios has done a marvellous job in portraying a virtual world built on environmental themes such as climate change and overpopulation. Frostpunk was compelling, beautiful and challenging and it once again reinforces the brilliant and powerful medium for storytelling provided by video games. I hope 11 bit studios continues to explore more environmental issues through this platform.