So, I played some Frostpunk over the weekend – a game about the world freezing over and humanity having to find a new home. It’s a pretty grim dark game about how far you’re willing to go to survive. It can be super fun, if you are into that.
What I want to talk about is how Frostpunk does stories. A mechanic in the game is the ability to enact new laws. Several of them are choices: do you legalize child labour or do you set-up care homes for them? Nearly every law makes the game easier for you in one way or another. They either raise the Hope of your group, lower the Discontent, or provide resources.
Then, partway through the main game, you have to make a choice: will you adopt Order or Faith as the guiding force for your society. This unlocks new laws and you keep on going. Each one culminates in drastically reworking your society: with Order you become a dictator who punishes your detractors, with Faith you establish a theocratic order that punishes detractors. Neither are happy fun times.
If you’re good, you reach the end of the game. And it tells you what bad things you have done. Your success is undercut: you traded away so much. Perhaps too much. That success of survival is undercut. The catharsis of your efforts is snatched away from you.
This is clever storytelling. At the moment when you pause, look back, and consider. Then it reminds you what those choices you made mean. That child labour is more than just a way to increase your workforce. It reminds you that this is more than just a game – it is a story.
Underneath this is a consideration that isn’t readily apparent. You do not have to enact those policies. Even if the choice between order and faith is forced, at no point does the game force you to choose to enact further policies. If you make the game harder for yourself, it is easier for those underneath you. That changes the story. If you let people protest, if you risk them exiling you from your own community, then their lives are better. That makes a better story.
And there’s part of the thesis of the game – moves that are expedient in the moment are often the wrong call. To quote John Stewart (yes, of the Daily Show) if we give up our beliefs at the first inconvenience, they aren’t beliefs. They’re just “nice things to have.” And it is a reminder. The people who create dictatorships, who found theocracies. There are plenty of reasons that they do it. No matter how evil we want to believe that they are, they are still human. Just like any of us.