How does #Frostpunk demonstrate political progress and development of #totalitarian tendencies?
I recently finished my first playthrough of Frostpunk, a new city-building survival game by 11-bit Studios, the developer of This War of Mine, also a survival and strategy game. As is the case with This War of Mine, gameplay is highly focused on resource management in Frostpunk. As a mayor, the player character starts out with a small group of survivors, workers and engineers, as well as small caches of supply for building the city. The game is set in the ice age, a completely frozen world. Progress is made through establishing new laws and advancing technology. Steam-powered technology is then used to stock up on resources and opposing the freezing cold, with temperatures falling well below 100 degrees celsius in the first scenario. Here, the ultimate challenge is surviving the great storm. In the meantime, the player manages the level of discontent and hope of citizens in what constitutes a democracy. If not properly managed, the level of hope and discontent may threaten the rule of the mayor.
Frostpunk is not merely a city-building game, but also a survival game. While resource management is at the core of gameplay, social aspects are an important part of is and helps construct a story around the mechanics, rules and goals. This makes the city feel very much alive when the player faces crucial ideological decisions about whether to implement democratic or totalitarian tendencies. The experience of totalitarian rule became very concrete to me by the end of the game. The Londoners, a rebel group in the city, started stirring unrest amongst the civilians that made them gather on the streets and seek up what I, as a mayor, perceived as false prophets.
As a mayor, I had entertained the idea of totalitarian rule as a last resort – ultimately to manage resources and technological advancement. For this, I needed the city to grow. The biggest threat that the rebels posed to the city was lowering hopes of other citizens, enough for them to want to join the Londoners when they abandon the city. Earlier on, the game had given me the choice to impose order and discipline instead of faith and spiritual strength. While both paths are used to give citizens a sense of purpose, which ultimately affects the level of hope and discontent, they afford the player alternate ways of managing the city. The end of both paths, however, is the same: totalitarianism. The player, then, chooses whether to implement it or not.
The path I chose was order and discipline. It gave me options for creating laws with certain tendencies like a neighbourhood watch, guard stations and enforced morning gatherings. The difficulty level of the game coupled with managing the hopes and discontent of citizens with a difficulty level set to normal felt overwhelming. So, I decided to implement ultimate discipline, i.e. “New Order”, where citizens’ hope “would never be a problem again”. In terms of gameplay, whatever I did as a mayor had no effect on citizens’ hope. Hope became self-evident, as something taken for granted as I did not have to think about the consequences of my actions in terms of hope. Imposing totalitarianism on this society felt like a relief. It was surprisingly easy. And the small rebel group of Londoners were gone.
Regardless of intention of the developers, the ease at which totalitarianism could be implemented calls for some reflection, namely to the thought processes related to the implementation. As the experience of my playthrough felt very strange, it shed some light on some of the thought processes that lead to political decisions. In other words, it was a de-familiarising experience.
In terms of game studies, the experience could be viewed through concept of v-effect. V-effect is the formal means through which cultural expressions like games draw attention to naturalised contradictions – such as the way ideologies develop – by making them strange. The concept originates in literature and drama studies which have discussed how art (as cultural expressions) can refresh our senses by challenging us as readers and spectators so that we do not only recognise, but truly see the world around us. This can be applied on understanding the way games operate.
Thus, the v-effect is a device for de-familiarisation, and has been used to convey knowledge that affords critical reflection and political mobilisation. Making ideological decisions in my playthrough felt empowering. This is because of the way management of citizens hopes and discontent can develop into tendencies where you will try to control these sentiments to advance a society and its technologies as part of the game’s goal. I argue here that this experience may be deeply alienating if you, in real life, are in the position of being a strong advocate western democratic rule and civil rights.
The game, however, made me aware of sentiments inherent in the power dynamics and ruling class of democratic and totalitarian states. This is one of the reason I find Frostpunk, at its best, is political in the way it shows you the process of how societies with democratic or totalitarian tendencies may develop. In practice, however, this means the game is just one possible world and a simulation of how these tendencies could be shaped. What is unique about the game as a system of processes, then, is how it makes you live through these tendencies being shaped.
Developer & Publisher: 11-bit Studios
Release date: 24.4. 2018