Frostpunk and the Tyranny of Totalitarian Efficiency

frostpunk article - tyranny

Frostpunk has me thinking about cold a great deal. Cold as a threat, and conversely, cold as benign. Cold as wondrous.

Fake snow dusting the ferns of department store window Christmas trees; a phantom suggestion that makes our overcoats feel cozier. Ice cubes fizzing beneath glugs of sugary pear cider, lounged on sun-baked festival mud. Twisting the temperature to freezing at the end of a hot shower. Just for fun. Just to see how much you can stand before you leap out, gasping and grinning to yourself.

In cold, Frostpunk finds an antagonist in a sensation taken to extremities; in beauty made monstrous.

Just as the poetry of cold is used to dehumanize people – chilling touches, frozen hearts, icy veins – the poetry of bodies is used to animate cold weather. Biting blizzards. Clawing winds. We know to avoid extreme cold like we know to flee from the teeth and claws of predators. It presents a vivid, innate threat without a word of lore, backstory or exposition required.

For our technological hubris, Frostpunk unleashes a nemesis that we are intimately familiar with. A single snowflake is delicate, subliminal. Scaled in intensity, it is death. A house pet become Cerberus.

We know cold, so we can begin to understand the atrocities one might be capable of in attempts to survive it. But for all it’s hulking automatons and steam technology, the greatest suspension of disbelief Frostpunk asks of us is to accept that survival is inherently valuable, no matter the quality of life.

Heavy spoilers for Frostpunk follow. We have a spoiler free review if that’s what you’re looking for.

Frostpunk - Labour

The death of everyone in your settlement is one of the three fail states in Frostpunk. So I aim towards constructing an efficient machine for ensuring health, food, warmth, and I am rewarded for it with the knowledge that while there is undoubtedly misery and desperation, there is no immediate danger. No threat of sudden separation from the steady climb of nebulous progress that I, as a player, have been acclimated to accept as an unmitigated positive.

I build pubs and staff them with engineers. I can’t assume that they give my people a reason to live, but they do increase hope. I can now work them harder. I understand that my people are desperately unhappy,  but the cogs of progress grind away regardless. I must imagine Sisyphus happy, because we share a hobby, and we’re both suckers for a good sunk cost fallacy. What’s more, I only want what’s best for them.

There are two bars at the bottom of the screen: blue for Hope, red for Discontent. When Discontent is full, or when Hope dies out, you will be declared unfit to govern, and sent out into the snow to die.

Frostpunk - Loyalty

So it becomes a simple proposition; as ruler, and as a player bent toward efficiency, the desirable amount of Discontent among your people is none, and the desirable amount of Hope is infinite.

Frostpunk asks you to consider what these statistics mean for individuals. What sort of society would it take for a people to be infinitely hopeful, and without discontent, while working twelve hours a day just to survive, with no end in sight?

At the end of my first game, I governed over just forty three broken, subjugated people. When I say the word Hope was no longer part of their vocabulary, I mean it in the Orwellian sense. I passed a law, and they no longer thought in those terms. Hope, and all associated mechanical boons and penalties, were no longer a concern. By removing what Hannah Arendt called the ‘concrete content’ of perspective, ‘from which changes of mind might naturally arise”, I had achieved complete loyalty.

Frostpunk - Execution

Discontent was still an issue, so I held public executions as often as the ability cool-down would allow. After manipulating systems to achieve the desired effect, I had no choice but to conclude that the opposite of discontent, in this case, was contentment.

The tyranny of efficiency becomes clear very quickly. Frostpunk presents the desire to min/max as a window to the totalitarian mindset. If failure is undesirable, then anything that mitigates failure is a success. If success is a virtue, then the mitigation of failure is a moral imperative. This, I come to realize as I remove more freedoms in the name of salvation, is how tyrants see the world.  

Overnight, the temperature plummets. We burn through our coal supplies. I overheat the generator and order late shifts at the mines. Around halfway through the day, a man with a grey pallor and great, flapping jowls gives an impassioned speech to a crowd of onlookers. He claims that I am trying to keep them “content, ignorant, and under control”. So I have two choices.

Frostpunk - Choice

If I let him speak, discontent will rise. If I chase him away, hope will fall, but only slightly. In numerical terms, which I have learned to associate with obedience, and therefore survival, there is no reason to let him speak. I wonder if these are the sort of metrics councils consider before deciding to put down homeless spikes, and I am thankful that we still have so much discontent left in us. And then I have him chased from the podium.

Frostpunk has me thinking about cold a great deal. How, when there’s a layer of frost between you and the outside world, short term empathy seems trite when compared to long term, numerically defined success and survival.  How it numbs us, robbing us of sensation, distorting our ability to grasp the true shape of things. It is, in this way, much like the totalitarian propaganda I spread among my settlement.

It’s almost too easy though, isn’t it?  The frost has already provided the omnipresent invader that totalitarianism relies on for power. Orwell characterized it as ‘Eastasia’, Arendt referred it as a ‘World of Enemies’. The important thing is that it’s a threat, and I, as despot, need merely to present a solution.

Frostpunk - Despotism

The more you fail at Frostpunk, the more terrified of your own populace and your own eventual forced exile you become, and the more attractive these options seem. At the end of my first game, the temperature plummeted, discontent spiked, and I was afraid. Afraid like any tyrant scratching for a foothold in a losing battle. So I employ propaganda. I brutally re-educate dissidents. I execute political malcontents.

Despite all this, it’s the cold that eventually pushes them over the edge.

My last words before the city cast me out are “I did my best”.


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Nic Reuben Author
Nic Reuben likes to pause games every five minutes to ponder the thematic implications of explosive barrel placement. When he’s not having an existential crisis over CAPTCHA verifications that ask him to prove he’s not a robot, he’s reading sci-fi and fantasy short stories, watching cartoons, and mourning the writing standards in Game of Thrones
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Nic Reuben Author
Nic Reuben likes to pause games every five minutes to ponder the thematic implications of explosive barrel placement. When he’s not having an existential crisis over CAPTCHA verifications that ask him to prove he’s not a robot, he’s reading sci-fi and fantasy short stories, watching cartoons, and mourning the writing standards in Game of Thrones
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