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Frostpunk’s 11 bit Studios on Humanizing Hundreds of Characters

Frostpunk_-_Expedition_Artwork.0.0

In November 2014, indie developers 11 bit Studios released This War of Mine, a war-themed strategy game where players take the role of civilians trying to survive with limited resources. While not the first to tell a story with themes such as mental illness and depression, it stands among the best strategy games that cohesively blend a dreary setting with expressive characters—each with personal stories and beliefs—to make for an engaging gameplay experience.  

Following This War of Mine’s success, the studio began working on an unexpected spiritual successor called Frostpunk. Instead of controlling a few civilians trying to survive, Frostpunk puts players in the shoes of a city leader tasked to oversee hundreds of townsfolk.

In most city-builders, being a leader is categorically perceived as a glorious endeavor for everyone’s betterment. Similar to a trained dog obeying its owner, subjects in city-builder games blindly follow the dictator-like orders of their master. Frostpunk is the complete opposite of this tendency, showing that leadership comes with great responsibility.

Frostpunk shares several elements and themes from This War of Mine—from seeing a ray of hope despite starting one’s endeavor to survive with only a home and limited supplies to tackling gray shades of morality. While quite alike, Frostpunk delves into a wider scope of topics due to its shift in genre. 11 bit Studios said it chose to create a city-builder not for the sake of exploring a different genre, but to push the envelope started in This War of Mine with a societal focus.

“We don’t go thinking ‘let’s make a city-builder,’” senior producer Błażej Żywiczyński told OnlySP in a recent interview. “We talk internally about things that we’d like our games to say. Topics we’d like to cover. Questions we would like the players to ask themselves. This time, the core word was ‘society.’ How it forms, develops, evolves. What forces drive it: geopolitical situation, leadership, [and] beliefs. City-builder just seemed like a genre that would let us explore those topics. And we’ve never done a city-builder before—that was also a perk, as we like to try out new things.”

Set in a snowy dystopia where almost the entirety of the world has been frozen-over, Frostpunk incorporates many of the elements that made This War of Mine unique, but with a “much bigger narrative playground.”

Frostpunk gameplay

While most city-builder games treat NPCs solely as a means to progress, Frostpunk takes the heart of This War of Mine to humanize characters, factoring morality into each decision. Frostpunk aims to operate within the gray area of morality; thus each player will have to use their individual judgement to determine right from wrong.

The main task in Frostpunk is to ensure survivability, contentment, and hope among everyone. However, due to limited resources and manpower, balancing all of these is difficult. To better manage the city, players enact policies from The Book of Laws. Here lays the morally-difficult decision-making part. A few ideas explored include sacrificing lives for the greater good, risking health and nutrition for immediate satisfaction and contentment, and crippling the few for the betterment of the majority. Some laws, such as feeding on the dead, would also be deemed illegal in real-life, but considering the extreme situation in Frostpunk’s world, the lines between moral and immoral acts are blurred. “We believe in giving players freedom. In letting them decide, what is moral to them, what isn’t, and under what circumstances,” said Żywiczyński.

Each law also has repercussions. For example, signing the child labor law will increase a player’s workforce, but put minors at risk. Players can also decide if children will be given light or heavy jobs. Another example is enacting a soup law. Soups are easier to mass produce to feed more people, but less filling than a full meal. Frostpunk has a hope and discontent meter to balance this double-edged mechanic. In a way, this system emphasizes that contentment does not always equate to instilling hope for a better life.

While Frostpunk tackles grim themes and serious topics, such as cannibalism and other inhuman acts necessary for survival, Żywiczyński assures that the game will not feel dreary throughout. “It feels really good when your society’s hope rises. Not all your decisions increase the discontent of your society. And sometimes, you have to play the long game: take an initial hit to discontent and make people work longer hours, but thanks to that you’ll provide them with better shelter. In the end, it is extremely satisfying when your society appreciates you.”

Citizens will also react based on player decisions on labor laws. For example, even when the child labor law has been enacted, players will get to decide whether it should be used. Regardless of whether such policies are adopted or not, citizens will feel burdened knowing that a harsh law can be implemented at any time. “There will be no option to revert the laws. However, signing a law doesn’t mean the player has to use it. You could decide that children should work the light jobs and the society will react to this. Some people won’t be happy about it. But if you don’t actually put children to work afterwards, there will be no further consequences and people will eventually forget about a dead law. It happens all the time in real life, too. You hear about all these unpopular decisions made by governments and people do rage about them for a while, but if the law doesn’t get enforced, people eventually get over it.”

Frostpunk Book of Laws

Ultimately, the soul of Frostpunk lays in making players care for individuals, groups, and the whole society. “Frostpunk isn’t a game about a few dozens of survivors. It’s a game about a society,” said Żywiczyński. Characters in Frostpunk each have their own biography, which states their relationship to other folks in town. This mechanic creates a layered spider-web that adds weight to player decisions. The townsfolk will also express their insights regarding the town and their task conditions, which further humanizes each character and the society as a whole.

In a way, 11 bit Studios aims to make players care for each person in their city instead of treating them as mere blips on the map. Aside from performing each task assigned by the city leader, they also live their life and vocally share their opinions.

The effects of player decisions are not solely relayed through layers of text, but will also be visually communicated through gameplay. “Whenever a huge chunk of your population is homeless, it’s like one of your dwellers having to sleep on the floor. Whenever someone in your city dies, it’s like the society just got wounded. And you can really feel that in gameplay. Our Frostpunk society is very vocal. They will communicate with you. React to your laws and decisions. They might even turn against you if you’re not careful.”

11 bit Studios managed to weave all of these features together thanks to the game’s harsh, snowy setting. “We wanted a way to push the player. To stimulate the development of Frostpunk’s society. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have this sense of urgency and danger. And there’s something incredibly simple and elegant in a world that is covered in snow and ice. And we wanted this danger to feel instantly familiar. So that players would understand what they’re up against in a matter of seconds. That lets us focus on much more pressing issues, like survival of our society. Another reason is that vast areas covered in snow give us an almost literal blank slate. One that players can use to form their society, not constricted by previous civilization.”

Frostpunk is definitely a bigger and more ambitious game than This War of Mine. This ambition also coincided with the doubling of 11 bit Studios’s staff from This War of Mine’s nearly 20-person team to around 40. Despite the rapid growth of the studio, the philosophies and indie spirit of experimentation and creativity remains in place. “We obviously had to change our methods a lot—bring in more support staff, like IT, and implement more efficient production methodologies, but the spirit remains the same. We still like taking risks and going into uncharted territories. Not many companies would put 40 people to work on a genre they’ve never tried before to enrich it with mechanics nobody has tried before.”

At present, 11 bit Studios is hard at work to launch Frostpunk on PC in early 2018. Żywiczyński said post-release content is also being considered, but has not yet been decided. The studio has also expressed interest in making console versions after the game’s initial release, but that too remains unconfirmed.

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