Indie city-building games finally take climate change into account

“Alternate reality allows us to push the levers that pressure societies to extremes that wouldn’t really be possible in a realistic setting,” frostpunk design director Jakub Stokalski told WIRED. “And what happens to large groups of people under pressure, that’s really the theme.”

While frostpunk volcanic history helps humanity out of the woods, its most recent expansion, The last autumn depicts efforts to prepare for disaster even as large sections of society deny it is coming.

“Doing the last autumn, the question was what you were going to sacrifice to secure yourself a chance for the future,” says Stokalski. “But not for yourself; for other people. This sacrifice might not be just yours, you can choose to sacrifice others whether they like it or not.

This scenario is a natural extension of frostpunk Notions. It is not really on climate change, but questions of who and what to sacrifice feel more at the heart of our attempts to tackle the problem than debating where your city’s sleek recycling center will look most appealing. It’s a game of questions, not goals.

“Societies under pressure, and what the player will do to ensure their survival, is an interesting space where we can ask uncomfortable questions,” Stokalski says. “I find these questions interesting because it is the players who must answer them by making real choices. And we reap the consequences on our way to “beat” the match.

“I think that’s the unique ability of games: to ask questions that the player has to answer with action rather than statement. And I think it’s meaningful to know more about ourselves, because only then can we try to be better.

Stokalski and his colleagues at 11 Bit Studios are hard at work on Frostpunk 2, which will see their alternate reality change from coal to oil. Stokalski views both resources as symbolic; coal keeps a fire burning in a frigid world, while oil is “an eye-opening resource, a source of energy that has enabled enormous human achievement, but it’s also dark, sticky and grimy everything it touches “. It’s not an explicit commentary on the era, but it’s also hard to detach the barrage of negative headlines – “the density of really shitty news”, as Stokalski puts it – from game development.

Yes frostpunk challenges players to think about humans in cities, nil earth reminds them that there are places humans shouldn’t be. The upcoming simulation challenges players to deconstruct a city, transforming former urban wastelands into a regenerated natural space. If you manage your resources correctly, your last act will be to recycle your tools and leave, leaving no trace of humanity’s presence behind. This is an implicit criticism of games like Civil 6 and Horizons, where climate is just another bump in the road of infinite human expansion.

Provisionally planned for 2022, nil earth is the latest track from South African independent studio Free Lives, which previously commented on war and masculinity – in its own way – with the hyperbolic Broforce and Genital jousting. One of lead designer Sam Alfred’s goals is to show that city builders can still be fun and engaging even if you remove, well, the building.


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