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Frostpunk 2 preview: Icy survival meets profound societal decisions

Frostpunk 2 im PreviewImage: 11Bit Studios und Netflix; Komposition: PC WELT

Frostpunk 2 plays a bit like House of Cards. We are Kevin Spacey, aka President Frank Underwood, but instead of a simple “Democrats versus Republicans” our battle is more “Technocrats versus arch-conservatives” who think: “Oh, we’ve been making fertilizer with human excrement for 30 years. It’s a shame that children have to work in poo, but what must be done, must be done.”

And it’s up to us to transform this society into a reasonably modern one. One that learns something like human rights again.

That’s not so easy, because we are in charge of a society in which people are prepared to do anything to survive. At first, we were just stretching food with sawdust because food was scarce. By the end of the original Frostpunk, we ate body parts of our dead as stew in to avoid starvation.

We made deadly decisions because our steam generator could only produce heat for certain districts. People froze to death because we had to decide whether the engineers working on the machines were more important than others.

We made people toil in life-threatening conditions. Not because we wanted to or because we liked to see others suffer – we were never Mr Wilford building a high-tech train in Snowpiercer where he lets the poor struggle to survive while the rich feast in the back carriages.

We never felt good about our decisions. Frostpunk is one of those games that makes you dream uneasily. Because we let people freeze to death in the coal mine just to keep the steam generators running. 20 sacrificed to save 200.

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Man has been killing himself for centuries for land and riches. What would he do when it really comes to survival?

Frostpunk 2 thinks much further ahead: 30 years later, the question is no longer whether we heat that house because these engineers are more important for the survival of our people than those families, as cruel as that may be.

Child labor – yes or no? And how do we replace it without fueling conservative forces for revolution, which have a lot of power in our new mega-metropolis? That’s the ethical dilemma at the core of Frostpunk 2.

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“We didn’t just want to develop a Frostpunk 2.0 with a few new features. But a much bigger, deeper game with much bigger decision-making moments,” art director Lukasz Juszczyk tells us. “We asked ourselves: what would a post-apocalypse look like after the world freezes over?

“Frostpunk has often been perceived as a post-apocalypse, but it’s not – it’s a game during an apocalypse. While the world is ending. But it doesn’t end – we survive, now what? How do we build this society?”

To answer this question, Frostpunk 2 has become much, much bigger: our starting area is roughly the same size as the city at the end of Frostpunk 1.

But it is only the government district into which the areas where the large steam engines are located and production is running free in Frostpunk 2. And those where people live.

In the game’s menu, we see districts for food production; for coal mining; for chemical production or logistics, which have different needs – industry needs workers, workers need food. Advanced industry needs engineers, which requires an educated class – so the construction part grows significantly.

“We didn’t just want to deliver the same game with a few new mechanics, we wanted to offer a new gaming experience,” says Jakuk Stokalski, the game director of Frostpunk 2.

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“It’s no longer about the small decisions we make every day. It’s about the big ones, over weeks, months and years.” It’s now about governing districts. But this is no less oppressive, because although 30 years have passed, the civilization of Frostpunk 2 has developed little in our minds.

The camera zooms in on a little boy, 8 years old – he’s dreading his shift at the organic waste recycling center. A euphemistic name for a factory where children have to work in human excrement.

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A friend of his almost drowned in the slurry, and the little boy is scared. We can change that, we can pass laws, give our inhabitants a better life or rule as a dictator with a heavy hand. But as always in politics, there are those who are in favor of change.

And those who are against. We preside over a city council that is made up of these different neighborhoods, which is why we have to make sure that we get the many interests under one umbrella. Or play them all off against each other to strengthen our own power – like President Underwood in House of Cards.

In Frostpunk 2, there are conservatives who believe children should still work in feces. But chemical fertilizer also has its dangers

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Along the lines of: “It worked well for 30 years, it’ll work for another 30 years.” For us as regents, it’s about finding reasons for legal reform and supporters – the little ones are getting sick, children have already drowned in the cesspit.

We get support from the technocrats. They want children to go to school because technology is the future. It was steam technology that allowed our people to survive the ice storm. But anyone who knows Frostpunk also knows that 11bit Studios doesn’t allow easy answers to difficult questions.

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The technocrats want to replace human fertiliser with chemical fertiliser, but this also has its risks in production. Progress is usually paved with failures, and often with victims.

In the first trailer, for example, we see an explosion, probably in a chemical plant? And people are running around wearing gas masks, which indicates polluted air. So it’s not so easy to abolish child labor. So how do you find a balance so that work doesn’t stop and, above all, no revolts break out?

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Well, for example by developing systems. Sewage systems ensure that excrement is removed from the city so that the stench is kept to a minimum. That pleases the technocrats, who we can also tell: “Hey, support my political course now and the slurry plant will soon be history.” On an honor system – but if we don’t do that, our reputation with this section of the population will plummet.

The Icebloods are a new faction of veterans – those who survived the ice storm and have a Spartan mindset – “the strong will survive, the weak will die” – and we also have to somehow reconcile these hardcore Darwinists.

“It’s more about the social temperature. Rather than the temperature in the ice.”

And then comes the next ice storm..

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11bit Studios is definitely taking big risk here, because Frostpunk 2 plays very differently to Frostpunk 1, which was very much about micromanagement and making tough decisions on a human basis.

Survivors knocked on our door and asked for shelter – our heart said yes, our head doubted it, because our food supplies are already too low to get our own people through. We also kept looking at the temperature display – people were constantly freezing to death, which was almost an everyday occurrence in Frostpunk 1 because the steam generator wasn’t enough for everyone.

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Now we preside over a parliament, are mayor of a growing city in the industrial age of a steampunk society and have to adapt many laws, trying to take some of the brutality out of what forged the humans.

We remember that in Frostpunk 1, betrayal and theft were often punished with death in the ice. Through our political decisions, we can also simply put thieves in prison, even if conservative forces may not like it.

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We see an overlay with a heat map that works in a similar way to the temperature measurement in Frostpunk 1, except that it shows the tensions within the population. I like the fact that there’s no Star Wars thinking here, no “The Rebels” versus the “Empire,” but that everyone is playing their own little game.

The technocrats may appear to be modern people, but they also want the state to have power over the children, not the parents. And even this party is divided, because some do not want individualism, but rather a kind of communism in which the individual is subordinate to the community.

Others see independent thinking as the only way to solve technical problems. And then suddenly the next ice storm threatens and we switch back to the fight for survival.

Do we send the kids back into the cesspit to ensure the survival of the collective? Do we take inhumanly brutal measures and risk the lives of some to protect the many? It seems there’s more Frostpunk 1 in Frostpunk 2 than first thought.

This preview was translated from German to English and originally appeared on pcwelt.de.

Recent stories by Benjamin Kratsch:

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora review: A breathtakingly beautiful worldSTALKER 2 preview: A cult classic meets Unreal Engine 5Alan Wake 2 review: Horror-psychological thriller as an art house masterpiece

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