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Frostpunk’s Book of Laws & The Agency of City-Building Decisions

Frostpunk, City-Builders, Brigham Young, and Agency as Art

By R.J. SikesPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
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Frostpunk is awesome.

I haven’t gotten that far in it, but I have played enough to get the gist of the game and to explore a few different styles of playing. It’s a unique twist on the city-builder genre because on top of building a city, you build a city that is in an intense freeze. There are the standard resources to worry about, housing and food and healthcare, but there is also heat. Buildings that are farther away from the center are colder, and are more likely to cause sickness.

Frostpunk comes with a policy system called “The Book of Laws”. You decide on rules for your town to follow, and it starts by finding solutions to problems that would naturally come up in budding societies. What do you do about the children? Do they work or will someone watch over them? Do you amputate those who are sick with infection? Do you force people to work later if you need resources? Each of these will change how the people think of you, changing how hopeful or frustrated they are. It is also an example of a system that captures a unique fact about the way our governing works. Deciding the structure of how processes are done has material, mental, and social consequences.

I’m fascinated by the process of developing a City. It’s one of the things that draws me to city-builders as a genre. There is a bit of a misalignment from city-builders with urban planning for many reasons, one of which is that cities aren’t blank canvases. Cities and towns and settlements and nations and empires are not constructed from an omnipotent player who has a reasonable expectation of their choice’s impacts. In reality, cities are ecosystems built by local culture, wildlife, terrain, and climate. They are situational, and often a city is the management not merely of necessary resources, but of the emergent patterns that rise from the city’s resources and conditions.

Frostpunk’s Book of Laws are presented as decisions on how to run the town. The player is told how their decisions will impact hope and discontent, two meters you keep track of as a way to represent the social aspect of leadership. For example, early on, you learn that the Old Nation is gone and there aren’t civilizations out there like you had thought. This puts your population in deep existential dread in knowing they may be the only ones out there. You have a choice on how to inspire them: order and nationalism, or faith and religion?

Then as you progress, your decisions about Neighborhood Watches or Town Meetings or Evening Sermons and Temples are again presented as things to improve hope or remove discontent. They are not about legitimate concerns about safety or the soul. While some of your decisions as a player may be influenced by legitimate concerns, that is not the framework the game offers them in.

I have recently read The Latter Day Saints: A Study of the Mormons in Light of Economic Condition. The book is a late 1800s report from Europeans who visited America to do an economic analysis of the Mormons. The Mormons are a religion whose history are uniquely recent and recorded, and can provide an example of how a religion is shaped by non-spiritual factors. How do beliefs change as the law requires it? How do beliefs change as a religion is threatened by declining numbers? How does a religion with a tenet of economic growth react to a capitalist world?

Frostpunk is an exploration along the same tongue. There are parts of our world that are shaped by unpredictable cultural movements or natural events, but there are also parts of our world that are shaped by people with control and vision. A large part of our world is in the hands of decision-makers. These decision-makers, who also responsible for keeping many material systems productive and growing (farming, mining, building) are the ones who are making important decisions on how the world is run. Of course, the real-world is less clear and in the control of one or two people, but there are layers to a lot of the discourse on any policy decision. One layer is always the material which focuses on the real, physical resources that we need as humans to survive and thrive.

Another one of the laws you decide on is the use of the dead for organs. If you want to take it further, you can choose to not only use bodies for organ transplants, but also for fertilizer. The way one interacts with the dead is a powerful and intimate emotional connection, but bodies are also a physical thing. They need a designated storage space and shared cultural expectations (one may choose the law for ceremonial rituals, which grants additional time off-work to grieve, but of course you can’t choose both funerals and using bodies as a resource).

It was Thi Nguyen who used John Dewey’s ‘crystallization’ of art to understand games. Dewey, and artists referencing him, refer to art as ‘crystallizing’ certain aspects of life, highlighting features of our experience and amplifying their traits in powerful and harmonious patterns. A painting may be the crystallization of colors and lines, music the crystallization of sound. For Nguyen, games crystallize agency as that is the primary method for delivering the medium. During a game, one will make choices, and it is the context of these choices that give much of the game meaning. City-building games capture a specific sort of agency of governance/mayorship, and Frostpunk offers a particularly interesting range of governing decisions to pull from. When I play the Spirituality route, going into it with the full intent of keeping my people happy to keep the systems moving, I feel a bit like a Brigham Young of my own: running my people to grow my people and what they are doing.

I’d recommend a play; 2 is coming out soon.

[This article was originally published on Medium]

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R.J. Sikes

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