Indie City-Building Games Finally Reckon With Climate Change

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

While Frostpunk’s volcanic backstory lets humanity off the hook, its most recent expansion, The Last Autumn, depicts efforts to prepare for disaster even as large swathes of society deny it’s coming.

“When making The Last Autumn, the question was what you will sacrifice to ensure a chance for a future,” Stokalski says. “But not for yourself; for other people. This sacrifice could be not just your own—you can choose to sacrifice others, regardless of whether they like it.”

That scenario is a natural extension of Frostpunk’s concepts. It isn’t really about climate change, but questions of who and what to sacrifice feel more at the heart of our attempts to grapple with the problem than debating where your city’s sleek recycling center will look most attractive. It’s a game of questions, not objectives.

“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’s the players who have to answer them by making actual choices. And we reap the consequences on our road to ‘beating’ the game.

“I think that’s the unique capability of games: asking questions the player has to answer through action, rather than declaration. And I think that’s meaningful, to learn more about ourselves, because only then we can 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 transition from coal to oil. Stokalski sees both resources as symbolic; coal keeps a fire alight in a freezing world, while oil is “a telling resource, a source of power that enabled huge human achievements, but is also dark, sticky, and dirties everything it touches.” It’s not an explicit comment on the times, 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.

If Frostpunk challenges players to think about the humans in cities, Terra Nil reminds them that there are places humans shouldn’t be. The upcoming simulation challenges players to unbuild a city, transforming old urban wastelands into rewilded natural space. If you manage your resources properly, your last act will be to recycle your tools and depart, leaving no trace of humanity’s presence behind. It’s an implicit critique of games like Civ 6 and Skylines, where climate is just another bump on the road of infinite human expansion.

Tentatively slated for 2022, Terra Nil is the latest title from South African indie studio Free Lives, which previously commented on war and masculinity—in its own unique way—with the hyperbolic Broforce and Genital Jousting. One of the goals of lead designer Sam Alfred is to show that city builders can still be fun and engaging even if you strip away, well, the building.


Author: showrunner