If you’re a Civilization 6 player, you have to contend with the environmental consequences of your empire building. Coal and oil will help you conquer large swathes of the world, but they’ll also raise CO2 levels until the seas flood into your cities and drown your people. You’re supposed to comprehend the fact that millions are suffering.
But the game’s hurricanes and tornadoes are just little animations on a map—the only visible consequences of the death and destruction they deal out are changes to the impersonal statistics that fuel your empire. Unchecked, climate change can run rampant—but it can also be solved by researching and employing green technologies. In Civ, you don’t have to work with political rivals, convince the skeptics in your electorate, or even cooperate with other countries to beat climate change. You just press the right buttons until the problem goes away.
As gameplay, it works. But as philosophy, it looks optimistic to the point of naivete. Because fixing climate change requires no sacrifice, no empire opposes it. This enables a level of international agreement that makes the recent vacillating at COP26 look like it’s from an alternate universe. Or from a Civ 6 game modified to be impossibly difficult.
Simulation games now routinely engage with climate change, but usually from a place of wish fulfillment. Surviving Mars lets players use magical future technology to terraform the Red Planet into a new Eden, creating a backup home in case Earth is ravaged beyond redemption. Cities: Skylines allows you to transform your city into a sustainable paradise of solar panels, electric buses, and bike lanes, but since you’re not so much a mayor as a municipal god, you never have to answer to a city councilman representing an oil lobby that’s furious with your embrace of wind turbines. Even the voters aren’t forced to examine their lifestyles; in a sustainable Skylines city, everyone happily goes electric instead of insisting that it’s their God-given right to drive their gas-guzzling SUV to grab hamburgers five times a week.
The fantasy of an easy solution is pleasant, and it’s satisfying to see your green city of the future effortlessly hum along. But the goal of these games is to keep expanding, and expanding, and expanding. Green technology is just another, more upbeat way to forever increase humanity’s sprawl.
Frostpunk, a city builder where your citizens can engage in desperate cannibalism, is renowned for being … less upbeat. But it’s also a game about people in an impersonal genre, digging into the nitty-gritty details of everyday lives while other games reduce humanity to a concept.
Set in the late 1800s after massive volcanic eruptions have doomed Earth to global cooling, Frostpunk sees survivors eke out an existence in coal-powered cities. Players have to make hard, brutal decisions, like whether to allow child labor or execute malcontents. How far you’ll go to survive is as important a question as whether you survive at all.
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“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.
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“In many building games, for instance Factorio, the world is generated as you explore it, and is effectively infinite. It doesn't matter how much you mine; because the game is about factories, there will always be more minerals,” Alfred tells WIRED. “Our game has a philosophy of limited resources. The map always remains the same size. The game requires you to balance the levels of various flora, and you cannot simply buy your way to having enough forest or wetland.”
It's a peaceful game—Alfred likens it to “allowing players to feel like a gardener, bringing life back to a dead place”—but it’s also a blunt statement in an industry so terrified of the politics of climate that when Battlefield 2042 unveiled a future ravaged by climate change, EA was quick to claim that the bleak setting was only a gameplay contrivance and not a political statement.
“It's impossible for a game to truly not be political,” Alfred says. “To claim as much is, in effect, a political stance. I think larger studios know this, but it is much easier as an indie to comment on themes like these.”
What, then, would a political city builder look like? How could the next SimCity or Skylines make players meaningfully engage with climate change?
“Make the mechanics around exploitation of the natural world a lot more punishing,” Alfred says. “For instance, pollution causing a layer of smog that has an intensely negative effect on citizens unless they have gas masks, which are very expensive. Conversely, rewarding players for sustainable approaches. Punish over-farming, reward soil maintenance. The single best way to make players engage with your themes is to make the mechanics of the game reflect them.”
Maybe it’s telling that that game doesn’t exist. Maybe climate change is best grappled with on a smaller scale; the single settlements of Frostpunk, the individual plots of land in Terra Nil. Sustainability is becoming an indie trope: Timberborn sees you manage a settlement of sentient beavers and their relationship to water in a world where humanity destroyed itself, and the upcoming Stardew Valley-esque Coral Island plans to have players work to revitalize not just their human community, but the nearby coral reef as well.
By limiting their scale, these games force players to see how every decision affects a community, the land it sits on, and the people (or beavers) living on it. Zoom out too much and it all becomes an abstraction, leaving us to shrug at millions of fictional casualties in our Civ ecumenopolis. We can’t solve climate change in reality as easily as we can solve it in Civ, but we can at least remember that it’s real people who will be affected by our decisions.
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