header is screenshot from Winter Games
The Sacred Engine
Yussef Cole

Winters in New York City can be long and brutal, particularly so for our homeless population. An average winter night finds thousands forced to make do without shelter, suffering the city’s often below-freezing temperatures. Some make camp in the subways, the only warm public places that stay open all night and won’t automatically kick them out. Every morning, commuting New Yorkers bundle up and head out to work. We nervously peer into car windows as the train pulls up to make sure we don’t stumble onto some sleeping itinerant. We ignore their requests for loose change and do everything to avoid their gaze as we rush off to our classes or our jobs. We keep our distance from the subway cops who mutter into their walkies as they nudge blanketed sleeping figures with their boots. This is the stark reality of winter in the city, a reality we grudgingly accept as long as we’re not the ones left out in the cold.

Frostpunk is a game about figuring a way in from the cold and outlasting the brutality of an endless winter. The last survivors of humanity are forced to huddle, and build their flimsy clockwork town around the blazing red hearth of a massive solitary furnace. The furnace is the lifeline and the anchor. All hope, all ambition, is tethered to its ephemeral promise of warmth. All future plans rely on feeding it enough coal to keep it running for one more day. All hierarchies and orders of privilege are stacked radially outward from its center: those farthest away from the furnace will feel the least comfort from its heat, will be the quickest to die.

As much as Frostpunk is a game concerned with the straightforward necessities of survival: food, warmth, beds, it’s primarily about choosing who gets first pick of those necessities, choosing how much of society we are willing to undermine and slough off so that something continues on, as broken and as morally compromised as it might ultimately be.

Many residents of your wintry town may ask some variation of “what’s the point?” as they wake up each day. “Why are we struggling and scratching so furiously to get away from death, to maintain a foothold even as the other foot freezes off from gangrene and frostbite?” Prospects for these folks are not bright, everyone seems to understand they’re living on borrowed time. And further, on borrowed and outmoded technology: smoke stacks and steam generators, sawmills and mines; the same dreary machinery that has been used to rip vital resources out of the earth for centuries, that threaten and endanger the environment, are now an unlikely lifeline. They are the unfortunate tools we must make use of so that we get to say we’re still here, that we are the last ones.

To a less obvious extent we repeat this mentality in our contemporary lived experience. We drive cars, use plastics and rare metals for our technology. We eat food from massive factory farms or shipped from across the globe in airplanes. We still burn lots and lots of dirty, sooty coal all over the world. We let companies sloppily bury nuclear waste, let it seep into the ground water of poor communities. This knowledge is so much to carry, this yawning awareness of all the awful things that are done in the name of progress. As with the homeless old man who holds out a hand or an empty coffee cup, it’s easier to look away, to focus on the details of our upcoming shift, our pressing daily responsibilities. It’s easier to trust that the ones in charge know what they’re doing, and should be trusted to decide what sacrifices need to be made so that the rest of us can live in comfort.

The film, Snowpiercer, by Bong Joon-ho explores some of these concerns in its own text. Like Frostpunk, the world of Snowpiercer has also succumbed to a deadly, neverending deep freeze. The remains of humanity are squeezed into a single high-speed train. Within is a vicious, class-based society, where the poor are restricted to the train’s unheated rear cars and eat protein blocks made of insects, while the first-class passengers are granted space and luxury in the front. In the captain’s quarters poor children are fed into the train’s engine to repair hard to reach sections. Snowpiercer, in all its cartoonish Dickensionism, begs the question of whether a society so warped and twisted upon itself even deserves to keep its foot stuck in the door at all. It depicts a kind of ouroboros mode of survival, where to continue forward, the marginalized must be crushed underfoot so that the elite may live in the comfort that they’re used to. “Everyone in their place,” as Mason, one of the film’s antagonists, would put it, so that the “sacred engine” may continue its noble function.

To Frostpunk’s credit, you can choose not to send children scrambling into the fiery guts of the generator when it needs repair. There are usually ways around inflicting casual and unnecessary suffering on your society, though it is rare that you get to make decisions that don’t have some negative effect on your population. Ultimately, the game still wants you to decide just how much sacrifice is needed, how much blood to let, what to amputate, what to let fester and rot, so that your small ember of hope may continue to exist.

During their treks across the icy tundra, your scouts occasionally find the ruins of other societies where despots drove their population to rebel or flee, frozen epitaphs and clear warning that your job as a leader is to not erase hope, but foster it; to find a way, any way, for it to remain even as the cold grows more and more oppressive. And, provided you act toward this interest, you can spot occasional, delicate evidence of growth. One of the first advanced structures you can choose to build is a cemetary, and once it’s complete, people celebrate. Despite its macabre purpose it’s also a way to confer a little dignity onto desperate people, to not leave their bodies to freeze in the snow drifts surrounding your town but to bury them, to remember them. There is also the mixed reaction to letting in refugees. Though resources will always be scarce, your mission is to be a beacon for humanity, to gather those who are lost. As such, the residents of your town are generally happy to let in refugees, and will lose hope every time you turn away someone in need. You may think of things in terms of input-output ratios and vanishing resources, but for the people of your town, the idealism of the city as a life-raft is a powerful motivating and organizing force, in spite of all the awful sacrifices that are made.

Snowpiercer and Frostpunk alike are stories about arks, and the result of policy decisions made aboard them. To different degrees, both arks are cursed: cursed to suffer from the same cruel decisions and mistakes that first damned humanity and forced it to run for the escape rafts. The Snowpiercer train itself is eventually destroyed. A few of its young riders choose instead to venture out into an uncertain world to try and establish something new, something untouched by the selfish calculations of the old world, by the wealthy, shortsighted, geniuses who attempt to find infinity atop the bodies of the poor and vulnerable.

Frostpunk’s version of this, a splinter group who wishes to return to London, are reviled by the game’s mechanics and narrative alike. The fragile hope that you, as an administrator, are tasked with cultivating cannot brook the notion that the flawed bargain you’ve settled on might not be the only one to choose from. After all, Frostpunk’s is still a society based around the accumulation and hoarding of resources, a system where you can never pause from searching for more raw material to sustain your “sacred engine,” where you are expected to divy up your resources, and perpetually tempted to hoard what little you have away from those who seem less deserving, who might not put your charity to productive use. It will remain a place where some are always expected to live on the fringes, far away from the flame, gripped by the encroaching cold; while others will always be warm and secure, trying hard not to think about the future.


Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.