Analysis of Marxist Theory within Frostpunk

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Frostpunk is a city-building survival video game in which you take the role of a leader in an alternative history of the 19th century. The world has been plunged into a volcanic winter, the player is required to manage resources, assign work, and make tough decisions all so that the people survive the cold. The game is centered around the engine, the large steam engine, that emits heat in a circular radius and requires the player to build the city around it to maximize the usage of the heat, often times you will have to make decisions that leave your citizens unhappy, for the greater good. Frostpunk has many elements that can be further analyzed in many different ways and with the use of many different theories, yet Frostpunk may be best analyzed through the lens of Marxist theory. Marxist literary theory looks at text through a lens focused on social class, the assumptions surrounding social class, and the power relations involved in society. Connecting Frostpunk with Marxist criticism seems like a match made in heaven, as Marxist theory is used to help readers to see the role that class plays in the plot of a text. All of these decisions result in the player feeling bad about their choices and forces them to realize that not everyone is going to survive the endless winter. Since Frostpunk involves a lot of utilizing citizens based on class in order to ensure survival, the game-play opens a lot of questions to explore various class systems of Frostpunk through Marxist criticism. Frostpunk is a game that clearly is influenced by Marxism, this paper seeks to examine to what extent it is connected by looking at the mechanics and social classes within the game, with a particular interest towards how the game makes the player feel.

A Little Bit About the Game, Marxist Criticism, and Frostpunk’s Mechanics

Frostpunk is all about survival, hard decisions, and managing the limited resources in a world that keeps growing colder, you start out with a limited number of citizens split into two classes, 'workers' and 'researchers'. While researchers can do the same jobs as the workers, such as gather coal and steel, the workers cannot do researcher specific jobs such as developing new methods of heating and gathering, this splits the already limited number of citizens into two distinct classes. This mechanic can also be further elaborated on when situations get tougher and the player may decide to utilize children as a workforce, after signing the law to allow children to work they become workers with a slower gathering capacity, yet still use as much food as researchers and workers, and the children immediately go to the bottom of the social order. Although at the bottom, the adults will work and make their decisions based on what the children need, as they are viewed as the future, and therefore necessary to survival. Yet seeing the children at work makes the gains the increased productivity seem rather trivial, as the player can see the children walk from the heat out into the cold and even snow gets to the height of their shoulders (Dolkemeyer, 2020). At a certain point in the game, a very interesting mechanic to both assist and hinder with the decision making is introduced, called the 'Book of Laws', which is a series of motions that the player can make into laws to answer certain needs the citizens require (Frostpunk, 2018). Each motion or need that the citizens have in the Book of Laws has two variable choices for the player. An example is when the first casualty happens, the citizens will demand a way to dispose of the body, the player can either sign into law that bodies be given a burial in a cemetery, or that they be disposed of in a big hole away from camp where the cold will keep them frozen and slow the decomposition. Each choice has positives and negatives, a cemetery will take up space in the community and each burial will have a funeral where a certain number of workers will attend and therefore miss out on a few hours of work that may be invaluable to the overall community. While disposing of the bodies in a hole will raise the citizen's discontent but will also preserve the bodies until such technological advancements are made that the bodies may be used for transplants of injured citizens. This is a great example of controlled access in an ergodic text, as the outcome for each Book of Law motion is predetermined yet deciding which law to sign is a non-trivial task and has limits (Aarseth, 1997). Certain game-play mechanics within Frostpunk, particularly the Book of Laws, resource management, and other mechanics, make it so that the player is forced to make decisions that the citizens of the game world might not always agree with. As the overall feeling of citizens is measured with two meters, a 'hope' meter, and a 'discontent' meter, the player wishes to fill the hope meter and keep the discontent meter as low as possible, which is a very difficult task (Frosptunk, 2018). Another important mechanic of Frostpunk to examine is the 'Order', and 'Faith' system, which is a choice the players get relatively late in the game. In which the player can decide to boost many aspects of society through one of two paths, sometimes to the point of fanaticism. The Order path would involve the player centering society around law, and safety, the player would construct guard posts and other buildings around law enforcement and society would, in turn, evolve into a militaristic autocracy (Frostpunk, 2018). While the Faith path would have the player construct society around faith and religion around the steam engine that produces the heat to keep people alive, which would evolve into a theocracy (Frostpunk, 2018). Both paths however end up with the player becoming some sort of absolute ruler, and it leads the player to ask themselves questions of how far they are willing to go to ensure survival. This mechanic is especially interesting to look at in regards to Marxist theory as it allows the player to completely rearrange the social order within the game to an intense degree, so that class and relations are turned on its head. Now Marxist theory examines class relations in text, and as texts can be a multitude of mediums, video games included, it serves to assume then that we can apply many different lenses to analyze a text, yet Marxism fits perfectly to Frostpunk in many different ways. Now Marxist theory as the name suggests posits many views and ideas in relation to social class derived from the writings and thoughts of German philosopher Karl Marx (Barry, 2009). Now, most of Karl's theories involve the eventual decline of capitalism into revolutionary communism and that the best method of governance would be for the people to lead and that everyone be equal. Now Karl Marx's theories were utilized by Vladimir Lenin, and certain aspects attribute Marx to the formation of the Soviet Union, therefore it could be possible to compare Frostpunk and the Soviet Union, as well as Frostpunk and England, as the setting of the game is England. Now Frostpunk has many mechanics that could on their own be a multiple-page project, yet to closely examine them through Marxist theory, we need to limit it to a few mechanics to be examined specifically alongside Marxism. Those mechanics are the Book of Laws, the discontent-hope meter, and finally the path mechanic.

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The Book of Laws, Discontent, Hope, and the Path

Marxism seeks to observe and change the way we think about social class through the use of only concrete, logical, and scientific explanations that result in social classes struggling for power, as that leads to actual social progress (Barry, 2009). The Book of Laws has a singular purpose, to provide the player with two optional resolutions to various problems that the citizens face. Attempting a successful play-through without the use of the Book of Laws would be extremely difficult, or nearly impossible, as the purpose of the book is to appease the citizen's worries through various means. The two choices provide variety to the text yet also have predetermined outcomes, such as a loss of hope or an increase of discontent. The only random component to the Book of Laws is that the option to sign a law comes at various points in the game when a problem is encountered, but there is also a limiter in that a law can only be signed every 24 hours. As there are never enough resources, enough space, time, buildings, and the options provided in the book of laws are never adequately balanced to appease every citizen or to provide every citizen with equal care. Therefore, it becomes necessary to weigh the suffering, scarcity, and loss of hope against each other in order to minimize the discontent and anger of certain citizens (Dolkemeyer, 2020). As each law has varying effects on the populace the social divide between engineers and workers can increase, if heat is regulated to research buildings yet not to shelters where workers rest, then you might face an angry mob of workers, which like in life are the backbone of the social order, and the reason things get accomplished in day-to-day life. If their anger at the laws becomes too great, then the angered party will attempt a coup to remove the player from power, which in turn, can end the play-through. Now this could make the player feel as if he is alone in the decision making, when a resident's child is hurt, the player feels responsible, yet it is the parent of the child that will demand action from the player (Salo 2020), this gives the player a personal investment in the difficult decisions and can even affect the player's feelings. Now the hope meter is of utmost importance to the well-being of the citizens, and also to the overall social order, without hope, discontent will rise and the citizens will go on strikes, attempt coups, and sometimes use underhanded means to attempt to sabotage the player, this is interesting as the very point of the game is to take care of your citizens, yet they can, in turn, become an issue, or even threat, as in this social order the player is the one who makes the decisions. Barry writes that within Marxist criticism that there is something called interpellation, where the working class is made to feel as if they have a choice in how things are run when in reality it is a façade for the people in power to grab tighter control over the working class (2009). In Frostpunk, there are certain forms of interpellation, such as when the citizens have become too discontented, the player can institute certain activities, such as polling, and voting stations to allow the citizens to voice their concerns. Now the player can choose whether to listen and utilize some ideas that the citizens put forward, or even completely ignore them, yet the result is the same, the discontent meter will lower slightly and the citizens will be appeased for a while and the player remains in power. Now the studio behind Frostpunk is from Warsaw, Poland, and Warsaw can be known to get quite cold at times, now the studio is called 11bit studios and they have made quite a few games that do not shy away from difficult subjects, and putting the player into scenarios where there seems to be no correct or good outcome. Described as a studio that “is devoted to creating and publishing meaningful games able to leave a strong mark on a widely understood pop culture”, now this is important as Marxist criticism involves looking at the social-economic background of the text's author, in this case, 11bit studios, and that their social background actually influences their text and meaning greatly (Barry, 2009). Now the studio crew that makes these games have stated that their home greatly influences their games, the hardship and history of their native Poland serves as inspiration for many of the aspects of their games that can make the player question at what point the game stops being fun. It is also important to analyze to what extent is the text influenced by the political and social situations of the author, player, or characters, as it is dangerous to assume that the influence is immediately true (Barry, 2009). It is clear that the studio has used their own political and social standing as an influence, yet in the creation of a text, an influence can spawn ideas that snowball further and further, producing more ideas that are not necessarily influenced. At a certain junction point within the game a scenario will play out, this scenario is unavoidable and is essentially the game telling the player to prepare for the worst. This pushes the player and citizens into panic, as survival becomes even more important, and the player realizes that in order to survive they may have to forsake some of their morals. This opens the player to contemplate their own morals and consider their own social standing, would someone from the middle class play differently than someone from the 1 percent. To what degree would the player's own social-economic standing affect their decisions of morality and survival. Now the Book of Laws has another state, further into the game after the junction point the player gets to decide a 'path' for their city, autocracy, or theocracy. Now if the player decides to give the citizens hope by religion, prayer and ideology then the citizens will have more hope for survival, yet their hope will be based around the deity of their religion. As Barry states, ideology is a system of symbols, myths, and ideas, that is given historical significance at the center of a given society (2009). And within Frostpunk, the steam engine becomes the thing that the citizens have faith in, but as with any society and faith, it can quickly lead to fanaticism where citizens will pray and even sacrifice others to the engine according to their beliefs. This in turn is paralleled to real life as some religions and beliefs can lead people down dangerous paths, if we see symbols and ideas as a sign from a higher power it can result in individuals feeling that they themselves are not responsible for their actions, as they can, in turn, blame it on a higher power (Barry, 2009). It is also possible to send society down these paths without it leading to fanaticism, if that is possible then the game-play difficulty becomes a little more manageable. Now the other side of the path is a militaristic autocracy where the player commands absolute control over the populace through law, order, force, and security. This in turn makes it so that the player can utilize citizens to self-monitor themselves, they will alert authorities to crimes, they will gossip, and in the worst case, they can utilize their social positions to have neighbors they do not like arrested or framed for crimes. Also, the path system intertwines with the hope system, because when a path is chosen the hope meter is replaced with a constant value. That's interesting as that seems to be a parallel to life, for many, a belief in something of a higher power often gives them hope, something to believe in, and motivation. Often Frostpunk seems like it could have worked as a movie, yet the choices and control are what makes the impact of the decisions the player makes feel important Different mediums such as movies, books, and games have a way of eliciting emotion out of the reader, these emotions can be both pleasant and not so pleasant. Yet that is the appeal of these mediums, and each one is born out of the social community of its authors, the feelings of the reader, therefore, come out of different social situations that influenced the creative process of its medium (Barry, 2009). The personal feelings of the player are important to the authors of the text, and although the experience can feel tedious, frustrating, and sometimes even bad, the experience can still be fulfilling.

Conclusion

Frostpunk is a very different type of strategy game, with the elements and your own citizens as the antagonists it becomes necessary to manage every micro detail of your society. The social classes of your citizens, as well as the laws you enact, can all be very different depending on the choices of the player, and the social-economic background of the player. The mechanics are designed to assist and hinder the player, as none of the decisions are pleasant, there is always some sort of fallout that the player has to navigate through. The social class of the citizens can change with the use of the 'path' mechanic, but the main goal is always to try and give the citizens hope, yet Frostpunk is a lot like real life and the citizen's social classes in the game, are as complicated as they are in life. Marxist criticism seeks to examine how class relates to each other in a text, Frostpunk is arguably a game that revolves around class relations as much as it revolves around survival. The evolution of the society within the game is interesting as the game seems to not wish for a society that works, rather that it evolves into a dictatorship that results in the player becoming the antagonist, and therefore warrants the player to self-reflect. Frostpunk uses its social class system to create difficult situations for the player to navigate, which shows that video games, like movies and other mediums, can give the reader different experiences, good ones as well as unpleasant ones. Yet Marxism shows the underlying problems with various social constructs, through the scenarios within Frostpunk. As well as the importance of social constructs within a society for the society to properly function.

Works Cited

  1. Aarseth, E.J. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. John Hopkins University Press. Accessed September 22.
  2. Barry, Peter. (2009). Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
  3. Dolkemeyer, L. (2020). Autocracy for the People. Modes of Response-Able Action and the Management of Demise in Frostpunk. Gamevironments 13, 64-102.
  4. Frostpunk. (2018). 11 Bit Studios.
  5. Salo, Heidi. (2020). It Could Be Worse: Representation of Human Survival Behaviour in Frostpunk. Bs Thesis.
  6. Steam. (2021). 11 Bit Studios. Accessed 8 December.
  7. 11bitstudios. (2021). https://www.11bitstudios.com Accessed 8 December.
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Analysis of Marxist Theory within Frostpunk. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/analysis-of-marxist-theory-within-frostpunk/
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