Frostpunk: Not Not-Ludonarrative Dissonance

I wrote this quite a while ago and for a different medium (haha), so the style may sound somewhat off.

One really interesting thing about Frostpunk, as well as its developer’s previous work This War of Mine, is that you know exactly what you’re getting into. In This War of Mine, simply seeing the cover image should tell you everything. This game is about the decisions people make as civilians during war. It’ll probably involve stuff like, “should I loot this poor old family or should I share some of my bread with them, even though I don’t have enough to feed myself?” Frostpunk is pretty similar. You might have to watch the trailer, but you should know from the start that the game is about the decisions political leaders need to make during tough times — specifically during a month-long ice age. And there’ll probably be stuff like “should I pass draconian laws or should I risk not having enough coal to make sure people don’t freeze?”

I bring this up because I want to emphasize that the game is really forthright about how it wants you to feel. And it shows its entire hand quite early on: after a little incident, you have the choice of developing new laws either under the grouping of Order or Faith. You already know exactly how this will go. Order laws will put you in 1984. Faith laws will put you in The Crucible. You have to somehow prevent yourself from sliding down this slope while also strategically taking the benefits from the laws.

What’s really interesting is how the game wants to make you “get the point”. As we mentioned, the “point” is that these decisions are really difficult, as they occur at the intersection of pragmatics and ethics. Now, how can a game make you feel conflicted about a decision at the crossroads of pragmatics and ethics? It can’t be a decision about upgrade options; I feel conflicted when switching weapons in Path of Exile, but not because I’m doubting my own ethics. It can’t be a question about branching story paths; I feel conflicted when I’m deciding how to interact with Ciri in Witcher 3, but this doesn’t really have anything to do with how many attack points I have. But we’re onto something, because upgrade options are a question of pragmatics, and branching story paths are a question of ethics…

And this leads us to our first analysis of Frostpunk: in terms of ludonarrative dissonance.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Like Frostpunk, I’m going to show my hand as soon as possible. I don’t think Frostpunk is about ludonarrative dissonance. Rather, I think it’s about mechanoaesthetic dissonance, which is a term I made up, and which I will explain in the next section.

Anyways, let’s quickly review what ludonarrative dissonance is. The narrative of a work generally conveys some idea or theme (which may not always be clear, and is often up to a lot of interpretation). For example, Celeste is, in loose terms, about overcoming depression. Ori and the Blind Forest is about, in loose terms, the value of love and the inherent goodness in life. These are fairly simple examples.

The other half is the ludic. While we generally don’t stop to think about this, gameplay can also convey themes. You will see this a lot less often, especially in triple-A games. Celeste’s gameplay is focused on short trial-and-error levels with quick restarts. You might say that the gameplay presents the theme of continuously improving yourself through failures in order to overcome your obstacles. This theme isn’t exactly the same as the narrative’s theme about overcoming depression, but the two themes do go together well, so you can say that, in some sense, the ludic and narrative parts of Celeste complement each other.

Ludonarrative dissonance follows when the ludic and narrative themes contradict each other. Let’s go back to Celeste. What if the story of Celeste were about the impossibility of overcoming obstacles and the unopposable power of Destiny? You might think, “Hey, that doesn’t really fit with the whole gameplay of repeatedly working at seemingly-impossible obstacles until you overcome them”. That would be ludonarrative dissonance.

The problem with applying this idea to Frostpunk is that the gameplay and the story are actually unified. Because this is a simulator game, the ludic decisions you make are at the same time narrative decisions. There’s no real narrative outside the laws you pass and the buildings you build. And therefore, there’s no way to create ludonarrative dissonance in Frostpunk.

Mechanoaesthetic Dissonance

If ludonarrative dissonance isn’t applicable, then let’s move on to the new term I made up.

First off, mechanoaesthetic comes from the combination of mechanics and aesthetics. So this is a dissonance between the game mechanics and the game aesthetics.

I’ll appeal to an intuitive definition here. Mechanics are numbers: your health, attack, experience points, etc. Aesthetics are the visual layer of the game that provides the spectacle.

What’s important to recognize is that both mechanics and aesthetics provide their own goals. For example, let’s say you’re in a combat situation. On the mechanical level, you should use the attack that does the most damage (or something to the effect of winning effectively). On the aesthetic level, you should use the attack that looks the coolest. In Persona 5, I would sometimes delay battles for a few turns so I could get all-out attack killscreens for certain characters. I put the aesthetic goal (cool visuals) in front of the mechanical goal (reduce enemy hp to 0 as fast as possible). Games like Bayonetta and DMC are centered around pushing you away from a pure mechanical focus towards an acknowledgement of aesthetics and in doing so force you to gain a more complete understanding of both.

Mechanoaesthetic dissonance works simply by making the mechanical and aesthetic goals contradict each other. Let’s say you’re playing a game, and somewhere in this game there’s a puppy. If you press a button next to the puppy, your character will kick the puppy, but you will gain 10 EXP. On a mechanical level, you should kick the puppy, because EXP is good. On the aesthetic level, you should not kick the puppy, because that’s repulsive. Congratulations! You have mechanoaesthetic dissonance.

Mechanoaesthetic dissonance is not the same type of dissonance as ludonarrative dissonance. Ludonarrative dissonance requires that the gameplay construct a theme, and the narrative construct a contrary theme. There are no themes in mechanoaesthetic dissonance. Rather, the game gives you mechanical goals (in this example, gain EXP), and assumes some of your aesthetic sensibilities (in this example, that you don’t want to kick puppies). Then, it forces you to make decisions where you can’t satisfy both at once. Either you gain the EXP and see a terrible sight, or you don’t gain EXP and the puppy remains a cute ball of love. I mentioned upgrading weapons in Path of Exile — you could call that mechanomechanical dissonance, because you have to choose between the mechanical benefits of two items. Maybe one gives you faster move speed and the other gives you better accuracy. But the term sounds stupid and I would not use it.

The kick puppy for EXP example is one where mechanics promote the action, and aesthetics discourage it. I like naming things, so let’s call this mechanophilic-aesthetophobic dissonance. In the other direction — you’ve probably played a game where you had the opportunity to BRUTALLY MURDER AN INNOCENT CIVILIAN WITH YOUR SUPER AWESOME GUN, but it would lower your grade at the end of the level. This is mechanophobic-aesthetophilic dissonance — if you enjoy brutally murdering innocent civilians, that is.

How does Frostpunk actually mobilize this dissonance? Simple. It gives you the options to kick puppies, and then asks: “You probably need to kick that puppy if you want to beat this game. But would you do something so cruel?” In the mechanoaesthetic dissonance, the mechanics function as pragmatics, and the aesthetics function as ethics. The agony of making difficult decisions is conveyed in the mechanoaesthetic dissonance they generate in the game.

For example, there’s a law you can pass called “Neighborhood Watch”. Mechanically, it just increases the “Hope” meter, which is quite nice. Aesthetically, it involves sending guards to actively patrol streets at all times, which you might think is kind of problematic. So this is mechanophilic-aesthetophobic.

Many times, spontaneous events will occur, where you’ll basically have a choice between mechanophilic and aesthetophilic options. For example, one event occurred in my game where some of my spies claimed a guy was a traitor to the city because he was reading Charles Dickens. I had the option of either cutting the spy contracts, which would be a mechanical loss, or throwing the Dickens bookworm in prison, which would be an aesthetic loss.

At the end of the game, when you have to ramp up production really quickly, a lot of severely sick refugees start arriving and asking for asylum. If you accept, it’s a mechanical loss because they’re sick, and the game will end before they can put any work in. If you refuse, it’s an aesthetic loss (if you are repulsed by the notion of leaving people to die outside the gates of a city, which is admittedly not universal).

A lot of laws you can pass kind of mix things up, so they’ll have both traditional mechanomechanical and mechanoaesthetic dissonances. However, mechanoaesthetic dissonance requires that the mechanics are straightforward to interpret, so the mechanomechanical dissonance must be minimized. For example, there’s a New Order law you can pass, which really boosts your Hope meter, but at the same time makes you lose some people from your city. The mechanomechanical dissonance is minor, because a few heads aren’t worth that much. So passing the law is mechanically beneficial. On the other hand, it’s aesthetically problematic because it’s literally fascism and public executions. So this is a mechanophilic-aestheticophobic dissonance.

Why Frostpunk Fails

Though I spent a good few minutes creating a new framework to describe how this game works, I actually don’t think the game is very good, because I think it fails to actually create mechanoaesthetic dissonance.

The main problem with Frostpunk is that is aesthetics are not clear. What happens when you build the Propaganda Center? Well, a building appears. One person says “ARE WE GOING TOO FAR?”. That’s about it.

Ultimately, the “kicking a puppy” thing doesn’t work unless the act of kicking is actually aesthetically repulsive. If I press a button and a text box pops up saying “You kicked the puppy”, it’s not aesthetically powerful, and there’s therefore no real dissonance. In Frostpunk, all the aesthetic revulsion is on this level.

I’m not trying to suggest that text can’t be aesthetically powerful. But a dialog box that says “You kicked a puppy” or “ARE WE GOING TOO FAR?” every time I sign a draconian law is… unimpressive.

Furthermore, so many of the fundamentally mechanoaesthetic conflicts aren’t even touched by the game. These are opportunities for extremely powerful aesthetic revulsion. But the game doesn’t bother. Instead of a conflict that should be mechanoaesthetic, you get a mechanomechanic conflict that isn’t even very strong. For example, if you make people work for 24 hours straight, then the “Discontent” meter gets worse. But the mechanical benefit is so much greater, especially if you use it on a research workshop, that it hardly matters. There’s no aesthetic pushback. Nothing. Although occasionally, you might get a popup saying “Someone died from overwork”.

It’s very straightforward to make images aesthetically powerful. You just need a good artist. On the other hand, making text aesthetically powerful is not easy. For some reason, the words “A puppy is kicked” are not as strong as an image of a puppy being kicked. This is a pretty basic problematic: you can read the news and hear about someone getting killed any time. It’s not particularly traumatic. But if you see someone getting killed, in real life or in a movie, it affects you.

Final Notes

When I gave the example of brutally murdering innocent civilians with super cool guns, you might have thought for a moment that maybe there are people who don’t want to do that. A key problem with using mechanoaesthetic dissonance is that people don’t necessarily have the same aesthetic perceptions. I also mentioned that you might be repulsed by the notion of leaving people to die outside the gates of a city when discussing the refugee event. But there are many people who would in fact be perfectly fine with doing such a thing, or might in fact prefer to murder those refugees. This problem of the “aesthetic non-given” is especially pronounced when aesthetic revulsion relates to ethics and politics, for obvious reasons. There were some minor cases in the course of my gameplay when I had to make decisions that were oddly mechoaesthetically consonant, and I must wonder if that’s due to my own peculiar politics.

Final note: what does punk have anything to do with this game? I was expecting some Froslass in the Shell but I found nothing of the sort.