What survival games could learn from real-life survival stories

Everything you do in Frostpunk, you do for the survival of your citizens. And yet you may ask yourself, who are these people? Sometimes an individual will make an appearance in one of the game’s little narratives or voice their opinion after the passing of a new law, only to fade back into obscurity. How do they live, what do they do to distract themselves, to break the monotony, what do they talk about?

Zooming in doesn’t reveal a whole lot, while clicking on one of these tiny figures tells you about their biggest concerns and their family relations, but not much else. Hope and discontent are central concepts, but by turning them into a collective “pool”, whatever they may imply becomes vague and abstracted.

In a game that routinely contains hundreds of figures swarming across the screen, huddled together and de-individualized by being reduced in their common pursuit of fundamental needs such as warmth, shelter and food, it is not surprising that the human element may be drowned out by white noise. Still, it may be worthwhile to balance things out with an opposing perspective. Let’s take a closer look at Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s 1959 account of Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-17), the spectacularly failed attempt to cross Antarctica by land.

After their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed in the Weddell Sea in 1915, Shackleton’s crew found itself in the precarious situation of having to camp on and travel across ice floes, with nothing but a few scavenged lifeboats to cross stretches of treacherous open water. After surviving for ten months under circumstances that make the lot of Frostpunk’s survivors look almost cozy by contrast, the whole crew was finally rescued after a last-ditch effort to reach Stromness whaling station.

The Endurance trapped in the ice at night.

Lansing interviewed many of the survivors and had access to the diaries they kept during the expedition, which resulted in a detailed, intimate look into the hardships they endured. Like the citizens suffering from largely unspecified sicknesses in Frostpunk, Shackleton’s crew was tormented by a variety of afflictions, such as frostbite, abscesses, salt water boils, bad teeth, diarrhea, constipation and “squeaky gut” caused by a meat-only diet, and a case of gangrene which forced them to amputate. Icicles grew from their noses, and their bottoms were chafed from having to use ice as a toilet paper substitute.

Wreck of the Endurance.

Hygiene may not be a concern in Frostpunk, but it certainly was for the Endurance Expedition: “And everybody’s face grew filthy from the blubber smoke. It infiltrated everywhere, clung tenaciously to whatever it touched, and responded poorly to snow and the small amount of soap that could be spared for washing. [Some] purposely let the dirt accumulate on the theory that it would toughen their skin against frostbite.”

Not unlike the survivors of Frostpunk, the crew members were often forced to camp in the same spot for weeks or even months at a time. Surgeon Alexander H. Macklin wrote in his diary: “It is hard to realize one’s position here, living in a smoky, dirty, ramshackle little hut with only just sufficient room to cram us all in: drinking out of a common pot … and laying in close proximity to a man with a large discharging abscess – a horrible existence, but yet we are pretty happy.”

Morale, quantified as hope and discontent, is an engaging if simplistic affair in Frostpunk, predictably improving with positive and deteriorating with negative events. Endurance paints a more complex picture of the human psyche under extreme duress, whose resilience sometimes seems to defy both credibility and reason: “[T]here was a remarkable absence of discouragement. All the men were in a state of dazed fatigue, and nobody paused to reflect on the terrible consequences of losing their ship. […] It was quite enough to be alive – and they were merely doing what they had to do to stay that way.” Captain Frank Worsley wrote in his diary: “The rapidity with which one can completely change one’s ideas … and accommodate ourselves to a state of barbarism is wonderful.”

Ocean Camp, Weddell Sea - The castaways adrift on the sea ice, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild are standing together at the left of the picture.

What seems to have taken the heaviest toll on their mental health wasn’t the prospect of a miserable death or the constant physical pain and discomfort, but rather the unrelenting monotony. First Officer Lionel Greenstreet wrote: “The monotony of life here is getting on our nerves. Nothing to do, nowhere to walk, no change in surroundings, food or anything. God send us open water soon or we shall go balmy.” Macklin had similar complaints: “One looks forward to meals, not for what one will get, but as definite breaks in the day. All around us we have day after day the same unbroken whiteness, unrelieved by anything at all.”

Even though the crew never was in imminent danger of starvation, food became a major obsession due to their monotonous diet consisting mainly of the meat and blubber of seals and penguins. Communal reading of a cookbook that survived the shipwreck became a favorite pastime. Storekeeper Thomas H. Orde-Lees wrote: “We want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, blackcurrant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.”

The men on Elephant Island after three months, still hoping for Shackleton to bring a rescue ship.

Their food predicament even provoked some tasteless (pardon the pun) gallows humor. Worsley wrote: “Greenstreet and I amuse ourselves at Marston’s expense. […] We implore him not to get thin and even go so far as to select chops, etc., off him and quarrel about who shall have the tenderest part. Finally he gets so disgusted with us that whenever he sees us approaching he turns and walks away.” Tobacco, too, was obsessed over as soon as it ran out, sparking what Lansing calls “a period of depression that amounted almost to mourning”. The desperate crew scrambled to find a suitable substitute, eventually resorting to smoking shoe insulation and lichen.

Tom Crean with Husky puppies born aboard ship in January 1915.

We also come across ethical and pragmatic dilemmas not unlike the ones we face as leaders of Frostpunk’s “last city”. Notably, Shackleton’s order to kill the sled dogs to conserve food sparked some backlash and controversy, severely impacting morale: “Among the men, reactions ranged from simple resignation to outraged shock. [F]or many men, the dogs were more than so many pounds of pulling power on the trail; there was a deep emotional attachment involved. It was the basic human need to love something, the desire to express tenderness in this barren place.” Macklin reminisced about one of his dogs: “I remember taking him out when he was a puppy in my pocket, only his nose peeping out and getting covered with frost.”

Lansing gives a vivid impression of the social dynamics between the crew members of the Endurance, the very concrete hopes and horrors held and experienced by them, and the ways they dealt or failed to deal with their physical and mental afflictions. As accomplished as Frostpunk and games like it may be, their coldness doesn’t merely stem from their subject matter, but also from their comparative lack of humanity.

However chilling the story of the Endurance Expedition may be, it never lacks the warmth that comes with empathy and intimate insight into other people’s struggles. If you’ve ever played Frostpunk and idly wondered about the everyday lives and concerns of your little survivors, Endurance may prove a treasure chest that may well enrich your experience.

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