Why do developers keep making Chernobyl games?
On Saturday April 26, 1986, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted. Contaminated nuclear material was released into the atmosphere for about ten days, traveling to Western Europe and the United Kingdom. It became the worst nuclear disaster on record.
Stories about Chernobyl and the exclusion zone’s sense of mystery have since been reflected in video games. At first, the area was only mentioned in passing, but over time it became the center of games, like in the STALKER series and the upcoming Chernobylite. These games allow players to explore the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which includes the abandoned town of Pripyat and the colossal Duga radar facility. The heart of the exclusion zone is Chernobyl, where the remains of Reactor 4 lie encased in concrete and steel.
Investigations into the Chernobyl disaster determined that the meltdown occurred due to ignored safety warnings and poor reactor design. However, the Soviet Union‘s delay in responding to Chernobyl, along with subsequent disinformation surrounding the incident, exacerbated the fallout.
There have been other nuclear incidents, such as the Kyshtym disaster in 1957 and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster only ten years ago. According to the International Nuclear Event Scale, only the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters were classified as major accidents. However, Fukushima’s concrete and steel containment structure meant that the radiological and environmental damage was far less than that of Chernobyl.
The magnitude of what happened at Chernobyl has been imprinted in the spirit of the world times. Much like the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, Chernobyl has become a focal point of modern folklore and conspiracy theories. Such conspiracy theories range from government interference (both Russian and US) to UFOs helping clean up and the disaster heralded by “the black bird of Chernobyl”.
âChernobyl summed up the fear of nuclear technology, which encompassed several overlapping Cold War anxieties,â says Dr. David Waldron, lecturer in history at Federation University. âThere was the technology itself, exemplified by the horrors of radiation poisoning in Hiroshima, and the legacy of secretive and often harmful nuclear testing. It has also been steadily amplified through hundreds of films, novels, and games. “
This emerging mythology made Chernobyl fertile ground for modern storytelling. One of the first games to take place in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was STALKER. The developers of GSC Game World discovered that the events of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s new classic Russian Roadside Picnic (later adapted in the 1979 film Stalker) naturally fit into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Released between 2007 and 2010, each edition of Harasser allowed players to explore the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It takes place twenty years after a second fictitious Chernobyl disaster, which further contaminated the surrounding area with radiation. The premise is that this led to otherworldly changes in flora and fauna and variations in the laws of physics.
Unlike many games, the setting for STALKER and other Chernobyl-based games is real. There is no need to make the area fantastic, as there is nowhere else on Earth. The area has become a time capsule of a former global superpower, where Soviet symbolism adorns Brutalist architecture as it is slowly subsumed by nature.
âThe architecture is not really unique in its overall style (the buildings in Eastern Europe were almost identical in appearance all around the Soviet Union), but the specific look and feel of the environment that was abandoned in the area after the disaster – this is something you won’t easily find elsewhere in the world â, explains Artur Fojcik, Chernobylite Game Director at The Farm 51. “It is a mixture of industrial constructions linked to the nuclear power plant and military installations, attached to the lively, peaceful and cheerful district of the city of Pripyat.”
The abandoned nature of the exclusion zone also makes it a great place for ghost stories. An air of mystery permeates the region, thanks to the myriad of urban legends that surround it. Pripyat is essentially a haunted mansion on a city scale. âI have a theory that ghost stories serve to commemorate a problematic story that we are unwilling to come to terms with,â says Waldron.
Chernobylite exudes an alluring combination of mystery and unease, which prompts people to explore abandoned places. The player takes on the role of a former Chernobyl employee, who mourns the loss of a loved one in the disaster. Combining exploration and craft mechanics, the character returns to the exclusion zone to search for his partner, while avoiding the Chernobylites.
Chernobylite was born as a result of The Farm 51’s development of the Chernobyl VR project. We tried to use 3D scanning technologies to create a photorealistic virtual reality environment based on real world scenes â, explains Wojciech Pazdur, Creative Director of Chernobylite at The Farm 51. “Chernobyl, as an exotic and dangerous place, was a very tempting subject.”
The 3D scanning technique known as photogrammetry was essential to immerse the player in the exclusion zone. This technique reconstructs a digital copy of an actual object or location using hundreds or even thousands of photos taken using specific cameras and lighting conditions. A laser scanning technique, sometimes using video footage captured with drones, has also been used. “The more time you spend there, the more you feel that what really touches you is not a look of abandoned ruins or the invisible threat of radiation, but the stories of people who lived there and lost their happy lives. because of a terrible accident, “says Fojcik.
Not all Chernobyl-based games are steeped in fantasy, however. Chernobyl liquidator simulator seeks to recreate the events of the Chernobyl disaster from the perspective of firefighters and civil defense troops (otherwise known as âliquidatorsâ). It is a realistic view of the disaster and unfolds during the events themselves. Players are tasked with containing radiation and saving lives. âThe idea arose after watching the series on HBO: we found it to be an exciting story that can be shown in the way of the game, âsays Pawel Lipiec of Live Motion Games. âIt’s not a fantastic game. Here we step into the world that really existed, into real places and real stories. “
Unlike other games, where players have to deal with the threat of mutant creatures or supernatural anomalies, here the threats take the form of fire and radiation. This makes for a much darker, but realistic, portrayal of Chernobyl.
Chernobyl remains a defining moment in our society. So much recent history was determined on that fateful day thirty-five years ago, as the unsolved mysteries surrounding the events became catalysts for urban legends.
âThe story of Chernobyl is the story of the end of an empire. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was supposed to be the largest facility of its kind during the Cold War era, even at the time of the disaster, construction work was carried out to build new reactor blocks, cooling towers and all the surrounding infrastructures â, concludes Pazdur. âSome historians say that the Chernobyl disaster was also the beginning of the fall of communism. If you link it to the personal stories of those affected by the accident, to the drastic change in the environment of much of Europe over the years, and to the scientific and military experiences related to the situation, we have a big picture epic rebound of the human race. “