On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse
Worlds from The Zone

Jim Rossignol | 22 May 2007 12:00
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This effect is partly due to the way The Zone idea has been portrayed in cinema. The visual dereliction of Shadow of Chernobyl is reminiscent of a film that was inspired by Roadside Picnic, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. This 1979 classic of Russian science fiction cinema was filmed in a semi-derelict hydro-power plant in Estonia and is an obvious influence on the game, both visually and in narrative.

Tarkovsky's film was badly afflicted by its attempts to accurately portray the idea of The Zone. The filming was troubled by fast-decaying film-stock and by chemical pollution. The scenes of contamination in the outdoor sections were shot downriver from a chemical plant, and capturing the atmospheric images of foam on the river and of flakes of chemical snow falling from the sky left many of the crew fatally poisoned. A number of those involved in making the film subsequently died of cancers in the following years, apparently as a direct consequence of the filming conditions. It has been suggested that the film was prophetic, foretelling the Chernobyl disaster, although it could be equally elegiac, since it echoes the Mayak nuclear disaster, which produced another heavily contaminated stretch of Russian landscape.

This blighted movie has been as vital to the Stalker game's vision as Chernobyl itself. Placing the ideas of Russian literature and film within the man-made horror of the reactor accident is in itself a masterful and brave piece of game design, but one that would not have been possible without the culture GSC inherited from the Soviet era. Stalker's immense gravity relies partly on the real scars that zones of contamination have left upon the post-Soviet landscape. It is a game that owes its genesis to an amalgam of fiction and reality.

It's hard to say why the mythological idea of The Zone and its stalkers are so appealing to the 21st century mind. Perhaps it's thanks to our desire to interpret meaning from events - the idea that Chernobyl represents something greater than a disaster - or perhaps it is the modern equivalent of a fairy tale: an allegorical device that allows us to come to terms (in some small way) with our nightmarish legacy of pollution.

Whatever the reasons, the idea of The Zone is so potent that the people who now live and work around the Chernobyl site have begun to refer to themselves as Stalkers and the area around the site as The Zone. The Ukrainian photographer Alexander Naumov, who has shown 200 people around The Zone, refers to himself as "a Stalker with fifteen years background." For him, the visits to The Zone take on an almost religious quality, and he has stated that to take money for showing people the site is "blasphemy." For Naumov, the difference between looters and Stalkers is an important one: The Stalkers are the people who understand what has been lost and know the original inhabitants of the region took things not simply because of their monetary value, but because of what they symbolized - things such as the embossed sign above the Pripyat post office. As Naumov reported in one interview: "It was last memory of Chernobyl. People were praying on this embossing as on an icon - waiting for letters from clean land."

For some people, then, the idea that a commercial videogame should be made with a real-world disaster at its core might seem disrespectful, even exploitative. I think quite the opposite is true. Shadow of Chernobyl is an example of a culture tapping into its own history, into what makes it unique and interesting. The consequences of man-made disaster in the Soviet Union need to be illustrated and discussed, and we can do that via fiction as well as through more serious media. The Zone looms large and real for Ukrainians, and the best way to deal with such psychological monoliths is by describing them - perhaps in documentary fashion, perhaps in literature, perhaps in film, and perhaps, eventually, in videogaming.

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