Worlds from The Zone

Few games are as bleak as GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Then again, few games have appropriated the mythology, psychology and geography of the old Soviet Union, and fewer still have made intelligent use of both real-world disaster and obscure science fiction of the 20th century. Stalker‘s first-person survival/horror themes exist in a space that is both real and grimly fantastical – a dimension of bending reality and of crumbling Soviet ruin. It’s a singular, mysterious vision of an alternate world that exists nowhere else.

What I find most fascinating about Stalker is the development team didn’t feel obliged to create a world of their own, as many game designers seem inclined to do. Instead they rejected their original, rather more futuristic “Oblivion Lost” concept to make something set in an aspect of our world, and in the near future. GSC’s creation has gathered elements of cinema, literature and the derelict Chernobyl region to create a gaming experience unique in its use of disaster-as-beauty and precocious in its ambition to create a living world. Stalker might not have been all some optimistic gamers had hoped for (a few people had visions of an autonomous, AI-driven mega-sim), but it nevertheless seemed to work.

This success is due partly to GSC’s (occasionally shaky) grasp of FPS game design and partly their sense of what is useful about their local Ukrainian heritage. Stalker‘s complex storyline, which remains obscure to anyone who fails to thoroughly explore the entire game, is secondary to the larger cultural meme in which the game is set: the idea of the Zone Of Alienation.

Today, “The Zone” is the abandoned 30 square kilometer area surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site, where a poorly-maintained Soviet reactor exploded in 1986. The Zone is an area where no one is supposed to live, and yet both tourists and scavengers still travel there. However, the fictional idea of The Zone existed long before the Chernobyl event, and it has become a powerful (if nebulous) mythological concept within Soviet and post-Soviet culture. The sense that life has imitated art springs from the way the disaster at Chernobyl seems analogous to the ideas that previously emerged from the innocuously titled science fiction novel Roadside Picnic.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 work told of a mysterious event, where something alien struck the Earth from space, leaving various contaminated zones across the world. These zones are filled with weird dangers but also contain wondrous artifacts which certain desperate people, known as “the Stalkers,” attempt to retrieve. Roadside Picnic‘s title is based on a metaphor by the character Dr. Valentin Pilman, who compares the alien contamination to the contamination caused by absent-minded people at an everyday roadside picnic. After the people have departed from a picnic, the doctor suggests, local animals encounter human garbage that litters the area. The things they discover are alien to them, and often dangerous – such as sweet wrappers and motor oil. With the event of the zones, humankind faces the same situation as those animals: Something incomprehensible has visited the Earth, and its presence has left behind zones of danger that cannot be explained or controlled by humankind.

GSC’s Stalker offers a different explanation for the weird properties of The Zone. Their complex tale of experiments in psychic energies and paranormal consciousness uses the alien contamination idea for a cover for what is really going on, although the theme of unmanageable pollution in a zone of dangerous distortion remains. However, what defines the game’s potent atmosphere and weird mythologizing of the Chernobyl site – and what allows it to work such grim magic – is the way the idea of The Zone, and its Stalkers, has penetrated the modern consciousness of Russia and The Ukraine.

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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.

But Stalker offers only the weakest allegorical illumination of a painful subject – videogames are all surface and response, and I don’t suppose anything will change that. The more important achievement of this game is that it has created something that is completely independent of American cultural hegemony.

While gamers are quick to point to the gaming esotericism of Japan, or even Korea and China, the fact is almost all games, particularly action games, pay homage to America in some way. Videogames are dominated by American cultural themes, science fiction doubly so. Games are filled with American soldiers, American voices, American cities, American wars, American myths: The potent, popular images of U.S. comic books and of Hollywood movies utterly dominate the landscape of videogaming. But not in Stalker. Here there is only Russian.

Stalker‘s incidental speech is all in Russian, and the spoken English thick with accents of the Ukrainian actors. The landscape is Ukrainian – taken from the very real zone around Chernobyl – and the fiction is Russian, inspired by Russia’s own tradition of hard science fiction. If Stalker is exploitative, it is only in the sense that GSC Game World has made the best use of the materials immediately at hand, their natural cultural resources. Despite the distinctly American genesis of first-person shooters as a genre, GSC hasn’t produced something defined by American culture. Stalker does not pander to the expectations of a videogame audience that is now over-familiar with the concept of American first-person shooters. The Zone themes aside, Stalker has produced a game that makes special use of mixing scripting with random AI-interaction to breakdown the linearity and narrative predictability we’ve come to expect from FPS games. (It’s worth mentioning the “Realism” and “Stealth” mods for the game greatly improve the overall experience, too.)

So, GSC has made a game that articulates the powerful concept of The Zone of Alienation, a wholly Soviet concept, but they have also made a game that demonstrates that local fictions and local myths are just as potent as any adopted and exported by the American culture machine. It’s a rallying cry for developers across the world: to look to their own fictions, their own myths, the deep history of their own peoples. Creating game fiction does not rely on any culture outside your own. GSC has, I am inclined to think, made a game that does far more than immortalize the world that lies beneath the Shadow of Chernobyl, and I look forward to the days when videogames deliver us myths, ideas and landscapes that are native to Argentina, India, Syria, Tibet, Egypt, Sudan … somewhere, anywhere, just make it work.

Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.

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