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S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - the myth and reality #1

Poring over the history of GSC Game World's first-person shooter

The former Soviet Union is a place where mankind's legacy of pollution has reached a mythological status. Areas of contamination and environmental distortion litter the former states of the Communist superpower.

The idea that the Soviet Union's greatest legacy would be one of cursed earth penetrated both the Soviet consciousness of the time, and that of the new societies that followed. It is this legacy that made one of this year's most interesting games possible.

Stalker, the game that we so enjoy, and that its developers, the Ukrainian GSC Gameworld, are so proud of, comes from a heavy, nebulous theme that hangs across swathes of the old republic: The Zone of Alienation.

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These are the facts: in 1908 something exploded over Siberia with the impact of over a 1,000 nuclear bombs. No one knows what caused the explosion, but the impact felled over 80 million trees across 2,000 square kilometres. The event came to be know as The Tunguska Explosion.

Then came the pollution. The Soviet Union's rapid industrialisation placed huge demands on its infrastructure. Factories, chemical plants and power stations expanded voraciously, unchecked, spewing contaminants onto the land.

In 1957 an explosion at the Mayak nuclear reprocessing plant near Chelyabinsk spread radiation across hundreds of square miles, leaving vast tracts of farmland uninhabitable, and a huge amount of the Motherland off-limits to travellers.

Then, in 1986, an explosion within a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant spread radiation across Europe. Over 30,000 people were resettled and a 30 kilometre exclusion zone created.

This is the fiction: in 1971 a science fiction novella was written by two Russia authors, the Strugatsky brothers. The story was called 'Roadside Picnic' and it was the first work to make explicit mention of The Zone.

In the story something strikes the Earth from space - rather like the circumstances of the Tunguska event. This event creates alien zones that are hostile to life, in a manner analogous with human contamination of natural terrain in the Soviet Union. Fact and fiction begin to intermingle.

In 1979 came the movie 'Stalker', by Andrei Tarkovsky. This masterpiece of Russian cinema was very loosely based on the Strugatskys' book and it detailed the activities of a rather philosophical man (the titular Stalker) whose trade is in taking tourists into a forbidden zone to visit a room in which "your wishes will be granted".

Tarkovsky's Zone was created by an unexplained event, but the film seems to suggest that man had a role in its existence. It has also been suggested that the film prophesied the Chernobyl disaster, and perhaps it did. Certainly the production itself was blighted by the horrors of Soviet environmental pollution - but more on that in a moment.

In 2007 came Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. This game made The Zone explicit, contemporary, and interactive. Shadow of Chernobyl radically merges the fact of the Ukrainian disaster with the fiction of Soviet-era film and literature, delivering it in a first-person videogame of peerless ambition.

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While a few ghost-seeking tourists are making their way through the real world Zone of Chernobyl, tens of thousands of us are exploring the nexus of fact and fiction in a videogame made by people for whom the disaster is very real, and The Zone close at hand.

If Thomas Edison was correct in his observation that genius is "ninety-nine percent perspiration", then that vital spark, the one percent inspiration, becomes all the more significant. It was that fragment of vision, of fact and fiction coming together to define The Zone, that made Shadow of Chernobyl happen.

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