Our exploration as gamers of the exclusion zone around the blighted reactor would not be possible without this unique set of circumstances and personal visions.
SPLINTERS OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE
The Stalker story starts not with Chernobyl, but another piece of Ukrainian history: the conquests of the warring steppe people of Eurasia, the Cossacks. GSC, who had formed as a small group of gamers in Kiev in 1995, started their career in games by producing their own historical wargame, Cossacks: European Wars, based on the Napoleonic era wars of the Russian nations.
That game has, to date, sold an astounding four million copies and was the title which put GSC on the international map.
Although not historically accurate (or even strategically accurate) the theme clearly had resonance for players across Europe, and the theme of rampaging Cossack armies in the time of Waterloo was one that GSC clearly relished. This success set the precedent for GSC as a company that used their own cultural materials.
The team clearly knew how to use Ukrainian history, and they learned how to integrate these ideas into an accessible game design. Few debut titles have been as popular.
Anton Bolshakov is a senior developer at GSC - he's a member of the team that willed Stalker into existence, and he has plenty to say about the origin and impact of his game. In 2000, the same year that Cossacks was released, Bolshakov and his associates began to brood over a science fiction concept they called 'Oblivion Lost'. It would be a first-person shooter of bold ambition.
"The game was to be the best in everything," he recalls. "We targeted creating the best engine, attaining realistic graphics, developing innovative concepts and delivering innovations to the genre."
Their design was, at first, based around the most successful shooter they'd played. "Until 2002 the initial concept was oriented on 15 linear levels, similarly to classic adventure shooters," Bolshakov explains. "An anomalous Half-Life, if you like. In spring 2002 the concept drastically changed, with Chernobyl made to be the centre of the game. We decided to implement a huge world of the 30 square kilometre zone around the power plant."
The team began to map the real Zone, the one just a short drive from their homes. "Splinters of Soviet Empire are plentiful in Ukraine," says Bolshakov. "Forgotten productions, catacombs, neglected military facilities and so on... Our office is located at an ex-military factory."
So why use Chernobyl itself? "To me it's living history. Ruins of old Soviet industrial complexes, blocks of flats, military and civil facilities, vehicles and so on are still plentiful around ex-USSR. However, those traces of old empire can hardly be felt as keenly and strikingly as in the Chernobyl zone.
"When walking around such areas you can't but think how the time froze at this place of man-made catastrophe," says Bolshakov. "Logically, it struck us as a cool game setting to explore". Next thing, the Soviet system was sealed, many facts were kept secret, so even the most harmless objects or events generated unbelievable rumours and legends...
The myth and reality of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., part two, coming soon.