S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - the myth and reality #1
9th Sep 2007 | 07:00
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.
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.
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.
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.