Dilapidated buildings. Empty facilities. Swathes of nature. Pockets of radiation. A haunting sense of desolation. These are what one will find in the Zone, the setting for GSC Game World's survival-horror shooter series, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It sounds like the typical elements of a post-apocalyptic setting, but the Zone is in fact based on the real-life Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that was set up after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986; the developers made visits to Chernobyl to assist with its in-game recreation. Of course, the Zone in the games isn’t completely identical to the actual Exclusion Zone. The geography is different, and the real zone doesn't have weird mutants or reality-warping anomalies that were caused by a second disaster. But the element of realness very much exists in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and that is partly why the Zone is so unforgettable, and mainly why it’s so tragic.
It's likely that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, announced back in May, will again return to this same location, although firm details don’t exist yet. As IGN reported, the long-awaited sequel - the third game, Call of Pripyat, that came out back in 2009 - is still “at the design document stage of development”, and the game is slated for a 2021 release date . There's simply not much to know about at this point, but it's a bit hard to imagine the game simply abandoning its predecessors’ established and well-received setting, despite Call of Pripyat’s seemingly conclusive ending.
Enter at your own risk
For now, any hunger for the Zone will have to be satiated by the existing games and their mods. Call of Pripyat was my chosen entry point, being the newer and apparently more welcoming game. It's also, based on videos, less atmospheric than the first game, although that doesn't mean that it's devoid of atmosphere. The Zone in the third S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game is frequently grim, hostile and creepy, a harsh and uninviting video game setting that is nevertheless memorable. It’s also, as mentioned earlier, a sad place - a reminder of the dangers of nuclear power and scientific pursuit. Call of Pripyat doesn't need a weepy story or tragic characters to create sadness; it evokes emotion through its setting. At one point, it felt like the place was constantly radiating a depressing aura, and with every virtual step I took, my real self was permeated by it.
The Zone’s history - mainly the actual 1986 incident rather than the fictional 2006 one - contributes much to this. Walking through a once-ordinary landscape rendered uninhabitable and transformed into a post-apocalyptic state by an actual disaster, I couldn’t help but think of the real lives that were impacted. According to UNSCEAR, 30 workers died within a few weeks, and over a hundred suffered injuries from radiation; the following evacuation involved in total 115,000 people from the nearby areas, and another 220,000 people from other locations were evacuated later. The accident caused the deaths, within a few weeks, of 30 workers and radiation injuries to over a hundred others. Articles can be found about the effects of the accident on both humans and the environment, which persist to this day. Halfway into the game, I started to ponder about the “what if” - what if the disaster hadn’t occurred, and life here hadn’t been disrupted? I wanted that “what if” to be real.
It was during an evening trek towards a mission objective that this question fully spawned in my mind. I was on the way to a helicopter wreckage, and my journey had led me into a large complex that was part of the Jupiter Factory. Curious, I decided not to hurry to my goal and instead took my time exploring the place, venturing from room to room and eventually picking up documents I needed for a separate mission. Due perhaps to the complex’s larger size compared to other previously-visited buildings, it was here that it really struck me that life used to exist normally in the Zone as I combed through the remnants of man’s presence. The complex should have been brightly lit and bustling with staff, but I was alone, and the only thing illuminating the unkempt interior was my flashlight.
As it turned out, I wasn’t really alone though. A voice rang out from a corridor, and I realised that my flashlight had attracted the attention of a group of mercenaries I’d never expected to run into. The ensuing battle was expectedly tense, and further complicated by the arrival of mutant dogs, but at least, for that moment, the complex was alive with human activity again. After the fight, I ventured outside and discovered that I was surrounded by the crushing darkness of night, flanked by large buildings that were once again unoccupied by the living. Suddenly, I felt more alone than I had been moments earlier.
I feel that the sense of sadness in Call of Pripyat is tied to loneliness, and what really makes this work, or at least accentuates the effectiveness, other than the art direction, is the size of the maps. Call of Pripyat consists of three areas, and each is essentially a mini-open world. They’re not massive, but they’re big enough to create a sense of scope and also amplify the feelings I had whilst exploring the Jupiter complex. Even if it was expected for fields and swamps to be mostly devoid of human activity, every man-made structure or machinery that I stumbled upon during my travels served as a reminder of the place’s abandonment.
That sense of abandonment radiates strongly even though the Zone has become somewhat repopulated in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, mainly by bandits, mercenaries and stalkers, the latter of whom brave the dangers of the Zone in search of valuable, supernatural artifacts. Campfires surrounded by stalkers are always a welcome sight at night, and more can be found in the main hub areas, gathered around tables for drinks. It almost feels homely in these areas, and it makes my solo treks across the Zone, outside of certain missions with AI allies, all the more lonelier. A beautiful sunrise may make me forget both that and the decrepit state of the Zone momentarily, but after that the depressing atmosphere starts sinking in again.
Paradoxically, Pripyat isn’t as good at evoking melancholy as the first two areas, despite it being a former residential area and all. It creates feelings of apprehension and unease for sure, but with its military presence and more action-oriented missions that deliver an overall faster sense of pace, there’s not much opportunity to dwell on the ghost town’s past.
By then however, I had already felt impacted by the previous areas GSC Game World once mentioned in a 2007 interview that “the motif behind S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was to create a game which would remind people of the Chernobyl accident and at the same time warn mankind against any possible fatal mistakes in the future.” I can’t comment on the first two games yet, but despite Call of Pripyat’s focus on gameplay, it manages to deliver an efficient message. It may be easy for one to be lost to the Zone, but I don’t think it’d be as easy to forget the Zone.