Chernobyl, the infamous Ukrainian site of a horrific nuclear disaster in the '80s, has appeared in FPSes like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and STALKER to powerful effect, but what happens when a gamer steps into the real life Zone? Things get downright chilling. And irradiated.
Nick Rush-Cooper wrote about the experience of being there for six months over at RPS, and his account bristles with a mix of tension and quiet wonder.
"I should be used to this space now, but I feel uneasy. Occasionally I anxiously look up and scan the thick line of trees and shrubs that border this area and break line of sight with the nearby ruined buildings. I try to rationalise my way out of this fear—I tell myself the worst thing that's likely to happen is the embarrassment of trying to cobble together an explanation in Russian for what I'm doing if Pripyat's police guard wanders by."
"But there's more to my unease than this. It's not that I'm alone, it's that I've been alone here before. Only the last time was whilst playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl."
He goes on to explore many specific portions of Chernobyl from both real life and in-game perspectives, including famous landmarks from Call of Duty and STALKER and the ever-looming danger of radiation, which really can spike by as much as ten times within the space of a few footsteps. The Zone may have erupted into nuclear chaos nearly three decades ago, but it's still by no means a safe place. Some games, like STALKER, use this as a central mechanic, but for obvious reasons that still can't match the nauseating dread dripping from the real deal.
Needless to say, the way we view real world spaces and the way we navigate them as fearless, bullets-for-breakfast-eating video game bros are very different, but Rush-Cooper was especially surprised by the contrast as seen through someone else's eyes.
"In picking through its abandoned buildings, other visitors also experienced a recollection of gaming memories in Pripyat. As a tour guide, we would take people to the large municipal swimming pool, next to a school. This was one of the last buildings in the city to be abandoned, as the pool was kept operational to provide much needed relaxation for the liquidators, the men working to halt the fire and build the containment structure for the destroyed reactor. It was well recognised from photographs, but during one visit I heard a remark of astonishment from a visitor. I asked him what he had seen and he told me that it wasn't that he had seen something in particular, but that he had a sudden sense of having been here before."
"This space was familiar, he explained, from playing Call of Duty 4. The swimming pool forms part of the Bloc multiplayer map, where it is recreated with great attention to accuracy. He described how he would have run through the door we just came through and then checked corners such as the diving board and the alternate access through a collapsed wall. He then explained the routes through this space to make best use of cover, or how, with a bit of difficulty, you could make your way onto the higher balcony with railings. Very little in the swimming pool room was different, though he noted that in the game all entrances to the swimming pool come through changing rooms and the map does not include the gym we had just passed through."
There's a lot more in the piece about Chernobyl's strange blend of urban decay and hardy, highly evolved plantlife, the subconscious fear of being attacked that games bake into us, and the silent hostility of this real life place that many of us only understand as a video game level. It's well worth a full read.
It's really interesting to think about, too, both from a perspective of how games let us do things we'd probably never do in real life and how many games are still failing miserably to capture a sense of inhabiting a frail, easily broken or infected human body. Typically, we only avoid bull-rushing these sorts of areas in games because we're afraid we might lose progress or our stuff. The looming, instinctual dread of harm to one's self, though, is a much harder thing to pin down.
Also, I learned that real Geiger counters are terribly slow at detecting changes in radiation levels, so I'm just gonna refrain from frolicking through hyper-irradiated fields any time soon, thank you very much.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.