The Call of Chernobyl

Что происходит, брат?

Long-time readers of the blog will know I’m a big fan of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, even the one everyone hates.  I’ve been playing a ton of Call of Chernobyl recently, and I realized that I’ve never actually written a long-form review for either that mod or for Call of Pripyat, easily the best game in the series and the game on which CoC rests as a foundation.  So that’s this post.  I’m gonna talk about Call of Chernobyl, but also I wanna talk about my experience with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series over time and what it means to me.

Huge chunks of my ancestry come from Ukraine, but I was born in America and I’ve never been there.  When I see pictures or videos of Ukrainian people, I’m a bit taken aback at how much I recognize many of their facial features, because many of them look like members of my immediate family.  But apart from that, I have basically no connection to that part of myself apart from slowly learning the language on Duolingo (shoutouts to Duolingo).

I do have an interest in post-apocalyptic video games.  I’m a big fan of the Metro series, as well as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, NEO Scavenger, etc.  Eastern European development houses have a soft spot in my heart, because of their often very distinctive views on the world and their style of programming and design.  So, it might be a shallow or silly beginning, but it was through these video games (particularly STALKER, also I’m done typing all the periods every time, wow) that I first became interested in learning about the real life Chornobyl disaster.  We certainly didn’t learn much about it in American public school growing up; our education system is quite bad when it comes to anything other than how to be an obedient unquestioning cog in the imperialist machine, so it was up to me to do my own research (on many things) when I became an adult.

The particular style of nuclear reactor used in the Chornobyl NPP had some design flaws that allowed it to spiral out of control under certain circumstances, circumstances which were deliberately (albeit unknowingly) created during a test of the turbines’ ability to keep turning during a low power state.  That situation could have only come about with that particular reactor and in a country lacking a safety culture or any real workplace safety standards, and the design flaw has since been removed from that reactor design.  There’s basically zero danger of another Chornobyl disaster ever happening again.  But people look at this event, and at Three Mile Island’s meltdown (which never caused a single injury or anything, for the record) as somehow being evidence that nuclear power is inherently unsafe.  Granted, there was also the Fukushima accident during the recent climate change-induced tsunami, so I understand the fear.

Still.  Under normal operating conditions, nuclear power is incredibly safe and clean, especially when compared to things like coal and oil (disgusting).  Solar is even cleaner, totally renewable and absolutely 100% safe, but can be a little unreliable.

Anyway, instead of just a huge radioactive dust cloud and the contamination of a 10km area following the Chornobyl accident, in the Stalker games, reality basically broke.  The Exclusion Zone in this series is host to DEADLY ANOMALIES and DANGEROUS MUTANTS.  Anomalies are basically localized instances of the laws of physics ceasing to apply, and inside them are little lumps called Artifacts, which have special properties and which sell for a lot of money to research scientists and private collectors.  There are people who make a living this way, called Stalkers.  They infiltrate the Zone and live inside, against the wishes of the Ukrainian military, who police access to the area.

Stalkers fall into several factions.  The “free Stalkers” or “loners” are those who are out for themselves, just trying to make a living on their own.  The Ukrainian military are not technically Stalkers, but are a faction in the games that takes actions in the Zone, so they count.  Their primary interest is in keeping unauthorized people out of the Zone, and they’ll use deadly force to ensure this happens.  Mercenaries are (this is just my headcanon, it’s not explained very clearly in the games) Russian “little green men” looking to exploit the Zone for foreign interests.  Ukraine has sent in many scientists to study the Zone and its properties, in the form of the Ecologists faction.  There are Bandits, those who live by exploiting other Stalkers through extortion and violence.  There’s Clear Sky, a group of non-government scientists who try to understand the Zone in the name of spreading information.  There’s Duty, military wannabe bootlickers who want to PROTECT THE WORLD FROM THE EXPANDING ZONE.  There’s Freedom, the best faction who want to see the Zone opened up for all to use and inhabit.  And finally, there’s the Monolith.  The Monolith are a little complicated.

In Shadow of Chernobyl (the first game), you play as “the Strelok”, aka “the Marked One”, a free Stalker.  Стрелок (Strelok) is “shooter” in Russian, by the way.  You make your way to the center of the Zone, to the Chernobyl NPP.  In order to get there, you have to pass through an area known as the “brain scorcher”.  Stalkers who pass through the border marked out by the scorcher have their minds erased.  Some become zombies, wandering aimlessly.  Others are converted, retaining their intelligence and skills but losing their free will.  These are the Monolith, and they protected the Chernobyl NPP from curious parties who might have snuck past the scorcher somehow.  The big twist of the first game, of course, is that you were one such Stalker.  But the scorcher glitched out, and it programmed you instead to kill “the shooter”, which it turns out is actually yourself.  Over the course of the first game, you turn off the brain scorcher, allowing people free access to the center of the Zone, and everyone rushes in to see what treasures are there.

You also (canonically, anyway, the first game has several endings) discover and then kill a surviving group of the first scientists sent into the Zone.  The lore here is muddy and complicated, but essentially the scientists were doing experiments on the “noosphere” in secret labs near the NPP.  The noosphere is the field of all human minds and thoughts that surrounds the Earth, apparently, and messing with it is what caused the Chornobyl disaster in this alternate history.  These first scientists, in an effort to contain their mistakes and confine the Zone from expanding, entered into a deep semi-conscious hivemind sleeping state known as the C-Consciousness.  The Strelok kills them all, releasing the Monolith from their brainwashed state, opening up the NPP for exploration, and allowing the Zone to expand.

Clear Sky, the 2nd game, is a prequel wherein you play as a guy called Scar, who eventually is the one responsible for the Strelok being brainwashed and on that body-disposal truck at the start of the first game.  The gameplay of this entry mostly revolves around ongoing warfare between various factions, and it introduces the idea of “emissions”, a kind of immune response of the Zone itself in protest against Stalkers reaching its heart.  People caught in emissions usually die, but Scar is able to weather two of them for mysterious reasons.  His fate is unknown at the end of the game.

In Call of Pripyat, you play as Major Degtyarev, a Ukrainian military guy.  You’re sent into the Zone on an undercover mission to discover the fate of five crashed helicopters.  These were sent into the heart of the Zone after the scorcher was disabled, but all encountered anomalies and were taken down.  It turns out the anomalies move, so maps of them are useless.  You gradually make your way around, pretending to be a free Stalker, doing tasks for people and tracking down the helos, then rendezvous with military forces in the town of Pripyat, where workers from the NPP lived.  You’re given the choice to extract with them and return to your life and career outside, or stay in the Zone.

The reason I feel comfortable spoiling all the endings here is that the story really isn’t the focus of this series.  They do have cool stories, but the primary attraction is the atmosphere.  No other series does atmosphere nearly as well as STALKER does.

A lot of us started with Shadow of Chernobyl, but honestly Call of Pripyat is easily the most accessible place to get into the series.  It incorporates a lot of what Clear Sky brought to the table as far as the engine, UI, and gameplay improvements, but does so in a much more relaxed setting than CS’s faction warfare, and with a less controversial ballistics model that’s a little more fun.  If you want to try and go back and play Shadow these days, all I can say is good luck.  It’s buggy as hell, you can’t repair anything, and just generally it’s really tough.  Even the head bob is so bizarre.  I loved it when I played it back in the day, but CoP spoiled me.  Much better to start there.

Mechanically, these are FPS games.  There’s no RPG elements, only some rudimentary gear upgrading in CS and CoP for mostly small bonuses.  If you play on Master (which you should), headshots instantly kill for the most part.  It’s akin to Rainbow Six Siege, but in an East European post-apocalypse with horror elements.  If that sounds like something you’d be into, you owe it to yourself to play these games.

Call of Chernobyl is a mod that takes all of the series’ trademark elements and mixes them together.  You can go to any area featured in the main trilogy of games, plus a few new ones (like the real-life Truck Cemetery, which is so cool).  You can choose to be a member of any faction from the start, and there are “radiant”-style tasks you can get from any Stalker in the Zone to build your reputation and make money.  It was originally designed as a kind of all in one modder’s resource, and it won Mod of the Year on ModDB in 2015 and 2016.  As of March 13th, however, it has become pretty clear that development has halted.  Everyone involved is working on the game for free in their spare time, and they’re all burned out and don’t want to work on it anymore.  Various efforts to make further changes beyond the current 1.5 beta version have stalled out, and it’s been about 2 years since any progress has been made.

In the past few years, several other standalone mod packs that build on Call of Chernobyl have released, such as Call of Misery, Last Day, Anomaly, and Dead Air.  These are… fine?  But they’re all super-tryhard complicated difficulty mods that, in my opinion, don’t capture the spirit of the Zone very well.  If what you’re looking for is a learning curve that’s actually a cliff, or something to stoke the fires of your masochistic streak, or you’re a Duty type who loves milsims and worships guns and complains when the ammunition in games doesn’t go bad in the rain, then okay have fun.  But the Zone is supposed to be a combination of haunting beauty and quiet contemplation with a little tinge of horror on the edge of your vision.  It’s adventure in a real post-apocalypse place.  It’s supposed to be desolate, but livable; the kind of place that calls to you like a new frontier, not some shithole deathtrap.  You’re supposed to want to run away and be a Stalker yourself.  Nothing about any of the big 4 CoC add-on packs makes me want to live in the Zone.  Which is unfortunate.

So, I’m content to just slap on the Arsenal Overhaul, DoctorX’s Dynamic Anomalies, Structures Redux, Absolute Nature Redux, and go do my thing.  You’ve got to crank it up to Master (always), turn off the crosshair, turn on delayed repairs and sleep deprivation.

I’d like to visit the real Chornobyl Exclusion Zone someday, and put this Ukrainian I’m learning to use.  I’d like to meet and talk with people who once lived there and were relocated, or whose families came from there.  I want to lay eyes on things like the Pripyat Ferris Wheel, or the Elephant’s Foot.  I want to see the new containment structure they put over the sarcophagus, the largest movable structure ever built.  I want to hear the click of a Geiger counter, and see the woods and the buildings for myself.  I want to eat breakfast in the Zone, and drink Ukrainian coffee.  Maybe even a diet sausage or two, if such a thing exists.  Certainly, I think I could find a “tourist’s breakfast”.  It’d just be whatever I have.

Until I can convince my husband to come with me on such a trip, the Stalker games are a worthy substitute.  They let me live a fantasy that even a real visit to the Zone could never be, one where the Zone itself lives and breathes, one where there’s adventure and camaraderie and danger to overcome.

All that said, it’d be nice if there were, you know, any women at all in these games.  It’s pretty ridiculous that there’s just none whatsoever.  And of course the community has the usual Epic Gamer toxicity re: women, but more so because Eastern Europe.  At time of writing, I’m working on a mod to add Stalker women to CoC, playable and NPCs, but it’s going to take a while to complete.  I’ll record voice lines myself, do up some models, mess with the spawn tables, add some new portraits, and bring equality to the Zone.  When it’s done, I’ll make another post here.  Message me if you want to help out.

It’s also exceedingly odd that everyone in the Zone in these games speaks Russian, not Ukrainian.  GSC Game World, the developers, are Ukrainian as far as I knew.  Their HQ is in Ukraine.  Parts of Ukraine are a bit Russified, but like, especially given the political climate of the region since 2014 or so, it’s a little bit uncomfortable playing a game set in Ukraine where everyone speaks Russian and it’s not acknowledged at all.  Are they trying to tell me something?  Or is Russia annexing all of Ukraine just an unspoken spooky part of this apocalypse?  Very odd.  I did find one Ukrainian voice pack mod, but it doesn’t work for me, everyone just becomes silent.

Anyway, that’s it.  These games are great, Call of Chernobyl is the shit, needs more women.  Get out of here, Stalker.

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