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The Poetry of Radioactive Ruins

When ruins of the city start to surround you, the atmosphere becomes denser. You can feel the pressure from half-broken walls and start experiencing claustrophobia that you never had before. While every single location was amazingly charming and beautiful, the sense of tragedy never left me. If was in the middle of radioactive nowhere where the spirit of death is the only true ruler. My whole adventure was inspired by me reading about the tragedy, playing the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, and watching documentaries about this region. I felt that I needed to visit this place despite it being studied in and out multiple times before me. I simply had to feel it.

When the tragedy shook the Soviet Union and the whole world, I couldn’t really understand the true scale of the tragedy. Being an 11-year old boy is not helping when it comes to such delicate matters. I did not feel anything special despite understanding that people died and that death is generally bad. However, even in Finland we had our share of radiation fallout. I, like millions of other people all over the world, was directly affected by the catastrophe.

I met with my friends in the evening and decided to dwell into the zone bravely yet with a stomach full of good food which we procured in a very nice local restaurant of Caucasian cuisine. We ate as much as we could and rested before heading to the border between the civilized world and the wilderness of radioactive ruins.

When the morning threw its pale light over the decaying walls of the city, we started to move more actively. We were all clothed in dense long sleeve shirts and jackets in order to avoid radioactive dust. We were ready to throw away every part of the outfit after we returned back. The main goal of the trip was to experience a full night in the center of the radioactive zone. We headed to the hotel that engineers and workers occupied when the city was alive and well. Despite spending quite some time in an unwanted company of overly enthusiastic tourists, we were quite happy and we definitely enriched our knowledge about the catastrophe.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a first-person shooter survival horror video game developed by GSC Game World and published by THQ. The game is set in an alternative reality, where a second nuclear disaster occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone in the near future and causes strange changes in the area around it. The game has a non-linear storyline and features gameplay elements such as trading and two-way communication with NPCs. The game includes role-playing and first person shooter elements. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R, the player assumes the identity of an amnesiac "Stalker", an illegal explorer/artifact scavenger in "The Zone", dubbed "The Marked One". "The Zone" is the location of an alternate reality version of the Zone of alienation surrounding the Chernobyl Power Plant after a second fictitious meltdown, which further contaminated the surrounding area with radiation, and caused strange otherworldly changes in local fauna, flora, and the laws of physics. "Stalker" in the context of the video game refers to the older meaning of the word as a tracker and hunter of game or guide.

The background and some terminology of the game ("The Zone", "Stalker") are borrowed from the popular science fiction novella Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky and the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker that was loosely based on it, as well as Stalker, the film's subsequent novelization by the original authors. The term "Stalkers" was later used for the scientists and engineers who explored the interior of Chernobyl's "sarcophagus" after its hasty construction in 1986.

In addition, 'The Zone' is also a term used to refer to the 30 kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, established after the accident.

On 11 July 2007, GSC Game World announced a prequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, which was released on 15 September 2008. On 30 April 2009, GSC Game World announced a sequel, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, which was released worldwide in February 2010.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in an area called "The Zone", which is based on the real-life Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and partly on the settings of the source novel and film. It encompasses roughly 30 square kilometers and features a slice of Chernobyl extending south from Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant; geographical changes for artistic license include moving the city of Pripyat into this area (it is actually to the north-west of the power station), although the city itself is directly modeled on its real-life counterpart, albeit smaller in size.

After the initial Chernobyl Disaster, attempts were made to repopulate the area, primarily with scientists and military personnel. However, in 2006, almost 20 years after the first incident, a second disaster occurred, caused by the C-consciousness (rus. "О-Сознание" which corresponds with "осознание" - "realisation, awareness", ukr. "О-свідомлення") program, killing or mutating most of the inhabitants.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. begins years later, after people have begun coming to the zone in search of money, valuable artifacts, and scientific information.

In keeping with the post-nuclear decay within The Zone, extreme radiation has caused mutations among animals and plants in the area.

As such, creatures within The Zone are vastly different from their real-world counterparts: dogs, boars, crows, and many more. Additionally, some areas of The Zone such as Yantar contain mutated humans known as zombified STALKERS, who have become affected by the so-called Brain Scorcher.

There are five humanoid mutants in the game:

Screenshot from the game, Call of Pripyat

Bloodsuckers are large monsters with sharp claws and tentacles for a mouth, which can turn invisible.

Snorks are the most human of the four; they are nicknamed "Snorks" as a reference to the cartoon of the same name, and in-universe for their gas masks, which resemble a snorkel. They are agile and use kicking and clawing to kill their prey.

The Poltergeists are a somewhat invisible mutant that is covered by a ball of electricity and, when killed, are revealed to be an extremely mutated human missing all of his body below his hips.

Pseudogiants are the deadliest threats in The Zone: a giant mutated ball of several humans combined, which have a grotesquely stretched face, several smaller faces along its body, and has two strong legs to support its weight.

Controllers are a human-like figure with an overly large head, that use psi powers to attack the player, both directly through a throwing type gesture, when a line of sight can be made. Controllers also use a passive attack, which makes the player woozy and disoriented in short bursts, before flashing red as a warning when one gets too close. Prolonged exposure up close to a Controller will leave the player's vision blurry, making it difficult to aim for a length of time. The duration varies in severity and recovery depending on how long the player was exposed to the psi powers of a Controller.

Artificial Intelligence of wildlife is highly developed and presents many realistic behaviors, such as fights over food and pack mentality, which can be observed in non-scripted events. The game engine was designed so that animal behavior is calculated even if the player is in a different part of the Zone.

The Zone is a large and varied area, consisting of wilderness, human settlements, and several heavily guarded military bases. However, the game world is not a true contiguous world, but rather 18 different maps separated by loading screens. Transfer from one area of the Zone to another can only be accomplished at certain specific passageways; wire fences and extreme radiation levels block the player from attempting to cross the map in any other area.

Screenshot from the game, Call of Pripyat

The game does not feature controllable vehicles (although vehicles are programmed in the game code, they are not available without the use of a third party modification, and even if added, they are not entirely stable, as a single knife slash can destroy it completely) and thus players are required to go from place to place on foot. A sprint option using a limited stamina bar can be used to temporarily increase the player's rate of movement, though this is reduced by the weight of objects the player is carrying, and weapons cannot be fired while sprinting. It is possible to sprint indefinitely by using artifacts and keeping below a certain weight limit (50 kg); however, it is impossible to sprint with certain weapons (e.g. RPG-7 and SVD).

When the player enters a highly irradiated area, they will begin to receive radiation poisoning. During this time, a radiation icon appears on the screen and fades through from green to yellow to red, signifying the strength of the poisoning, which grows the longer the player remains present in the affected areas. The stronger the poisoning, the faster the player's health decreases. Unless the player dies from damage caused by radiation poisoning, there are no permanent effects from contracting it other than health loss. However, radiation will persist and continue to drain health until either radiation medication or a substantial amount of vodka is consumed. Radiation can primarily be avoided by wearing certain artifacts that neutralize radiation or more advanced suits that will effectively protect the player from radiation.

In much the same way radiation works as a gameplay mechanic, the player will occasionally become hungry during their travels. During this state, an icon of a crossed fork and spoon will appear. Consuming in-game food items returns the player state from hungry to not hungry, which removes the negative impact on stamina that the hunger status gives. However, if one ignores eating, it will result in the death of the player in a certain amount of time. Unlike reality, not eating in game results in a much quicker death.

Screenshot from the game, Call of Pripyat

As with radiation and hunger, bleeding is another state of detriment which the player must try to avoid or manage while playing the game. Bleeding occurs when the player sustains certain kinds of injuries of certain severity (such as being shot or stabbed). The player will lose the amount of health determined by the landed blow and will continue to lose small amounts of health as they hemorrhage. Bleeding can sometimes stop on its own, but the player can prevent further bleeding by applying bandages or using first aid kits, thereby preventing further health loss.

The game begins with an unconscious, wounded stalker (the player character) being brought to Sidorovich, a black-market trader operating inside the Zone of alienation (or simply "The Zone"). Sidorovich is able to save his life, but the wounded stalker is amnesic; the only clues to his identity are a tattoo on his arm of the acronym "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." and his PDA which contains only one entry in the to-do list: "Kill Strelok." The amnesic stalker is dubbed "Marked One" by Sidorovich.

The Marked One repays Sidorovich by performing certain tasks, and in the process receives information about Strelok's possible whereabouts. With no other leads to his past or the cause of his amnesia, the Marked One follows the information from contact to contact, tracing Strelok's past movements and learning more about his supposed assassination target; the more he learns about him, the more he recovers scattered memories. Eventually, the Marked One follows a lead to a factory in Yantar. Yantar is the home of a Brain Scorcher, a field which effectively destroys the mind of anyone who comes within its range, zombifying and turning them violent and hostile. Scientists studying the phenomenon determine that it is man-made and recruit the Marked One to enter a secret laboratory underneath the factory to disable it.

Information taken from a body in the lab directs the Marked One to track down a member of Strelok's group named Doctor. In an attempt to reach him in Strelok's underground base, the Marked One inadvertently triggers an explosive booby trap and is nearly killed, only to be rescued by a man named Doc. While he is incapacitated Doc speaks to the Marked One about the rumor of a giant artifact known as the "Wish Granter" located somewhere in the center of the Zone, but also indicates that the Marked One is Strelok, calling him by that name. However, before Strelok can fully recover, Doc leaves.

Further leads send Strelok towards the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where the Wish Granter is believed to be located. However, the journey to Chernobyl itself has been all but impossible due to the presence of another, larger Brain Scorcher south of Pripyat, as well as the "Monolith" faction of extremely fanatical stalkers who worship the Wish Granter, referring to it as the Monolith, and kill anyone attempting to access it. Strelok makes his way through a dense forest south of Pripyat and deactivates the second Brain Scorcher, re-opening the path to the abandoned city.

Screenshot from the game, Shadow of Chernobyl

Pripyat is in chaos as stalkers of multiple factions, including the military, clash with the heavily armed and numerous Monolith forces. Strelok eventually makes his way to the Chernobyl facility, also held and viciously fortified by Monolith forces. After fighting his way through both Monolith and military troops, Strelok discovers the giant Wish Granter artifact inside the sarcophagus as well as a secret laboratory underneath it. Inside the heavily defended lab is a large holographic terminal, through which an entity calling itself the "C-Consciousness" communicates. It readily answers Strelok's questions, revealing what it is, who Strelok is, and the events prior to his amnesia.

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet Union decided to use the Exclusion Zone for special research into the human mind. Results included enhanced ESP, psychic weapons, and the eventual formation of a hivemind of seven neurally-linked scientists known as the C-Consciousness. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the self-aware C-Consciousness took control of the Zone and continued its research. It attempted to bring about world peace through global mind-control by directly interacting with the noosphere; however, these attempts resulted in the unintentional twisting of the physical terrain around Chernobyl as well as the mutation of resident life forms, creating the Zone. In an attempt to hide its existence, the C-Consciousness created the two Brain Scorcher fields and erected a Monolith artifact - the Wish Granter - in the center of the Zone, which it uses to brainwash any stalkers who reach it; brainwashed stalkers are tattooed with the "S.T.A.L.K.E.R." acronym and reprogrammed to serve the C-Consciousness.

Rumors of the Wish Granter began to spread throughout the Zone. A group of four stalkers, Strelok, Ghost, Fang, and Doc, attempted to reach the Wish Granter by battling on their way to Chernobyl, but after encountering the fanatical Monolith faction and a man named Scar they were forced to retreat. Strelok was knocked unconscious during a "blowout" while the others were able to escape. On the way back, Fang was killed by a sniper in Pripyat. Some time later, Ghost was killed in the Brain Scorcher control facility under Yantar.

The unconscious Strelok was discovered by the C-Consciousness; unaware of his identity, it had him brainwashed, reprogrammed him and mistakenly assigned him the task of killing himself. On the way out of the Zone, the truck carrying the still unconscious Strelok was destroyed in a lightning storm and he was discovered by another passing stalker, leading to his discovery.

Once the C-Consciousness has finished answering Strelok's questions he is given a choice: merge with the C-Consciousness to ensure its continued existence, or stop the C-Consciousness from continuing its experiments. Strelok refuses to assist the C-Consciousness. He is transported to the exterior of the Chernobyl plant, where he navigates his way through teleportation anomalies, elite Monolith soldiers, and mutants in order to reach the source of the C-Consciousness. Once inside, Strelok shoots the encapsulated scientists which form the C-Consciousness. Strelok then kills his own C-Consciousness unit and is released out of the nightmare.[1]

Afterwards, Strelok is shown standing in a grassy field, watching the sky as the clouds break and the sun comes out. The Zone is apparently gone. He questions whether or not he made the right decision, but as he lies down in the grass he concludes that while he may never know what was right, he is happy that he survived. He lies down on the grass and falls asleep.

Weather system is integrated into various parts of the landscape and allows a variety of weather effects, such as sunshine, storms and showers. The weapons available, behavior of the AI, game tactics and ranking systems depend on the weather. Unlike most dynamic weather systems, the game features complete dynamic wet surfaces such as pavement, concrete, brick walls, etc.

Screenshot from the game, Call of Pripyat

The game features ambient music by Frey Vladimir aka "MoozE". It also has three songs from the Ukrainian band Firelake.

As of September 2008, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has sold 2 million copies worldwide. GSC Game World CEO Sergiy Grygorovych has said "We are very pleased that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. became so popular among players from all over the world. Financial success will allow us to develop S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in different directions as a brand.

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.T.A.L.K.E.R.:_Shadow_of_Chernobyl