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Why Half-Life’s City 17 was pivotal to gaming’s post-Soviet obsession



The underground labs of the unique Half-Life have been set someplace amongst New Mexico’s towering desert canyons. It wasn’t your prototypical blockbuster locale, however it was nonetheless Hollywood-esque, paying homage to Chilly Struggle-era sci-fi movies like Them!, the place US Military males battled in opposition to large irradiated ants beneath a blistering American solar. The setting of Half-Life’s sequel, alternatively, felt markedly totally different: colder, darker, and altogether extra otherworldly.

Half-Life 2 didn’t simply give us an unique setting; it launched many within the West to a complete new model of panorama, geography, and structure. Metropolis 17 could have been fictional, however the influences have been plain to see. Set someplace in Jap Europe, the metropolis drew clearly from actual post-Soviet areas. Artwork director Viktor Antonov has beforehand talked about how his childhood hometown of Sofia and the way his formative city explorations there impressed the creation of Metropolis 17. Different locations like Belgrade and St. Petersburg have been additionally used as reference.

Even with out its monolithic Citadel and sci-fi trappings, Metropolis 17 was an immensely explorable place. From its grand train terminal — a reformulation of Budapest’s Western station — to its post-industrial edgelands and grotty courtyards and residence blocks, the town felt acquainted, whereas concurrently showing contemporary and even unique to gamers who’re unfamiliar with post-Soviet particularities. Metropolis 17 would go on to behave as a type of prototype for a complete swathe of video games that includes these sorts of settings. Valve was a large America company, so its success emboldened each Western builders and smaller studios figuring out of Russia and Jap Europe who now knew their localities may export nicely.

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There’s additionally rising curiosity in post-Soviet settings outdoors of video games. The temper of those locations appears to ring a bell with hundreds of Instagram accounts and nearly as many espresso desk tomes, all documenting ruins of the united states. Like these photographic accounts, video video games re-create photos of hostile landscapes and ravaged cities, and slowly however absolutely, post-Soviet environments have turn out to be ubiquitous.

S.T.A.L.Ok.E.R.: Name of Pripyat.

This contemporary curiosity in every thing post-Soviet is uncommon. “It’s bizarre after this period of time that it ought to nonetheless be such a factor. The Soviet Union fell aside in 1991, so it’s been gone for a really very long time,” Owen Hatherley, journalist and writer of Landscapes of Communism and The Adventures of Owen Hatherley within the Submit-Soviet House, tells me. “You wouldn’t see individuals within the 40s describing Jap Europe as post-Habsburg, it’s simply not the way it was interpreted.” For Hatherley, our considerably puzzling obsession with post-Sovietness raises two questions: “Why is that this nonetheless the lens via which the realm is interpreted? And why is it attention-grabbing to people who have completely nothing to do with it?”

“There’s a component of exotica, of it being a terrifying evil various world,” Hatherley explains. “However I believe really the attract comes from the artwork world, after which percolated outwards from there. Firstly, there are the ruins and the type of landscapes you get in [Andrei] Tarkovsky movies, notably in Stalker. However there are additionally the obsessions with Chernobyl and the type of ghost cities left there. It form of turned an alternate manner of telling a horror story. This concept of a huge, horrifying zone.”

A number of years after the discharge of Half-Life 2 got here the Ukrainian-developed S.T.A.L.Ok.E.R., an open-world sport that performed out in a fictional model of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe web site referred to as The Zone. It was loosely primarily based on Tarkovsky’s movie, itself an adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic novel. S.T.A.L.Ok.E.R., with its post-industrial ruins and ghostly Pripyat, represents an adjoining obsession. It’s turn out to be well-liked to wish to go to the realm, each just about and in actuality, the place for a mere $100, you’ll be able to ebook a tour across the affected space, Geiger counter in hand.

Chernobyl and its deserted cities regularly pop up in video games. That features American blockbusters like Name of Responsibility but additionally the various video games which have tried to recapture S.T.A.L.Ok.E.R.’s dreary wasteland within the intervening years. Likewise, the survival style can also be steeped in a post-Soviet aesthetic — PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Rust, Escape from Tarkov — all following within the wake of Day Z, which initially melded well-liked zombie survival fantasies with the fictional Soviet “Chernarus” map from ARMA2. Even the most recent in gaming’s battle royal craze, Name of Responsibility: Warzone, is ready in a post-Soviet model area referred to as “Verdansk.”

Past a romanticized lust for ruins and an obsession with Chernobyl, post-Soviet settings will also be, as Hatherley explains, an “various manner of taking a look at an present society. You may have a lot of the issues that now we have besides it’s assembled within the mistaken order.” One instance of that is the upcoming Atom RPG, a post-apocalyptic sport impressed by older RPGs like Fallout and Wasteland. Whereas the Fallout sequence is famously set within the nuclear-ravaged wastelands of America, Atom RPG attracts from the late Soviet Union. Its builders, Atom Staff, are a multinational studio primarily based in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Latvia.

It’s Winter.

Anton Krasilnikov, one among Atom Staff’s writers, tells me in regards to the notorious “utilitarian block of flats” that served as inspiration for areas of the sport. “We built-in a variety of authorities produced family merchandise that most individuals from post-Soviet nations will recognise. This contains edibles like condensed milk, canned meat, biscuits, Pyraniks, and vodka. We additionally included acquainted objects like duct tape, glue, posters, books, toys, and so on. in addition to vehicles just like the GAZ-20 and GAZ-66.” For a lot of, the attraction of one thing like Atom RPG would be the reconfigured nature of its world. Whereas all the particular person components are commonplace, the entire feels alternative-world, a minimum of to these residing outdoors the post-Soviet sphere.

Krasilnikov tells me that almost all of the event crew witnessed the late ‘80s and ‘90s first-hand. “We bear in mind the flicks, music, ambiance, crime waves, socio-economic and political unevenness, and unrest. Regardless of the hardships we bear in mind these occasions fondly, since we matured alongside them.” Lots of the sport’s characters — “hard-headed, idealistic communists that refuse to simply accept the apocalypse … corrupt and lazy officers … easy folks who’re simply residing day after day, scuffling with the little cash they’ve” — are primarily based on fiction from the interval in addition to actual individuals and conditions the event crew lived via.

“Cultures and methods of life that now not exist all the time fascinate individuals. The Soviet interval is not any exception. The lifestyle and tradition that happened there may be now perceived, particularly within the West, with a particular type of attract. It appears unique, even alien,” says Krasilnikov.

One other important ingredient that appears to captivate us has to do with the anxieties we really feel round the truth that our days are numbered. “For numerous causes, local weather change amongst them, society will get obsessive about visions of a contemporary industrial society that has collapsed and turn out to be a sequence of ghost cities,” says Hatherley. For this reason post-Soviet landscapes and obsessions round Chernobyl appear to so intently overlap. Our fascination with Chernobyl continues as we turn out to be extra ecologically anxious than ever.

Whereas we regularly gravitate towards lifeless and decaying worlds, it’s essential to do not forget that, as Hatherley mentions, many of those post-Soviet locations are literally inhabited. “There’s a temptation to go round pointing at Soviet housing estates and shouting about what awfully bleak and ruined they’re. However they aren’t ruins, there are literally thousands of individuals residing in them.”

The video games of Alexander Ignatov are much more private than apocalyptic. It’s Winter, with its “panel homes, snow, overcast sky, tiny kitchen, and tacky staircase,” helps you to wander a small Russian residence complicated. A collaboration with poet Ilya Mazo, the sport garnered a stunning quantity of consideration, regardless of the slowness and mundanity. “Maybe gamers needed, subconsciously even, to really feel what Russian winter disappointment was like. The way it feels to be left alone with their ideas in an empty and unfriendly world,” Ignatov explains.

Whereas the It’s Winter retailer web page talks about how there’s “no room for adventures and breathtaking plot,” gamers appeared to be engaged simply by exploring the austere setting and have been pulled in by the somber temper and ambiance. Ignatov tells me that he finds it troublesome to consider the sport as being enticing to anybody. “Russian gamers have been very targeted on the sport’s flaws, and sometimes commented that it was too much like actuality — why pay for the sport when you’ll be able to simply look out of the window? — which made it really feel repulsive. For Jap European expatriates, maybe the sport was nostalgic, however it’s troublesome for me to think about what attracted different non-Russian gamers aside from exoticism.”

Routine Feat.

Ignatov’s follow-up sport, Routine Feat, is nearer to capturing his personal private temper. Whereas the event of It’s Winter took an emotional toll on Ignatov, Routine Feat was a extra life-affirming expertise that helped him get well. “Routine Feat is my on a regular basis life, however exaggerated by way of loneliness and monotony. I drew inspiration from the recent and sweltering summers of my hometown, in addition to Viktor Pivovarov’s ‘Projects for a Lonely Person,’ and the music of Russian underground bands like Talnik and Curd Lake.”

Each of Ignatov’s video games current locations that really feel genuine and seem to have actual historic weight to them. “I lived in a one-room residence with my mother and father in a home much like the one within the sport. It was the happiest time of my life, and I attempted to convey this carefree perspective via the brilliant and sunny setting. I additionally tried to hone in all of the tiny particulars from my life in these years — an outdated radio and TV, the birds singing outdoors the window, a fridge with out a gentle.”

Hatherley believes that a variety of the latest curiosity in post-Soviet settings is being pushed by work performed in these nations themselves. “Numerous it’s simply individuals documenting the latest previous and attempting to know the society that’s been left to them, particularly on their very own phrases moderately than merely via obtained opinion. It was an evil totalitarian state, it was fantastic, it was an excellent empire — there’s all types of interpretations. There’s a variety of younger individuals in these nations asking what it was all about, and one of many methods by which they’re attempting to do this is by exploring it.”

Ignatov was born after the collapse of the united states in 1996. “I don’t know every other world besides post-Soviet Russia. I do know it from the idealized tales of the older era, and from artistic endeavors. For me, post-Soviet resides within the stays of one thing extra historic and highly effective, some type of perished civilization, from which there are solely the damaged pipes of factories and the ruins of cultural centres and palaces remaining,” he says. “However post-Soviet additionally means full dullness and stillness of life on the periphery — the focus of minds and artistic forces within the massive cities. It’s a lack of jobs, no hope for a good future, homophobia instilled by the state, poverty and abandonment.”

Submit-Soviet means many issues to many various individuals. There are common components, issues that seem acquainted irrespective of which a part of the previous USSR you go to, however there are additionally huge divergences. “The thought of bleak and monolithic landscapes has been round for so long as the Chilly Struggle,” says Hatherley. However there are additionally issues just like the superior cosmic ruins highlighted in Frédéric Chaubin’s CCCP images ebook. “I believe that ebook actually modified how individuals checked out these landscapes. Folks went from on the lookout for gray and nondescript to on the lookout for gigantic, sci-fi, area age buildings.”

Name of Responsibility: Warzone.

We see a little bit of each when returning to Metropolis 17. The Mix’s futuristic alien buildings echo the Soviet Union’s huge brutalist buildings, whereas elsewhere, there’s a mixture of extra earthly structure just like the rows of “khrushchyovka” within the background. It’s in Metropolis 17’s public housing, business, and infrastructure that we get this sense of nostalgia for childhood recollections and what’s been misplaced. These ghostly components are what makes post-Soviet settings so highly effective: you’ll be able to nearly really feel the previous’s spectral presence. Metropolis 17’s architect, Viktor Antonov, as soon as said that the rationale they selected an Jap European setting was “that it represents the collision of the outdated and the brand new in a manner that’s troublesome to seize in the USA… there’s this sense of a strongly-grounded historic place.”

After I ask Ignatov whether or not he sees a connection between his video games and Half-Life, he begins by evaluating the buildings. The panel homes on the horizon bringing again a flood of recollections.

“They’re the identical homes that me and most of my associates reside in,” he says. “After I was pretty younger, I solely actually knew the massive blockbuster video games the place the world was both in outer area or in America. With Metropolis 17 I all of the sudden noticed all this acquainted structure, Cyrillic textual content and ads within the streets — it was a magical feeling, and made it really feel like these occasions may all be enjoying out someplace right here in Russia,” says Ignatov. “I want extra video games explored comparable settings, however with out merely exploiting the themes of the Chilly Struggle and the Chernobly catastrophe.”

Ignatov tells me about one thing referred to as “pазвесистая клюква,” a Russian idiom that refers to Western stereotypes of his dwelling. Trying on the media panorama it definitely appears all too simple to slide into this mode of fascinated by post-Soviet locations. Concepts and pictures of merciless dystopias and mysterious zones aren’t going to vanish in a single day, however there’s additionally a lot extra to see and discover.

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