It’s been 30 years since the Chernobyl disaster. There’s no denying that the explosion joined the gallery of horrors that haunt our collective imagination. As such, just like the images of concentration camps or the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, it has been fueling the anxiety on which popular culture, including videogames, thrives. Even to most Eastern Europeans Chernobyl is a post-apocalyptic fantasy. It’s why accounts of the Chernobyl disaster and its effects, even from those closest to it, usually employ conventional narrative schemas. Typically, these are borrowed from the media and globally-consumed popular fiction, and so before worrying too much about the real place, our first concern when looking back at the disaster should be to identify these schemas, as it is these that inform popular thought on the historic event.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R (2007-2009). is a series of three games set in a fictional interpretation of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and developed in Ukraine by GSC Game World. Mark my wording: “developed in Ukraine” is not synonymous with “Ukrainian.” The latter adjective implies the embedding of the games in Ukrainian culture. This implication has led some to overemphasize the alleged cultural aspect of these games based on the mere fact of them being made and set in Ukraine. However, by talking about cultures we know little about, we may easily fall into treating them as too alien to be known, and thus, under the guise of accepting cultural differences, just reinforce myths and stereotypes.
This is why it’s important to establish what culture S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is really embedded in. The answer is simple: it is embedded in globalized popular culture, usually associated with the USA. Again, I’m avoiding this risky expression “American culture” for a reason. All the genres and conventions videogames use may have been popularized in the USA but they have become common property. You don’t have to be American to reproduce or parody them. Not to mention the fact that many of the luminaries of, for instance, American cinema were from outside the US, including Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Sergio Leone. This might be fairly obvious as nobody would make the mistake of treating US culture as an isolated block. And yet, the farther East we move, the more likely it is that people apply that kind of mistaken generalization.
There is nothing distinctly American, Ukrainian, or Eastern European about mutants, secret experiments, and zombies. Of course, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games take place in a fictional Ukraine, but it is merely a setting for conventional post-apocalyptic fantasies. The games could have been set anywhere else, so it’s worth questioning why Ukraine? I can come up with three reasons. Firstly, due to the connotations of this place as an abandoned site of a post-nuclear mini-apocalypse, seething with radiation and ghosts, it is certainly fitting for this kind of a story. Secondly, it’s practical for the games’ creators as they did not need to travel far for research or inspiration. And, last but not least, culture sells. Just like we are more likely to pay more for food with a fancy foreign name, we will be eager to play a game if it offers us a journey to existing and culturally significant places. Had the same games been made in the USA, and the place called Neverland, they simply wouldn’t have the same local flavor. And it is obvious that local flavors are an invention for tourist palates. Unfortunately, obvious things are sometimes the ones most easily forgotten.
I am oversimplifying. But the basics need to be set straight before proceeding any further. Otherwise we may end up treating conventional post-apocalyptic narratives absorbed from popular culture as the expression of some intrinsically Eastern European qualities—this is, unfortunately, what often happens. In fact, let’s focus on some misconceptions about the cultural origins of these games that show how even the most trivial aspects of a piece of work can be exoticized and given a non-existent cultural value.
Take a look at how broken games are treated differently according to where in the world they were made. If a broken game was made in America the fault is usually attributed to a mishap in the studio—crunch time or lack of staff, perhaps. But if the game is made in Eastern Europe then the perceived reasoning is warped into something cultural. It has been said, for instance, that S.T.A.L.K.E.R.—along with Pathologic (2005), which I will discuss later—is, as Duncan Fyfe writes, a “culture shock from a place where, apparently, technical standards are not so rigorously enforced.” I can understand the logic behind this conjecture: it’s about proving cultural sensitivity by expressing a comprehending attitude towards flaws resulting from cultural differences. Unfortunately, the actual message conveyed is that, in this case, Ukrainian and Russian developers are not that good at making games, and this is conditioned by their culture. The problem is that these Eastern European studios follow standards set by the Western markets because they want to sell in the Western markets. And not only in the Western markets, but everywhere that Western standards have been absorbed and accepted, including Eastern Europe. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not an expression of the Eastern culture meant for the Western world. After all, players from Eastern Europe think about videogames in exactly the same terms as their Western counterparts because they play the same games, so there is no ground for assuming the existence of a separate Eastern gaming culture. It’s exactly the same culture as the Western one. And S.T.A.L.K.E.R. did not bring Chernobyl to the Western world as a part of Ukrainian culture and history. On the contrary, it created a Chernobyl based on narrative and aesthetic conventions that originated in the West, and this fictional Chernobyl conditions our—”our” meaning both Westerners and Easterners, as in this case there is no difference—perception of the real place. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an example of Eastern Europe selling the fictional version of itself back to the people who created it.
Obviously, we could try to analyze the situation of game developers in Ukraine or Russia based on the factors which apply everywhere, such as funding, marketing, etc. But in order to do that we have to stop thinking in terms of culture shocks as they only lead us to an impasse. By assuming that the cause of a broken game is ‘an Eastern European thing’, it is treated as unknowable and we feel justified in accepting a non-existent cultural difference, without even trying to say what the alleged difference is.
Another common misconception about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is that it is, as Jim Rossignol puts it, “shot through with […]Eastern pessimism.” To be honest, I don’t know what the word “pessimism” refers to here, and wonder if it could be applied to any culture. Does it mean that all people from Eastern Europe are pessimists? Are all products developed by Eastern European culture pessimistic? Or is pessimism treated here simply as some sort of radioactive fallout hovering over Eastern Europe? As it is, none of these are true. I suppose this is simply a stereotype based on the representation of Eastern European countries in the media, with the myths of lingering Soviet traumas or Russia as a tyrannical police state vivid in our imagination. And since the game is gloomy, it reinforces this stereotype, so it is easy to commit the fallacy of treating it as an expression of a cultural trait. There are two problems, however.
Firstly, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses pretty widespread conventions of evoking this gloom. The setting of decrepit warehouses, military complexes, sewers and bogs; outnumbering the player with mutants and zombies; scary flashbacks and voices from beyond in the form of recordings scattered here and there… Seriously, what’s Eastern European about this? Horror and post-apocalyptic scenarios are popular worldwide, and we may as well blame this popularity on the rhetoric of success originating in the West. After all, if the world gives us promises it cannot keep and tells us we are special while proving we are not, it is to be expected that deep down we will fantasize about seeing this world destroyed. Sure, it’s still just a gross simplification, but at least it refers to a phenomenon that can actually be observed.
Secondly, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., like any post-apocalyptic horror, may be gloomy but it’s not exactly pessimistic. None of the installments tell a story of helpless innocents caught in some horrible catastrophe with no chance of surviving, which I would consider pessimistic—that is, projecting a bleak future. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., on the contrary, all the characters have made the Zone their home and established their own societies. Sure, they kill, they scavenge, they get killed but… this is simply their daily bread. Actually, the Zone is, to some extent, an optimistic place as it offers an escape from the tedium and problems of normal existence, and a chance to get rich with a bit of luck. The characters need this radioactive wasteland that is the Zone. The irony is that, even inside, all the outcasts create a society based on an immaculate free-market economy, so we cannot even apply the usual communist/Soviet/post-Soviet myths. And the association of Eastern European countries with communism has led some to the conclusion that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. makes the player feel insignificant, a mere cog in the crushing machine of the Zone. The problem is, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., just like many other games, does want us to feel special. We often get to visit places few dare to explore and perform feats nobody has been able to perform. There is no denying we are the hero in this game. That’s why it is crucial that we ask ourselves whether the game in fact makes us feel small and unimportant as opposed to its Western counterparts, or whether the myth of individuality-crushing Eastern communism has the upper hand in our judgement. And yet this myth exists only in relation to the myth of Western individualism, which informs the generalizations that Western games are all about empowerment, even though this is not exactly true and wasn’t true back in 2007, when Shadow of Chernobyl was released. That is why—instead of boiling all this down to a binary opposition between the West and the East—we should not forget that myths and stereotypes determine our thinking, not only about others, but also about ourselves.
Let’s clarify one thing. I’m not accusing anybody of incompetence or ignorance in the area of game criticism. I agree with many of the judgments about the game itself, and even if I don’t, I can still accept them as informed opinions. My own statements above are deliberately obvious and refer to things that have been spotted by most. And yet, instead of stopping at that and simply saying what they have to say about the game, critics and non-critics often make the unnecessary step onto the thin ice of cultural differences. And this the downside of living in a world where we can have a taste of the most exotic cuisines at any street corner, travel anywhere at an affordable price, and pick up the basics of any language on the Internet. We may get bits and pieces of knowledge and be so satisfied with this superficial understanding as to forget our deep ignorance.
Another problem is that, in the case of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. especially, such interpretations are actually endorsed by the developer and the publishers. They are basically cashing in on culture. We are expected to feel as if we were tasting genuine Ukrainian flavors while the food was prepared with nothing but tourists in mind. They even went as far as preparing an English translation with strong accents, which is obviously nonsensical as in translation English should, generally speaking, become the characters’ native language. Perhaps, in the English version, Chernobyl was relocated to the USA and populated by Russian or Ukrainian immigrants, who forgot their language but for some reason kept the accent. This is a good metaphor for the whole game, which adjusts local settings to globalized post-apocalyptic narratives. The developers, publishers, and marketers did their job very well. They sold a conventional game with a local flavor.
In the case of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., everyone is satisfied. The game is supposed to be a conventional post-apocalyptic narrative with a local flavor, and it is just that. But there is a different example in which the overemphasis on cultural differences actually prevents us from seeing the real value of the game and, ironically, the way it is really influenced by the products of its culture. I’m speaking of Pathologic, developed by Russian studio Ice-Pick Lodge. In this case, critics unjustly impose the conventional crisis narratives (the epidemic variety) onto the game, sometimes juxtaposing it with S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and treat it as something distinctly Russian/post-Soviet/Eastern European. And in this way they miss the point as Pathologic does not have much to do with pop-culture clichés.
Again, let’s start with the basics, in this case with the fallacy of historicizing the game world. It is often assumed that since the game was made in Russia, it has to be set in Russia. And some have tried to identify the time and place as some Russian settlement at the beginning of the 20th century. There is one little problem. Had the authors wanted to set the game in a Russian settlement, they would have explicitly indicated that the game world is a Russian settlement. On the contrary, they deliberately make it impossible to pinpoint the exact location of this town in time and space. We are told there is some Capital but we never get to see it or even know its name. We are limited to the unnamed town with its immediate surroundings, and the town is a mixture of incongruous elements, making it impossible to identify its historical origin. The world of Pathologic is deliberately dehistoricized and has to be treated as a place beyond real-world geography and history. By familiarizing it with the adjective “Russian” we are essentially destroying it.
Another basic issue I would like to deal with is the dramatization of mechanics and difficulty. It is assumed that since the game is about an epidemic, it is a survival game. If it’s a survival game, it has to be hard. And this, it is assumed, is a cultural issue. After all, isn’t hardiness intrinsic to Russian spirit? No, it isn’t, and no reasonable person would answer the question in the affirmative when asked directly. The problem is that most of the time we know about the absurdity of stereotypes and still believe them. The images of Russia as an industrial wasteland made of decaying concrete, shattered illusions, crime, and poverty are so ingrained in our collective imagination that they will always to some extent guide our perception, no matter how irrational that may seem. And, obviously, when a game about an epidemic from Russia comes along, these images will do their work even before we start to play. The solution to this problem is not cultural sensitivity. On the contrary, superficial cultural sensitivity may easily turn into an especially vicious form of xenophobia, based on a complacent illusion of understanding. Before even starting to talk about cultural differences, we need to face the fact that we all think in stereotypes.
Let’s ask ourselves a simple question: how difficult is Pathologic? It is, in fact, easy. It’s actually easier than many other games as fighting is only occasional and can be avoided, and most of the time we only walk from one place to another evading infective clouds. The challenge is low. As for the survival aspects, we have to eat, take pills, and sleep, but after learning the basics we can have money, ammunition, and food in abundance without stealing from or killing anybody but the bandits. There is not much moral choice either as the game is pretty linear and apart from several divergences we usually have only one way of proceeding. The in-game morality system is limited to reputation. It is good to have a good reputation for practical reasons. Without a good reputation, we get attacked and cannot buy things. And reputation can be easily improved—no matter how low it is and what we did to lower it—by giving money to a beggar.
Why am I writing about such seemingly trivial things? Because stereotypes we bring to the game cause us to overlook its basics and completely misconstrue the experience they feed. In short, we think about the game based on false assumptions, and retrospectively dramatize our experience without taking the actual game into account. It has been written that Pathologic as an epidemic narrative is an expression of national traumas or that its unforgiving difficulty and bleakness are due to some cultural difference. A lot of the time this goes unquestioned, but if you do raise an eyebrow, these assumptions make themselves clear. Epidemic narratives are widespread in popular culture worldwide, and Pathologic has not much in common with them apart from the theme of epidemic. It’s not about survival as it’s not difficult to survive here. And it’s not bleak. It’s not even a horror. On the contrary, it is full of irony and distancing theatricality, and absolutely devoid of pathos. The conversation-opening aphorisms, the self-proclaimed prophecies born from alcohol and morphine-induced stupor, actors in bird masks telling a renowned doctor that he has to eat, our own avatar’s childlike naivety connected with the ignorance of her own identity—all this cannot be approached without a sense of humor. The characters’ emotions are not supposed to be assigned too much importance or induce our pity, so it’s hard to speak about any human interest and possibility of identification. Actually, the town is dominated not with strong emotions and dramatic relations associated with a crisis, but with a smothering apathy and latent incest. But there is also a strong spiritual undercurrent. Religion plays an important role in this world as even the most trivial objects here have a ritual significance. Pathologic, then, is as much about a crisis and sudden decline as about suspension in some mythical time outside the usual flow of events.
Since I am writing here about the overemphasis on cultural differences, I will only mention in passing another, and in a way related, trend in criticism connected to the notion of Art. The reasoning goes like this: “the game is so weird I don’t get it. If I don’t get it, then it might be Art. Since this might be Art, I will write that it is as artistic as the works of Proust or Joyce (or, in this case, Chekhov or Dostoyevsky).” Of course, it would be alright to point out specific literary influences but such general statements that the game is as artistic as literature tell us absolutely nothing. Just like in the case of cultural differences, this is alienation covered up with the illusion of understanding. By saying a game is culturally different or very artistic, we excuse ourselves from the effort of getting to know it and point to our purportedly incredible cultural or artistic sensitivity. Often, saying that something is Art (without further justification or analysis) simply means we have nothing to say about it. Or that we don’t know how to say it, so we fall back on applying commonplaces, whether they are true or not.
Games, just like most forms of popular culture and media representations, rely on a very naive understanding of culture. Images commonly associated with a given country, stereotypes, folklore adjusted to popular fantasy conventions—this is not culture, but food for tourists. Making the guy with a Russian accent a protagonist instead of a baddie does not change the representation of culture, but simply reorganizes particular images within the same representation. Even language, which is considered to be the very basis of culture, is not that important when it comes to games. In the Steam or GOG stores it is not even possible to find any info about a game’s original language. Besides, culture is not an isolated entity. I suppose most people, at least the young and educated (game developers included), in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, know American cinema, literature, and music as good as or even better than their own, and are subject to the same trends and fashions that thrive worldwide. And they certainly don’t think in terms of national traumas, because… why should they?
Is there a point to talking about something so abstract as intrinsically national culture? I don’t think so. I think we can only speak about analyzable phenomena and products, and interactions between them. Sure, if you are an expert in Russian or Ukrainian literature, economy, or architecture, and think that your knowledge will allow you to say something interesting about the game, then it’s alright. And I mean an expert, not a native, because natives may be just as ignorant of their culture as anybody else. And if you are not an expert, what should you do? Research? I don’t think any research will substitute for years of study. Even when you get enough facts and numbers, most of the time they have absolutely nothing to do with the fantasy that is the game. Go to the real place and compare? It’s no good, you will simply perceive it through the filter of the myths you know. Besides, even when you juxtapose photos from your trip with the screens from the game, you only indulge the naive need for realism, and excuse yourself from saying anything specific about either the game world or the real place. My advice would be: don’t bother with cultural differences. Just worry about the game.
The Chernobyl disaster is a nuclear accident that happened in Ukraine in 1986. Saying anything more than that without having enough expertise is to start contributing to the many myths it has perpetuated.