Could this be the game GSC always intended to make? We investigate the true nature of the Stalker prequel... (by Jim Rossignol and Tim Edwards)
GSC were founded almost a decade ago. Since then they've created a best-selling strategy game, Cossacks, and launched one of the most ambitious game design projects ever undertaken. Indeed, some people might say that Stalker was too ambitious.
We've followed the development of the apocalyptic survival shooter closely over the years, and we've seen it change radically. The game that we finally played in 2007 was remarkable in many ways, but it was far from the revolutionary freeform vision originally conjured for us by the Kiev team.
Now they're making a game a little closer to that original dream. They're making another Stalker. A prequel named Clear Sky. And we have every reason to be excited, because our second journey into the Chernobyl exclusion zone promises great things.
When the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear facility took place on April 26, 1986, GSC's project lead, Anton Bolshakov, was still a child. Thanks to the immensity of the event, and the myth of Chernobyl as a place of danger and unnatural forces, the Chernobyl Zone has been a constant presence in his life, as it has been in the lives of all Ukrainians.
In the course of finding out more about Clear Sky, we've been discussing Bolshakov's past and early memories of the events of 1986, with translation help from another GSC team member, Oleg Yavorsky.
"It was still the Soviet Union. There was a holiday that week, so they were all going out on the street with red flags and so on with the intention of hailing the working people. No one was aware of the accident because there was no official information. It was only later when people discovered what happened."
When the horrifying truth emerged, many local children were evacuated. Anton, along with many others from the nearby Ukrainian towns, had an unexpected holiday in the countryside.
But the Zone didn't just fade away. It loomed large. "For years the Chernobyl reactor was on TV and in the newspapers," recalls Bolshakov. "The media created a very strong image of the place, which associated it with danger, radiation. The fact that it was so popular with the media made it natural for something to be developed around it. It was so close, so heavily described, that the idea was inevitable for us as developers in the Ukraine."
Anton and the other GSC developers had a first-hand sense of what the world might be like after some kind of apocalypse. The communist era had left its wreckage all across the Eastern Bloc, of which Chernobyl was simply the most iconic example.
"After the Soviet Union collapsed there was revealed to be many similar places to Chernobyl, redundant military and industrial bases. Not necessarily radioactive, but similar, abandoned. When you're making a game like this you collect imagery, so we went out and took photographs and memories. Chernobyl was one such site, but there are more."
The idea grew. If GSC were going to make a game, then it should be one based on concepts and imagery that they were intimately familiar with. It would at once be a fiction, and a report on the real world of the early 21st century.
"It was a fresh idea for a game," says Bolshakov. "There's a lot of World War II or fantasy, but no realistic apocalyptic worlds. The exclusion zone actually represents the real Soviet Union, a remnant."