Travels in Annwn (Part 1)

gameI haven’t posted on this blog for some time, partly because I have been travelling. Specifically, I have been in north east Ukraine, fighting my way towards the abandoned town of Pripyat. Along the way I have killed and maimed a lot of people, mostly bandits, together with a number of mutants. I have also been killed myself quite a few times. Having finally arrived in Pripyat, I wanted to give an archaeological account of what I have found there, which I propose to do in a series of posts. To begin with, I wanted to give some background on my journey.

My story begins, in as much as any story has a beginning, at the 2012 Contemporary and Historical Archaeology and Theory conference in York. Watching Robert Maxwell’s presentation on his fieldwork around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power station (see Maxwell 2016), I had a distinct sense of deja vu. I thought, “I’ve been there,” and in a sense I had. My encounter, and the more recent bloody escapade described above, took place in the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl (GCG Game World 2007), the climax of which takes place in Pripyat and within the Chernobyl sacophagus. I should explain, for those who don’t indulge in such games, that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is what is usually termed and FPS or First Person Shooter game, where the view on the screen is that of the protagonist, as opposed to the more common 3rd person game, where the player controls an avatar. FPS games are, in my opinion, far more immersive, as in the immersive experience of reading a novel, one becomes completely part of the game world. And hence my sense of deja vu.

Roadside Picnic

The genesis of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. lies with the 1971 novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky which formed the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker (with screenplay by the Strugatsky brothers). In the novel a series of six visitation Zones have appeared around the circumference of the Earth, following impacts by extraterrestrial objects. Although the UN and local authroities try to control access to the Zones, they are frequented by artefact hunters known as stalkers. The novel centres on one of these Redrick “Red” Schuhart who lives in what is left of the Canadian town of Harmont. The leading scientific authority on the Zones, Dr. Valentine Pilman believes they may be equated with a roadside picnic, merely the result of refuse dumped by aliens passing through. In this, as Stanislas Lem (1983) points out, the Strugatskys diverged from the usual mode of alien encounter, no War of the World’s but an earth which is almost beneath the notice of the visitors. In a sense this is a similar theme to Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973).

The Zones offer some rich picking in artefacts that have practical uses, and some whose purpose is mysterious. They also offer threats in terms materials and artefacts that can maim or kill the unwary. The Holy Grail of Stalkers is to find the Wish Granter, a golden ball that can supposedly grant all of the heart’s desires. Tarkovsky’s (1979) film, largely filmed in several abandoned hydro power plants in Estonia, loosely follows the plot of the novel, with the wish granting ball replaced by a Room, but develops a different and more ambiguous denoument. Interestingly, several of those involved in the film, including Tarkovsky himslef, died prematurely, a fact that has been attributed to the toxic chemicals that abounded on the locations.

As Dobraszczyk (2010: 373) there are some startling parallels between Tarkovsky’s film and the 1986 Chernobyl incident:

Although the director never specified the meaning of the zone, its mysterious extent, ruinous and empty quality, and the fact that it may have been caused by ‘a breakdown at the fourth bunker’ (it was Chernobyl’s fourth reactor that exploded) have led some critics to interpret the film as prophetic of the Chernobyl accident seven years after its release

ss_winston smith_02-15-16_12-39-54_(l11_pripyat)No doubt these parallels led the Ukranian developers at GCG to combine the Stalker theme with the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a location. Here again, the story varies somewhat, a second disaster has occurred, creating both strange mutant creatures and a range of anomalies and artefacts which, as in the novel, can be both beneficial and dangerous. The protagonist must cross the different areas of the Zone, seeking the mysterious Strelok, and interacting with various paramilitary groups as he goes. Yet there are some specific links to the novel; here the Wish Granter resides within the Chernobyl sarcophagus (and permits a variety of endings to the game). Moreover, in one specific, all three renderings share a common trope; the use of thrown bolts as a means of detecting dangerous anomalies. The game differs from both book and film in one striking particular – all the characters both the protagonist and the Non-Playing Charaters (NPCs) are male!bolt

A note on the name Stalker. Despite its overtones in English, the original in Russian derives from the unlikely source of Rudyard Kipling’s book of school stories Stalky and Co. which the Strugatsky’s had read in translation as children. The term “Stalky” originated in the slang of the United Services College, where it meant clever and cunning” – essential characteristics for one entering the Zone.

In the next post I’ll describe the Stalker Zone in more detail, and the results of a brief bit of “fieldwork” in Pripyat. But just to say that Pripyat appears in several other games, not only the Stalker sequal “Call of Pripyat”, which features the eastern part of the town, but also in the episode “One Shot One Kill” of the game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward 2007), which takes place in the iconic Pripyat Amusement Park. Moreover, in the science fiction literature there are a number of similar scenarios to the Zone, in particular M. John Harrison’s excellent Nova Swing (2006) whose “event zone” recalls the “plague zone” in his earlier In Viriconium (1982). A similar zone is depicted in Jeff VanderMeer’s (2014) Southern Reach Trilogy. Earlier, albeit more temporary zones appear in John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and on TV in the Doctor Who serial The Daemons (1971)

Stalker: Dark Heritage

Stalker is, in a real sense, not just a game. Dobraszczyk (2010: 385-86) remarks that “With their origins in cyberpunk in 1980s America, these games attach zero value to the human consequences of Pripyat’s ruin; instead, post apocalyptic ruin becomes a playground for dreams of escape”. However, it is clear that both the Stalker and Call of Duty games have been among the motivations that have led to tourism within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Morris 2014; Rush-Cooper 2014; see also Stone 2013). A point to which I shall return.


Paul Dobraszczyk (2010) Petrified ruin: Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death ofthe city, City, 14:4, 370-389

Stanislaw Lem 1983 About the Strugatskys’ “Roadside Picnic” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 317-332

Robert Maxwell 2016 “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” – The changing role of radioactivity in the 20th century. In That Was Then, This Is Now: Contemporary Archaeology and Material Cultures in Australia. Edited by Ursula K. Frederick and Anne Clarke, pp 84-100

Holly Morris 2014 The Stalkers. Inside the bizarre subculture that lives to explore Chernobyl’s Dead Zone.

Nick Rush-Cooper 2014 In the Zone: How Gamers Experience The Real Chernobyl.

Stone, P.R (2013) Dark Tourism, Heterotopias and Post-Apocalyptic Places: The Case of Chernobyl. In L.White & E.Frew (Eds) Dark Tourism and Place Identity. Melbourne:Routledge


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