Travels in Annwn 2: Fieldwork

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Palace of Culture in Stalker

Given my deja vu experience at Robert Maxwell’s talk (CHAT 2012), I thought it would be worthwhile to return to Stalker’s Pripyat to do an archaeological survey. If only as an inspiration for tourism, the game might be seen as an element of dark heritage, albeit as a vicarious experience. Certainly it seems to those who subsequently visit the “real” Priyat find their experience coloured by their game activities (Rush-Cooper 2014).


The real Palace of Culture

The game’s protagonist, the “Marked One” arrives in game regaining consciousness after being dumped at the Cordon (see map) with a mission to track down “Strelok” whom he blames for his situation. Gradually gaining experience, money, weapons and equipment, the protagonist travels through the various locations carrying out a number of tasks that prepare for final arrival in Pripyat and thence the Chernobyl NPP. Not a lot needs to be said about this, for those who want a more detailed impression of the Zone I recommend IGN’s Guide and walkthrough to be found here

STALKERMAPOne or two comments on the Zone itself, notice that the NPP is located north of Pripyat (map left), whereas in reality it is south east of the town – significant given that the radiation cloud mostly blew north west over the town and its surroundings. This geographical distortion will prove of further interest. The other places enroute are more or less fanciful – Agroprom was one of the principal banks in the former Soviet Union, Yantar is a town in Northern Russia. There are two Rostov’s in the former Soviet Union, but the nearest, Rostov on Don, is nowhere near the exclusion zone. In fact this geography is largely fictitious, as there are no other significant settlements south of Pripyat within the Zone (Cordon being supposedly on the boundary, which is policed in the game by government troops). Only Red Forest is significant, being the name of the former Wormwood Forest, a 10km2 area around Chernobyl where the coniferous trees were turned a ginger-brown as they died from the effects of radiation .

I am concentrating my survey on Pripyat itself, and in particular the iconic Palace of Culture, the Energetik (Енергетик), at the centre of town. The protagonist arrives to the south, on the Lenina Prospekt, fighting north into the plaza adjacent to the Palace of Culture and the Hotel Polissia (see maps below). Passing on through the equally iconic Amusement park, you enter the Central Stadium, and thence on to the NPP. Again, in terms of geography, the game designers have taken some liberties. At a basic level the entire town is oriented North South (the real pripyat is not), the Amusement Park is contracted and moved south east behind the Hotel Polissia and the stadium is moved south and reoriented behind the Palace of Culture. Generally, and presumably to simplify the design process, the geography is tweaked to emphasise the already rectilinear layout of the town. Just how detailed the designer’s knowledge of the site was, is debateable; the game was launched in 2007, well before 2011 when the Ukranian Government began to sanction tourism in the Zone. On the other hand, they also seem to have added details of their own. There is a large and no doubt symbolic fallen statue of Lenin in the Plaza, which I have not seen on any image of the real site. Other featuss_winston smith_02-16-16_09-45-16_(l11_pripyat)res I will describe in due course.

A few notes on recording within the game world/space. Whilst amply provided with weapons and other equipment, the protagnist is sadly lacking either a tape measure or an EDM. Fortunately one’s motion in game is underscored by the sound of one’s own footsteps, which emphasise both speed of motion and the substrate being walked on (a consideration when you are sneaking up on your victims). Thus the human scale of the protagonist provides a useful means of measuring by the vintage surveying technique of pacing. Here I have relied on research at the University of Arizona, which placed the average adult male pace length at c.a. 31 inches (0.79m). Using this I paced out the dimensions of the Palace of Culture, having killed off any potential interuptions.

Another consideration is that although this is a designed space it is not entirely predetermined. The distribution of artefacts, and corpses, is in part the product of the game’s AI programing. GSC Game World’s Alife engine aparently supports over 1000 characters in the game, which carry on a an unscripted lifecycle entirely independent of game play. Basically this means that the NPCs turn up when they feel like it, and hence any individual transit of the Zone will be unique.

The Energetik

palaceofcultureComparing the game maps with Google maps and satelite imagery makes it immediately clear that the virtual building is not a copy of the original. The style of the building frontage is recreated, as are the colonade to the south east and the circular boxing ring behind the Energetik. But the overall layout is changed. Measuring the virtual building, and comparing it with date from real world sources (see figure above) shows that the virtual structure is about 2/3 the size of the original. Lacking any means of triangulation, I couldn’t measure heights, and the upper levels of the building are inaccessible. According to one visitor “Pripyat’s Palace of Culture includes what’s left of a cinema, theatre, library, gymnasium, swimming pool, boxing/wrestling ring, dancing and meeting halls and even has a shooting range in the basement.” however, only the cinema (or theatre) and the foyer have been recreated.

ss_winston smith_02-15-16_11-56-43_(l11_pripyat)The foyer has a large mural which, one assumes, recreates that in the real site, but it is rendered at such a low resolution as to be unreadable. To what extent the cinema at the rear of the building recreates the original is hard to tell. The only other rooms are a series of lobbies and stairwells, a room under the stage and a series of basement rooms containing office furniture. In game the Energetik is supposed to be the headquarters of the Monolith faction, and entirely unapproachable, not to say insane group of NPCs that guard the Chernobyl NPP and its wishgranter. What artefacts there are within the building, some broken bed frames, matresses etc. presumably reflect this. As in the real Priyat, the building shows signs of being extensively looted.

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Shrine/Statue – Palace of Culture Cinema

One notable structure is the shrine or statue, constructed of debris, which the protagonist finds, surrounded by a group of kneeling Monolith “worshippers” in the middle of the cinema auditorium (it is unfortunately necessary to kill them in order to explore). Presumably this is mean’t to be some kind of proxy for the wishgranter itself, but no clues are offered. About the only other notable item is a large banner or placard leaning against the back wall of the cinema/theatre, again, the rendering isn’t detailed enough to know exactly what is represented (see image below0.

The Chernobyl NPP


The Wish Granter

I don’t propose to discuss this in detail. Except to say that the in game structure seems to bear little resemblance to the real sarcophagus around the number 4 reactor. There are, apparently, seven different possible endings to the game. 6 involve confronting the Wish Granter  within the sarcophagus, whilst the more wiley, not to say stalky gamer finds the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain and gets transported back to Kansas.


It’s not easy to put a scale on larger elements of the Stalker world; there are no measurable points of reference that correspond with the real world. However, by scaling up from the known dimensions of the Palace of Culture it is possible to say that the entire Pripyat area measures 700m approx from north to south. The equivalent area of the real Pripyat measures just over 1km along the same dimension (which is roughly northwest-southeast). Transfering to the global Stalker map, the distance from the edge of the zone at Cordon to the NPP is about 4.7km. Considerably less than the 30km radius of the real Zone. Bear in mind also that the game world is composed of a series of separate maps – data sets that are loaded as the player moves between areas.


artflow_201603041341In the third post I shall offer some interpretation of the Stalker world, its larger context in terms of representation of real world places in games, and their implications for the understanding of modern ruins.


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

More Images

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Plaza from Energetik

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Foyer Mural

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Placard/Theatrical flat? back of Cinema/Theatre Stage

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Monolith corpse

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Amusement park at rear of Polissia Hotel


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