Travels in Annwn 3: Discussion


Assacreed_b02_127Stalker is by no means the only game which recreates “historic” places (see Kapell and Elliott 2013). The most notable parallels are the various iterations of Assassin’s Creed which represent the 12th century Levant (Damascus, Acre, Jerusalem), Rennaissance Italy (Florence and Rome) and 18th century America (Boston and New York). The main difference, I suppose, is that whilst Stalker may lead gamers to visit the real Pripyat, these past cities are no longer there? Conversely, as Seif El Nasr et al (2008) discuss, Assassin’s Creed 1 can have relevance for those who live in or know the modern middle east, which retains aspects of these imagined cities. Similarly, the Cinquecento cities of Italy remain in part. Indeed, as Dow (2013) points out, Assassin’s Creed II is actually a kind of anachronistic representation, including buildings and features not yet built when the game events are supposed to occur.

One way or another, each has to deal with the conflicting demands of games, which are usually couched in terms of the ludic versus narrative aspects of game play, here supplemented by the issue, at least for students of the past, of the extent to which they authentically represent the places and times they pretend to.

Space, Scale and Structure

As noted in part 2, the developers of Stalker have taken some liberties with the real Pripyat. A lot of this may be down to the ease of designing the game maps; a rectilinear pattern, adapted from the largely rectilinear landscape of the town, being easier to encode. This being said, as Seif El Nasr et al (2008) describe, the designers of Assasins Creed 1 make considerable efforts to represent the highly organic patterns of medieval islamic cities, so maybe this is not an overwhelming excuse. Conversely, what the rectilinear pattern does do is to facilitate the ludic aspects of the game. Westerners in particular are used to a grid like street layout, and if asked to represent their own neighbourhood, will draw it in like fashion, even when the real streets do not conform (Downs and Stea 1973; 1977). A grid pattern is more playable because, in the chaos of battle, one is less likely to get totally lost or disorientated. I suspect this may have a lot to do with it.

Another aspect of this is scal52621e, but here I suspect that it is more the narrative aspect of games that drives matters. The creators of Stalker could have made a full scale Pripyat, code wise it would be a zero cost option as far as I can see. Why not? Somewhere in The Hobbit, Tolkien makes an observation along the lines that quotidian times are boring. In games, as in literature, film etc, there are great segments of life that it would be tedious to experience. Or just gross. Even in the grittiest games or films, characters hardly ever take a dump (Pulp Fiction being one rare exception I can think of). Similarly, one wouldn’t want to wait 8 hours whilst the character sleeps, or have to walk for hours on end between the significant incidents of the game. Thus, for both narrative and, to some extent ludic reasons, games offer what I would like to call a narrative landscape; one whose structure in a sense is the story that the game is telling. And perhaps even incidental features and objects can be seen in the context of a narrative, as opposed to authentically ss_winston smith_02-16-16_09-45-16_(l11_pripyat)“real” landscape. I strongly suspect that the broken statue of Lenin in Stalker is in part a political statement on the part of its Ukranian designers, and perhaps if I knew more (or indeed anything) about contemporary Ukranian culture, other aspects of the game design narrative would have such resonance?.

In general, at least in my experience, the narratives of games are not in the realms of great literature, although increasingly they incorporate moral dilemmas which affect how the game plays out (see e.g. Bioshock – 2K Games 2007). Assassin’s Creed, for example, pursues a kind of Dan Brown style retelling of the Hashishin, the Nizari Ismaili’s led by Hassan-i Sabbah. Stalker, as we have seen, brings together aspects of the Strugatsky’s novel and Tarkovsky’s film, adding the Chernobyl exclusion zone as a highly aposite localle. Again, not great literature maybe, but the game does highlight what I chose here to call industrial magic; an updating of the magical or supernatural for the modern age.

Industrial Magic

In a 2005 article, Tim Edensor talks of the “ghosts of industrial ruins”; this references Freud’s ideas about the unheimlich, usually translated as the uncanny. Certainly, the Stalker game world and the real Pripyat are evocative of the uncanny, in any case it can be argued that science fiction is always about issues of estrangement and othering (Graves-Brown 2011; Suvin 1972). What I was not sure of in Edensor’s article was the extent to which he was using the concept of ghosts as a metaphor, or whether this was some sort of ontological statement about the past’s haunting of the present. Well before the current supposed “ontological turn” there existed a tendency to get all metaphysical in the presence of ruins.

Indeed, historicall572121y, material evidence of the past was often used to justify beliefs in supernatural beings, such as faeries. Perhaps the best example is the Rev. Robert Kirk’s (1691) The Secret Commonwealth. Whilst one might mock Kirk’s credulity, his work is, in effect an attempt to give a scientific account of “Siths” or faeries by the lights of the knowledge of the times. At the very beginning of his account he notes “these had their easy tillage above ground…The print of those furrows do remain on the shoulders of very high hills.” Here, whilst it’s not easy to be certain, it’s tempting to regard this as abandoned rig and furrow cultivation, which is certainly to be seen in the uplands of Wales and for all I know those of Scotland where Kirk was a minister. Later he describes “their weapons are most what earthly solid bodies, nothing of iron, but much of stone, like to yellow soft flint spa shaped like a barbed arrowhead…(cut by art and tools it seems beyond human)” and “I have had barbed arrowheads of yellow flint that could not be cut so small and neat of so brittle a substance by all the art of man”.

Later on he discusses “many places called fairy-hills [presumably barrows, chambered tombs], which the mountain people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover by taking earth or wood from them; superstitiously believing that the souls of their predecessors dwell there” – in effect, Kirk is an antiquarian of faeries. This he sees as an entirely rational pursuit; “Therefore every age has left some secret for its discovery; who knows but that the intercourse between the two kinds of rational inhabitants of the same earth may be not only believed shortly, but as freely entertained, and as well known, as now the art of navigation…and the discoveries of microscopes which were sometimes a great wonder and as hard to be believed”.


Pwyll Pen Annwfn

Stalker, and its predecessors, definitely evoke an age that “has left some secret for its discovery”. Indeed I was struck by the fact that the Strugatsky’s wish granter manifests as a “golden ball”, for this echoes the Welsh folk tale “Elidor and the Golden Ball”, collected by Geraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century (Annwn, by the way, is the faerie realm in the Mabinogion). But here it is the modern, industrial world that forms the basis of the magical, rather than barbed and tanged arrowheads. I think we can see a transition in the metaphysical over the last century or so; whilst soldiers in the Great War saw the “Angel of Mons” the airmen of the Second World War reported seeing “Foo Fighters”, or in the original un-bowdlerised version “Fucking Foo Fighters”. Although there are earlier examples of UFOS, the Foo Fighters mark the beginning of the modern history of UFO sightings.


Mystery airship illustrated in the San Francisco Call, November 1896

And here it is interesting to note that their predecessors were a series of mysterious “airship” phenomena around the end of the 19th century; every age frames the other in terms of its own context or tropes.

Since 1945 a whole industry of industrial magic has grown up. There are numerous accounts of the activites of the Nazis which see the Foo Fighters as some attempt to harness arcane scientific powers such as antigravity, and the often wildly speculative and experimental activities of Nazi science and technology only serve to fuel such beliefs (c.f. the work of SS General Hans Kammler and the object known as Die Glocke) . Nor is such speculation confined to Nazi Germany; in the so-called Philadelphia Experiment  in 1943, the US frigate Eldridge was supposedly rendered invisible. Think also of the pseudoscience of Erik Von Daniken, the works of Lyall Watson or the parpsychological work of Rupert Sheldrake. One particularly intriguing example is the book Morning of the Magicians (1960) by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier (a particular favourite, apparently, of the late David Bowie). What I find interesting about this book is their rationale; essentially they point out that the apparent certainties of 19th century science were undermined by relativity theory and quantum physics. In this context they argue, many things considered impossible could be possible – this seems to me to echo the argument presented by Kirk 250 years earlier. The book is also said to have had considerable influence on coutercultural and New Age beliefs.

What I am suggesting then, is that older “traditional” beliefs about the supernatural and uncanny have been replaced by a kind of modernised mythology which draws upon science and technology. This elision has been facilitated by the relativism that has pervaded the humanities in recent decades. As in the rationale of the Rev. Kirk and of Pauwels and Bergier; if the factual and epistemological basis of everyday reality is questioned, then as Feyerabend (1975) suggests “anything goes”. Modern relics and ruins are then inducted into such beliefs, much as Kirk and many others saw prehistoric remains as evidence of the “other world”. As I have discussed elsewhere (Graves-Brown 2011), it seems a common wish to seek out a sense of the uncanny or othering, to look for “The ghosts of industrial ruins”. But as a materialist I want to insist that there are no ghosts; in Freud’s original the uncanny is “unheimlich” which litterally means “unhomely” – we do not feel “at home” in such places, I would suggest because they no longer fit into the active world, social or cultural order. Again, as I have argued elsewhere, there is a danger in allowing the sense of the uncanny to create an other that is distanced or as in the case of anything metaphysical, unreachable. Indeed, as the concept of the “uncanny valley” implies, it is the very closeness of places like Pripyat to our own experiencial world that makes them seem strange.

Secrets and Lies

Television viewers in the UK and I suspect elsewhere are constantly bombarded with programmes that profess to tell the secret history of this or the hidden history of that. Sometimes I think that if I see another prog on the secrets of Stonehenge I will kick the telly. But programme makers are no fools; the idea of the secret and the hidden sells. Similar in appeal are conspiracy theories. In what, for many people, is a post religious world, there is a void that needs to be filled; as Jim Morrison put it “Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages”. The trouble is that these secrets are largely synthetic, not to say bogus; there is no mystery about what happened at Pripyat and Chernobyl; the operators of reactor 4 at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station conducted an ill advised experiment that caused reactor meltdown and the deaths of hundreds of extremely brave people in the effort to contain it. The only mystery is why this event took place – given that many of those responsable died shortly afterwards, we may never know.

Postscript: Diegesis

29924-13869-LBThe counter narrative to what I have said here is that what is going on is not a geniune embrace of the metaphysical but a playful engagement with the diegesis of the Strugatsky brothers, Tarkovsky and Stalker. That the ghosts are indeed just a metaphor. In her discussion of Cardiff Bay, Torchwood and the memorial to Ianto Jones, Beattie (2014) explores how the entirely fictional world of a BBC Science Fiction series creates a narrative space and


Holmes memorial at the Reichenbach Falls

a narrative history which fans have mapped onto the real world. But is the counter narrative of Cardiff’s docks intended to be serious, or are Torchwood fans engaged in an elaborate game? In an experience economy, perhaps entertainment has replaced god and the supernatural. But the boundary between fact and fiction is porous. For many years people have sent letters to 221B Baker Street asking for Sherlock Holmes help with their problems. This and many other examples suggest that fiction and its narrative spaces have bled across into reality.


I would like to thank Robert Maxwell, both for conversations about Stalker and Pripyat, and for allowing me to trespass in the town. I would also like to thank Colleen Morgan for discussions of historical gaming, and for ideas about useful sources.


Beattie, M 2014 A most peculiar memorial. Cultural heritage and fiction. in John Schofield (ed) Who Needs Experts. Farnham:Ashgate.

Douglas Dow 2013 Historical veneers: Anachronism, sumulation and art history in Assassin’s Creed II. In Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew Elliott (eds) 2013 Playing with the Past. London Bloomsbury.

Downs, M. and Stea, D (eds) 1973 Image and Environment. London: Arnold

Downs, M. and Stea, D 1977 Maps in Minds: Reflections on Cognitive mapping. London: Harper and Rowe

Tim Edensor 2005 The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume 23, pages 829 ^ 849

Paul Feyerabend 1975 Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge

Graves-Brown, Paul 2011 Touching from a distance. Norwegian Archaeological Review.

Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew Elliott (eds) 2013 Playing with the Past. London Bloomsbury.

Seif El Nasr, Magy, Al-Saati, Maha, Niedenthal, Simon and Milam, David 2008 Assassin’s Creed: A Multi-Cultural Read. Loading…, Vol 2, No 3 (2008)

Darko Suvin 1972 On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre. College English Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 372-382


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