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Industrial waste and Soviet reign: how hardship in Ukraine bred the world’s darkest games

Industrial waste and Soviet reign: how hardship in Ukraine bred the world’s darkest games

There is something unique about the games that come out of Kiev. The games that are made here are consistent in their tone and themes: darkness, catastrophe, struggle, and individual weakness.

Both the Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series take place amid horrifying nuclear disasters, while the upcoming MMO Survarium is set in a similar ecological cataclysm. Even lesser known games like You Are Empty, an alternate history shooter about the catastrophe that results from the Soviet Union's overreaching military ambitions, betray a certain darkness in the Ukrainian psyche.

No other location creates games that are so bleak and suffocating.

Burnt grass and industrial waste

Every place on Earth has its own unique styles of art. Games from South America tend to be vibrant and colorful. Games from Ukraine, on the other hand, use a color palette that rarely strays from brown, grey or rust. Maxim Dembick, Studio Manager at Crytek Kiev said that this common thread is related to terrible environmental problems in the country.

“The natural green color in Ukraine is usually darker than in Western Europe because of natural conditions as well as a bad ecological situation,” he said. “Everything that is green in spring gets burnt by hot sun by mid June already, and if it doesn’t, it gets covered with industrial dust and gets bleak.”

It's easy to imagine an artist's vision being swayed toward darker tones when they're surrounded by industrial waste and a landscape that, according to Dembick's description, is only vibrant a couple months of the year. But there's more to that than just a lack of colorful nature though.

“If you look at the environment Ukrainian developers live in, you definitely see a lot of dark, bleak, and dirty structures,” said Michael Khaimzon Creative Director at Crytek Kiev. “Even in the middle of big cities like Kiev there are areas that look quite scary.”

The Soviet Union disbanded over twenty years ago, but Ukraine still carries the hallmarks of a country built by the USSR.

“Soviet era art, architecture, sculpture are not light things by their nature,” said Yaroslav Singaevskiy, a Ukrainian game journalist and one of the creators of You Are Empty which released in the US in 2007. “And we still have a lot of their influence in our cities.”

Reign of the Soviets

The era of Soviet rule is still fresh in the minds of Ukrainians, but not in the way you might expect. Before I talked to several Ukrainian game makers I had an image in my mind of a country that saw despair in their past, but brightness in their future.

Recently, casual studios in Kiev have been more focused on lighter moods and happier games. The celebrated iOS title, Contre Jour, for instance, might have a dark color palette but it's not a bleak game. By contrast, games that look toward Ukraine's past (S.T.A.L.K.E.R., You Are Empty) tend to be incredibly dark. However, the people I talked to expressed a variety of opinion on the notion that Ukrainians see pain in their past. In fact, some of them yearn for the old days.

“The Soviet Era is still in the minds of many people, and not always in a bad way,” said Khaimzon. “Many people see a lot of benefits in the previous regime. During that time everything was clear. People didn’t have to worry about survival; the government would take care of that. But when the USSR collapsed, you were suddenly on your own. Nobody cared about you. Regular folks struggled, and lost everything they had. We could argue about it for a long time, but one thing is clear – many people feel nostalgic about the USSR.”

The time under Soviet rule wasn't all perfect though, and some still see parallels between Ukrainian game art and Soviet failures.

“All sorts of monsters [in Ukrainian games] are usually 'nuclear mutants' that come from either Chernobyl or the Soviet Union’s heritage of being a super nuclear country that, I have heard, never cared enough about the safety of the people who were working with nuclear energy and weapons,” said Dembick. “I’d say [these games] have depressing gameplay, which clearly comes from the Soviet culture of everyone being equal and 'colorless'.”

While games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. look back on the past with horror, it's worth noting that in Metro 2033 the past is portrayed as bright and beautiful. It's only after the collapse of civilization that things took a turn for the worse. This could be a parallel to the nostalgic views some Ukrainians have for the Soviet past.

Call of Pripyat

Nuclear catastrophe is the most common theme to be found in Ukrainian work, and it's fairly obvious why. The majority of Ukrainian games are made in Kiev which is just two hours drive south of the town of Pripyat where in 1986, reactor number four in the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerplant melted down, releasing huge amounts of radiation into the surrounding area. It's well-known as the worst nuclear disaster in history.

“When Chernobyl happened nobody knew about the real danger of radiation,” said You Are Empty's Singaevskiy. “When Pripyat city was evacuated everyone thought about it as a temporary measure. The knowing came later. And we still feel the consequences of Chernobyl disaster.”

“For instance, many men who worked at the disaster site at Chernobyl died in their fifties of cancer. Memory of those events is beginning to fade,” he continued. “It's a natural thing; life is going on. More than 25 years have passed, but we still pay close attention to any news regarding the situation at Chernobyl. It's still not safe.”

The aftermath of the disaster has proven to be a great subject for Ukrainian developers to explore with their games. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the country's first international hit, takes place in the 30 Kilometer Zone, the area around the disaster site that has been evacuated for decades.         

“You would be really amazed to see what nature can make with the products of human civilization in just 27 years,” said Crytek's Dembick. “You will be so amazed that if you're a game developer you will want to make a game in this setting.”

Vostok Games' Survarium is one of the few AAA Ukrainian games that doesn't focus on nuclear disaster, but it still carries that same theme of nature slowly overtaking the creations of man.

Life goes on

What's most interesting about Ukraine's unique style is that it's currently in flux. “We have basically two generations of game developers at the moment,” said Singaevskiy. “The older ones (myself included) lived in Soviet Union, and it's easy for us to fall into nostalgia for those times. I cannot say we defined them as dark, but I can confirm that the younger generation is much more cheerful than us. Children of post-industrial age, you know. They have no ties to the Soviet past, they are far more self-sufficient and share in global modern trends.”

What's true about the influences of Ukrainian game development today might not be the same in five years. The scene is ever growing, and Ukraine is still coming into its own as a developing post-Soviet nation. In a strange twist, this might actually be helping the country develop its unique cultural voice.

“Usually Ukrainian game dev companies consist of, well, Ukrainians,” said Khaimzon. “Its not so easy to attract foreigners to live and work in Kiev. Therefore its quite logical that the products look similar. There is not enough alternative world view in the decision-making process.”

The steady stream of successes that have been trickling out of the country over the past decade are slowly cementing its place in the industry by training and educating a group of industry veterans while inspiring a whole new generation of Ukrainians to follow in their footsteps.

No one knows what events and cultural ideas will shape the mindset of the next generation of game developers in Ukraine, but I find myself hoping they don't fully cast off that bleak and unforgiving attitude that has made their games so special. Their history has led to the creation of some of the most wonderful games of our era, and the industry would be poorer without its unique darkness.