Chernobyl isn't exactly new territory for video games. The Exclusion Zone has been the stage for Call of Duty stealth, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. survival horror, and plenty of Steam shovelware in between. The Farm 51, the developer behind upcoming FPS Chernobylite, is well aware of this, but is hoping to offer something no other game has in that real-world play space: authenticity. In fact, creative director Wojciech Pazdur tells GamesRadar+ that Chernobylite didn't start life as a game, but as an "interactive VR documentary about the story of the Chernobyl catastrophe."
"We spent more than one year collecting the photos, videos, and 3D scans of the zone," he tells GamesRadar+, following Chernobylite's appearance at the Future Games Show. "With every trip to this place, we became more and more convinced that we’d found the ideal location for our next survival horror game. The stories of people who witnessed the catastrophe made us think about what could be the background of Chernobylite heroes, and in 2017 we wrote the first draft of the design doc that ultimately turned into the gameplay prototypes, tech demo, and following production."
Now in Early Access on Steam, Chernobylite is quickly emerging as one of the most exciting new games of the year, marrying a compelling, choice-driven sci-fi story with survivalist shooter gameplay in one of the most detailed and true-to-life recreations of its namesake yet.
"Chernobylite was supposed to be a more story-driven survival horror experience," explains Pazdur of The Farm 51's seventh original project. ”But the more we developed the possibility to explore Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, the more we realized that the game should grow with its non-linearity and freedom of choice, and feel like a mix of classic and modern RPG games."
That non-linear story has players stepping into the hazard boots of a physicist at the fated nuclear power plant site, who loses their fiancée during the events of the disaster. 30 years later, and they're heading back in to figure out what exactly happened at ground zero, but be warned; as a supernatural inflected take on the real world event, Chernobylite promises plenty of the strange and unexpected.
For The Farm 51, creating this story has been one of the biggest challenges of the development so far; last year, the team completely rewrote its storyline to "make sure the Chernobylite mystery will be one to remember", but Pazdur says that this overhaul was always an inevitability of the game's Early Access cycle.
"We went for Early Access knowing that we have to deliver something that is not finished and subject to change – in every possible aspect, including the storyline. The only issue was on the production side, because the voice recording, translations and text quality assurance normally takes place in the last months of the production, and we had to iterate on them several times to let players feel what kind of game we were making. But to deliver the final version of the game we’ve carefully re-written, proofread, translated, and recorded everything in the way we believed it should be done."
What has remained consistent throughout development, however, has been The Farm 51's commitment to creating a play space authentically modelled on its own 3D-scans of the Exclusion Zone; "It was the only thing that was certain," says Pazdur.
"Before we even knew who the main hero would be, and what the game's plot would be, we knew that we wanted to take players to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone that we’d seen with our own eyes. We developed the internal technology named Reality 51, and we already had a lot of experience with using 3D scans thanks to our work on [2017 psychological thriller] Get Even."
"Getting to spend so much time in the Exclusion Zone and processing the excessive amounts of data collected on the trips to Ukraine was the biggest production challenge we had in our entire developer’s history. And for some people involved in this part of the production, it was the most adventurous period of their careers. When we read the comments from Early Access players on Steam, we were very happy and proud of what we’ve achieved with this, because it was an enormous amount of hard work."
Getting in the zone
You might wonder whether spinning a science fiction adventure out of a real-life disaster, one that people are still feeling the repercussions of, could be in danger of appearing tasteless. We've certainly had plenty of hokey Chernobyl-set movies to illustrate how easy it is to do so, after all. Pazdu, however, argues that the setting is too good an opportunity to ignore from a game-making perspective, but hopes that players will look past any initial reservations to find an experience that aims to carefully balance the line between education and entertainment.
"If you only realize it’s not showing any disrespect to the real tragedy (and fortunately we know it’s not because we spent countless hours discussing it with the witnesses of the catastrophe), then everything about Chernobyl makes it a ready-to-use world and story setting for the sci-fi horror. When you visit this place for the first time, you feel like you’re exploring a real-world post-apocalyptic scene with horror elements scattered all around."
Set to leave Early Access next month, Chernobylite is also scheduled to land on consoles, including the next-generation hardware of PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. The Farm 51 is promising "ray tracing, resolution upsampling, better postprocessing, and special FXs" on those newer platforms, alongside higher quality textures brought about by the studio's bespoke 3D-scanning technology. Responses to the game on Early Access so far have been overwhelmingly positive, and Pazdu is confident that the studio will maintain that momentum as it introduces Chernobylite to a broader audience later this Summer.
"We feel that the greatest achievement of Early Access is that we’re confident about meeting players' expectations with the elements of the game that were the most important for us. It doesn’t mean we believe the game is perfect, but at least we’re not sitting nervously and thinking how much the players' reception will differ from our imagination."