The Chernobyl VR Project is a moving demonstration of VR's power


The Chernobyl VR Project is not of a piece with The Farm 51’s previous games. Painkiller: Hell & Damnation, a game about exploding demons with very sharp guns, is the studio’s calling card and subtlety, compassion, and curiosity are not among its virtues. Yet here’s the studio’s first major VR project, an Oculus and HTC Vive work that’s part documentary, part 3D art installation, and part exploration game that feels as eerily calm and unsettling as the air around ruined Ukrainian city it captures.

“At first, we just said, ‘What is the coolest place to go in VR? Chernobyl!’ We just wanted to make a VR game,” said studio co-founder Wojchiech Pazdur during our conversation. “When we started going there we were saying, oh we’re in Fallout, it’s the wet dream of every developer. But then we realized what is interesting about this place is what happened to the people there. The place itself is a beautiful ruin, but what touches you is the signs of the people who lived there. If you just take the environment and put zombies here or soldiers to shoot it would be ghoulish.”

What The Farm’s made instead is an understated and immediately moving piece of software. The Chernobyl VR project that will be available in early access on the Oculus store in July and on Steam later this year is presented in a variety of ways. The first is 360 video of Chernobyl itself, from the abandoned and decaying apartment buildings to the still volatile nuclear reactor itself where you can see the new cap being constructed to contain the irradiated material first exposed in the meltdown 30 years ago. Choosing different locations from an aerial view of the city also lead to fully explorable sites around the city rendered precisely in the Unreal Engine using scanned photos and footage recorded by the developer. Finally, some locations like the reactor’s original control room are rebuilt as original objects in the game. Think of it as a new form of collage born of the Palmer Luckey age.

The cumulative effect of these styles is simultaneously surreal and meditative. While Pazdur couldn’t demo the actual Oculus portion of the game, giving me a guided tour on a laptop instead, I was able to view the 360 video trailer using a Gear VR headset. What shocked me was how seamless the computer generated imagery bled into the actual video footage using just a basic VR setup. That blurring of reality forced me to pay even closer attention to the environment, to want to explore and learn more about how this chunk of the world is recovering decades after the disaster.

Chernobyl VR Project is still going to evolve into a more traditional video game, one that Pazdur says will look into the future of the city rather than into its past as the current incarnation does. Even in its state as a multimedia installation, the Project is an embodiment of virtual reality gaming’s potential. Rather than a forced adaptation of traditional action, the shooter The Farm 51 thought they were going to make, it uses the technology to educate in a way that’s totally distinct to the technology. More so than the novelties littering E3 like Final Fantasy 15 VR or even promising blockbusters like Resident Evil 7, the Chernobyl VR Project opens the door to Oculus, Vive, and PSVR’s possibilities.