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Why Half-Life’s City 17 was pivotal to gaming’s post-Soviet obsession

‘There’s an element of exotica’

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Half-Life: Alyx.
Half-Life: Alyx.

The underground labs of the original Half-Life were set somewhere among New Mexico’s towering desert canyons. It wasn’t your prototypical blockbuster locale, but it was still Hollywood-esque, reminiscent of Cold War-era sci-fi films like Them!, where US Army men battled against giant irradiated ants below a blistering American sun. The setting of Half-Life’s sequel, on the other hand, felt markedly different: colder, darker, and altogether more otherworldly.

Half-Life 2 didn’t just give us an original setting; it introduced many in the West to a whole new style of landscape, geography, and architecture. City 17 may have been fictional, but the influences were plain to see. Set somewhere in Eastern Europe, the metropolis drew clearly from real post-Soviet spaces. Art director Viktor Antonov has previously talked about how his childhood hometown of Sofia and how his formative urban explorations there inspired the creation of City 17. Other places like Belgrade and St. Petersburg were also used as reference.

Even without its monolithic Citadel and sci-fi trappings, City 17 was an immensely explorable place. From its grand train terminal — a reformulation of Budapest’s Western station — to its post-industrial edgelands and grotty courtyards and apartment blocks, the city felt familiar, while simultaneously appearing fresh and even exotic to players who are unfamiliar with post-Soviet particularities. City 17 would go on to act as a kind of prototype for a whole swathe of games featuring these kinds of settings. Valve was a giant America corporation, so its success emboldened both Western developers and smaller studios working out of Russia and Eastern Europe who now knew their localities could export well.

There’s also growing interest in post-Soviet settings outside of games. The mood of these places seems to strike a chord with thousands of Instagram accounts and almost as many coffee table tomes, all documenting ruins of the USSR. Like these photographic accounts, video games re-create images of hostile landscapes and ravaged cities, and slowly but surely, post-Soviet environments have become ubiquitous. 

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.

This modern interest in everything post-Soviet is unusual. “It’s weird after this amount of time that it should still be such a thing. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, so it’s been gone for a very long time,” Owen Hatherley, journalist and author of Landscapes of Communism and The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Space, tells me. “You wouldn’t see people in the 40s describing Eastern Europe as post-Habsburg, it’s just not how it was interpreted.” For Hatherley, our somewhat puzzling obsession with post-Sovietness raises two questions: “Why is this still the lens through which the area is interpreted? And why is it interesting to people that have absolutely nothing to do with it?”

“It sort of became an alternative way of telling a horror story.”

“There’s an element of exotica, of it being a terrifying evil alternative world,” Hatherley explains. “But I think actually the allure comes from the art world, and then percolated outwards from there. Firstly, there are the ruins and the kind of landscapes you get in [Andrei] Tarkovsky films, particularly in Stalker. But there are also the obsessions with Chernobyl and the kind of ghost towns left there. It sort of became an alternative way of telling a horror story. This idea of a gigantic, horrifying zone.”

A few years after the release of Half-Life 2 came the Ukrainian-developed S.T.A.L.K.E.R., an open-world game that played out in a fictional version of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site called The Zone. It was loosely based on Tarkovsky’s film, itself an adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic novel. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with its post-industrial ruins and ghostly Pripyat, represents an adjacent obsession. It’s become popular to want to visit the area, both virtually and in reality, where for a mere $100, you can book a tour around the affected area, Geiger counter in hand.

Chernobyl and its abandoned towns continually pop up in games. That includes American blockbusters like Call of Duty but also the many games that have attempted to recapture S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s dreary wasteland in the intervening years. Likewise, the survival genre is also steeped in a post-Soviet aesthetic — PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Rust, Escape from Tarkov — all following in the wake of Day Z, which originally melded popular zombie survival fantasies with the fictional Soviet “Chernarus” map from ARMA2. Even the latest in gaming’s battle royal craze, Call of Duty: Warzone, is set in a post-Soviet style region called “Verdansk.”

Beyond a romanticized lust for ruins and an obsession with Chernobyl, post-Soviet settings can also be, as Hatherley explains, an “alternative way of looking at an existing society. You have most of the things that we have except it’s assembled in the wrong order.” One example of this is the upcoming Atom RPG, a post-apocalyptic game inspired by older RPGs like Fallout and Wasteland. While the Fallout series is famously set in the nuclear-ravaged wastelands of America, Atom RPG draws from the late Soviet Union. Its developers, Atom Team, are a multinational studio based in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Latvia.

It’s Winter.
It’s Winter.

Anton Krasilnikov, one of Atom Team’s writers, tells me about the infamous “utilitarian block of flats” that served as inspiration for areas of the game. “We integrated a lot of government produced household products that most people from post-Soviet countries will recognise. This includes edibles like condensed milk, canned meat, biscuits, Pyraniks, and vodka. We also included familiar items like duct tape, glue, posters, books, toys, etc. as well as automobiles like the GAZ-20 and GAZ-66.” For many, the appeal of something like Atom RPG will be the reconfigured nature of its world. While all of the individual elements are commonplace, the whole feels alternative-world, at least to those living outside the post-Soviet sphere.

Krasilnikov tells me that the majority of the development team witnessed the late ‘80s and ‘90s first-hand. “We remember the movies, music, atmosphere, crime waves, socio-economic and political unevenness, and unrest. Despite the hardships we remember these times fondly, since we matured alongside them.” Many of the game’s characters — “hard-headed, idealistic communists that refuse to accept the apocalypse … corrupt and lazy officials … simple folk who are just living day to day, struggling with the little money they have” — are based on fiction from the period as well as real people and situations the development team lived through.

“It seems exotic, even alien.”

“Cultures and ways of life that no longer exist always fascinate people. The Soviet period is no exception. The way of life and culture that took place there is now perceived, especially in the West, with a special kind of allure. It seems exotic, even alien,” says Krasilnikov. 

Another significant element that seems to captivate us has to do with the anxieties we feel around the fact that our days are numbered. “For various reasons, climate change among them, society gets obsessed with visions of a modern industrial society that has collapsed and become a series of ghost towns,” says Hatherley. This is why post-Soviet landscapes and obsessions around Chernobyl seem to so closely overlap. Our fascination with Chernobyl continues as we become more ecologically anxious than ever.

While we often gravitate toward dead and decaying worlds, it’s important to remember that, as Hatherley mentions, many of these post-Soviet places are actually inhabited. “There’s a temptation to go around pointing at Soviet housing estates and shouting about what awfully bleak and ruined they are. But they aren’t ruins, there are thousands of people living in them.”

The games of Alexander Ignatov are far more personal than apocalyptic. It’s Winter, with its “panel houses, snow, overcast sky, tiny kitchen, and shabby staircase,” lets you wander a small Russian apartment complex. A collaboration with poet Ilya Mazo, the game garnered a surprising amount of attention, despite the slowness and mundanity. “Perhaps players wanted, subconsciously even, to feel what Russian winter sadness was like. How it feels to be left alone with their thoughts in an empty and unfriendly world,” Ignatov explains.

While the It’s Winter store page talks about how there’s “no room for adventures and breathtaking plot,” players seemed to be engaged just by exploring the austere environment and were pulled in by the somber mood and atmosphere. Ignatov tells me that he finds it difficult to think of the game as being attractive to anyone. “Russian players were very focused on the game’s flaws, and often commented that it was too similar to reality — why pay for the game when you can just look out of the window? — which made it feel repulsive. For Eastern European expatriates, perhaps the game was nostalgic, but it’s difficult for me to imagine what attracted other non-Russian players other than exoticism.”

Routine Feat.
Routine Feat.

Ignatov’s follow-up game, Routine Feat, is closer to capturing his own personal mood. While the development of It’s Winter took an emotional toll on Ignatov, Routine Feat was a more life-affirming experience that helped him recover. “Routine Feat is my everyday life, but exaggerated in terms of loneliness and monotony. I drew inspiration from the hot and sweltering summers of my hometown, as well as Viktor Pivovarov’s ‘Projects for a Lonely Person,’ and the music of Russian underground bands like Talnik and Curd Lake.”

Both of Ignatov’s games present places that feel authentic and appear to have real historical weight to them. “I lived in a one-room apartment with my parents in a house similar to the one in the game. It was the happiest time of my life, and I tried to convey this carefree attitude through the bright and sunny environment. I also tried to hone in all the tiny details from my life in those years — an old radio and TV, the birds singing outside the window, a refrigerator without a light.”

“I don’t know any other world .”

Hatherley believes that a lot of the recent interest in post-Soviet settings is being driven by work done in those countries themselves. “A lot of it is just people documenting the recent past and trying to understand the society that’s been left to them, especially on their own terms rather than simply through received opinion. It was an evil totalitarian state, it was wonderful, it was a great empire — there’s all sorts of interpretations. There’s a lot of young people in these countries asking what it was all about, and one of the ways in which they’re trying to do that is by exploring it.”

Ignatov was born after the collapse of the USSR in 1996. “I don’t know any other world except post-Soviet Russia. I know it from the idealized tales of the older generation, and from works of art. For me, post-Soviet is living in the remains of something more ancient and powerful, some kind of perished civilization, from which there are only the broken pipes of factories and the ruins of cultural centres and palaces remaining,” he says. “But post-Soviet also means complete dullness and stillness of life on the periphery — the concentration of minds and creative forces in the big cities. It is a lack of jobs, no hope for a decent future, homophobia instilled by the state, poverty and abandonment.”

Post-Soviet means many things to many different people. There are universal elements, things that appear familiar no matter which part of the former USSR you visit, but there are also huge divergences. “The idea of bleak and monolithic landscapes has been around for as long as the Cold War,” says Hatherley. But there are also things like the awesome cosmic ruins highlighted in Frédéric Chaubin’s CCCP photography book. “I think that book really changed how people looked at these landscapes. People went from looking for grey and nondescript to looking for gigantic, sci-fi, space age structures.”

Call of Duty: Warzone.
Call of Duty: Warzone.

We see a little of both when returning to City 17. The Combine’s futuristic alien structures echo the Soviet Union’s massive brutalist buildings, while elsewhere, there’s a mix of more earthly architecture like the rows of “khrushchyovka” in the background. It’s in City 17’s public housing, industry, and infrastructure that we get this sense of nostalgia for childhood memories and what’s been lost. These ghostly elements are what makes post-Soviet settings so powerful: you can almost feel the past’s spectral presence. City 17’s architect, Viktor Antonov, once said that the reason they chose an Eastern European setting was “that it represents the collision of the old and the new in a way that is difficult to capture in the United States… there’s this sense of a strongly-grounded historical place.”

When I ask Ignatov whether he sees a connection between his games and Half-Life, he begins by comparing the buildings. The panel houses on the horizon bringing back a flood of memories.

“They’re the same houses that me and most of my friends live in,” he says. “When I was fairly young, I only really knew the big blockbuster games where the world was either in outer space or in America. With City 17 I suddenly saw all this familiar architecture, Cyrillic text and advertisements in the streets — it was a magical feeling, and made it feel like those events could all be playing out somewhere here in Russia,” says Ignatov. “I wish more games explored similar settings, but without simply exploiting the themes of the Cold War and the Chernobly disaster.” 

Ignatov tells me about something called “pазвесистая клюква,” a Russian idiom that refers to Western stereotypes of his home. Looking at the media landscape it certainly seems all too easy to slip into this mode of thinking about post-Soviet places. Ideas and images of cruel dystopias and mysterious zones aren’t going to disappear overnight, but there’s also so much more to see and explore.