Polish studio The Farm 51, known for titles like Get Even and the sleeper hit NecroVisioN series, is back with their most ambitious project to date, Chernobylite. Spawned from the groundbreaking work the studio did on the interactive documentary, Chernobyl VR Project, Chernobylite leverages the photorealistic visuals of Chernobyl VR (courtesy of cutting-edge 3D scanning technology) and pairs it with a narrative-driven first-person action/survival experience with an open-ended non-linear story and fantastical science fiction elements.
Chernobylite follows a former scientist who worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of which was the source of a real-life nuclear disaster in 1986. After 35 years, the scientist returns to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in an effort to uncover the truth of what happened to his girlfriend, whom he hasn’t seen since the disaster. However, he encounters more than he bargained for when he runs into paramilitary groups and a mysterious substance called Chernobylite, a byproduct of the nuclear radiation in the area, that is as valuable as it is dangerous. While Chernobyl VR Project was a no-holds-barred documentary using video game VR technology to immerse players in the real-life event, Chernobylite takes a science-fiction approach to the disaster, using the setting as a backdrop for The Farm 51 to tell a unique story with their own fantastical elements.
While promoting the release of Chernobylite, Creative Director Wojciech Pazdur spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the game, from its 3D scanning technology to building a fictional adventure out of the VR documentary and making sure the story was sincere and respectful to the real-life victims and witnesses to the Chernobyl catastrophe. He talks about the team’s approach to game design and the decision to hold off on going “full open world” for this title, though future Chernobyl-related games may make use of a larger setting. Finally, he explains the title’s cross-gen ambitions and how Chernobylite may take advantage of next-gen tech like Ray Tracing and 4K textures on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, and the most high-end PC GPUs.
Screen Rant: First things first, can you tell us what your role is on the project?
Wojciech Pazdur: I’m Creative Director of Chernobylite. That’s just the name of the role. Technically speaking, we’re not a very big indie team, so I’m also responsible for managing other things, including directing part of the development, the technologies, and the business and stuff. But overall, I prefer to call myself Creative Director, because Chernobylite is a game we had to build from scratch.
My brother lives in Kyiv. We’re not Ukrainian at all, but that’s where he decided to hang his hat. He’s lived there for quite a few years now, and I asked him about stuff like STALKER and fiction about Chernobyl. I asked him if that stuff was super risky or taboo because it’s like a national tragedy, but he said, “No, those games are the pride of the country!” That kind of surprised me. Can you talk about turning something so horrific and tragic into a point of national pride?
Wojciech Pazdur: There’s a lot of things we could talk about right now with that. The whole idea of Chernobylite came, not from our gaming background, but from the fact that we have been working on documentaries on the Chernobyl catastrophe. In my department, we have a technology division, which I run, which was creating tools for VR experiences with photorealistic visuals. With this division, aside from games, we’re making other serious applications. One of the serious applications we started to work on was a VR documentary about the Chernobyl catastrophe. That had nothing to do with games, but it was about seeing how the Chernobyl zone looks in Virtual Reality, to let you see this place, to let you feel this place, and to let you get to know stories of people who were touched by this disaster. That was the key link. From 2014, we traveled to Ukraine to the Chernobyl zone many times. We interviewed many people living in Kyiv who were witnesses to the catastrophe. And we created this Virtual Reality Documentary.
Right, Chernobyl VR Project.
Wojciech Pazdur: We were also tempted to think about utilizing those materials we collected for video games. Simply speaking, everyone was asking, “How about making a game out of this?” We are a game company, after all. We create more games than documentaries. So when we finished working on the Chernobyl VR Project, we decided to think about making a story-driven video game out of it. Obviously, the question that came to our mind, initially, was, “Okay, how do we treat this subject with respect so it won’t offend the people who are victims of this tragedy?” We asked many of the people we already knew, who were witnesses and victims, and they all said, “You should go for it. We believe that what you do by showing, generally respectful fictional stories about what happened in Chernobyl, you are giving a tribute to us. Just don’t make it into a joke. And this isn’t about making a joke. The people who worked there, they had a lot of jokes about it! They were making some fun out of it, like fighting against tragedy with a sense of humor. It’s not like the game cannot use any kind of humor.
It’s not a joyless romp.
Wojciech Pazdur: But the overall structure, it’s related to the truth, even if it’s fiction now. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to write, how to make this story respectful for the people touched by the tragedy, even if the story has science fiction and humorous elements here and there. But after discussing it with many people of Ukraine, we believe we did it in the proper way. I’m not saying this is the best story about Chernobyl that’s ever been told, but we believe we are not showing any disrespect to the people who were touched by the tragedy.
I think part of it comes from the fact that you’re using the tech. From what I understand, there are lots of 1:1 recreations of large areas. I’m from New York, and when I play games like Marvel’s Spider-Man, I like it a lot, but the NYC geography is all wrong. Entire streets, neighborhoods, and landmarks are just totally missing, and that drives me nuts when I know exactly what a particular corner is supposed to look like. Can you talk a little about how large the map is and how accurate it is to the real place?
Wojciech Pazdur: First of all, to be honest, the way we presented many things in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not a 100% copy of the real place. We realized, even before making Chernobylite, [that] while we were using the photogrammetry and 3D scanning, in general, real-life level design sucks! It’s not designed for the pleasure of the user. The distance between objects, the sizes of corridors, everything in video games has to be slightly different than the real world. There’s camera and movement speed, but also how you want to direct different events that happen in the levels. So, in general, recreating something on such a big scale 1:1 didn’t really make sense from the perspective of delivering a good experience to the players. But obviously, we started from blocking everything out 1:1. But then, there were issues. For instance, if you want to travel between different interesting places in the Chernobyl Zone, they are kilometers apart. It’s a very big area. If you’re not using a car, you’ll need to walk a few kilometers on your feet from one point of interest to another. So we added teleportation to the game. Technically, we are not prepared to create a big open-world game that is completely connected, one big world. So we decided to separate it and give players the ability to teleport between them.
Wojciech Pazdur: It was the only way to make it playable in a reasonable amount of time, from a production perspective. For the next project, we are thinking about making an open world [game] because we feel better prepared for it. But this game was the first game we started to make with Unreal Engine 4, and we had a small team at the beginning, so it was a technical design decision to separate zones for different pieces and choose the most interesting places from our perspective and the perspective of the game’s story, could be utilized as places of action and exploration. Even if it’s not an exact copy, we started by making an exact copy. Then, through playthroughs and designing events, we have been rearranging. We’ve made connections between areas, moved places a bit closer together, adding some obstacles that are not present naturally. But we say the zone in the game is a bit transformed by the events that are happening in the story.
In the game, Chernobyl is occupied by paramilitary groups who are building paramilitary installations, and other changes. Like, for instance, we still have a school in Pripyat that we scanned in 2015, and you can explore the gym hall in the school. But today, in real life, the gym hall has collapsed floors, so you cannot walk around in there. There was a camp with wooden cabins called Emerald Resort. It was quite a famous place in the forest where people could rest and have vacations. We scanned it and built it in the game. But then, it was burned down last year, during the big fires in the area. So we have a digital copy of something that doesn’t exist anymore. There is an ongoing history with this place. Still, we tried to recreate the look and feel of this place as much as we could. We have been 3D scanning objects to make models and textures, but we also made countless photographs in different lighting, times of the year.
Do you mean the game is set across a full year or more?
Wojciech Pazdur: Maybe it’s a bit cheating for the player, but some parts of the zone resemble autumn, some resemble the spring, and some resemble the summer. We thought, we have beautiful pictures of places in different seasons. There was more dense foliage during the summer. But autumn also looked interesting, with brown leaves on the trees and less foliage. We thought it might look better and give players a more varied scenario with these visuals.
Sounds like a way to mix things up so you can have different biomes without cheating too much.
Wojciech Pazdur: The plants, the foliage, the biomes, we didn’t have to recreate some objects and plants from Chernobyl, because we have the same flora in Poland. We have the same trees, the same grass, the same kinds of bushes, and so on. So we knew what species of plants are there because we had photos of them, but we also had the same materials here in Poland. It was more effective for us to work this way. The pines in Poland are the same like the pines in Chernobyl, so we didn’t need to scan them there.
You had a very successful Kickstarter back in 2019, you doubled your goal. And just over the start of this summer, with everything really ramping up, the online community has really been getting excited. To be honest, I was worried that Chernobylite would get lost in the whole Metro/S.T.A.L.K.E.R. revival that’s happening right now. But I think people realize that this is different, unique. Were those games at the front of your mind in terms of inspirations and things to avoid?
Wojciech Pazdur: To be honest, obviously, we know all the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and the Metro games, but I’m being truly honest in saying that our reasons for making Chernobylite were different. We’re not just jumping on the train because there were other successful titles that touched on the subject. We knew that our game might be attractive for the communities of this game, because why not? But we had the idea of making a certain game in a certain environment, and that’s Chernobylite. We were playing games like Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. because they are so close to our character. They mean something to us. We are from the same region that the story is set. They’re close to our stories. This whole post-apocalyptic Cold War legacy, it’s something that is very close to us. But still, designing Chernobylite, we are not taking anything from those games as [a] reference. We have lots of references to other games when we have been writing design docs, making concept art, and so on. We had lots of references for our game, for our characters, and story. But I’d say there’s nothing directly copied from Metro or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., besides the fact that if you make a first-person game and it has science fiction or paranormal elements set in the Chernobyl Zone.
Obviously, there are some very close… You can think, “What is this similar to?” But we know that. We know some people from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. team. We’ve been in touch with them, discussing some stuff. We and they have been working on our projects and discussing our ideas. I wouldn’t say it’s something like close competition, but we think there’s room for both of us. We’re coming this year, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is coming next year, maybe there will be another Metro game the year after that. We believe single-player story-driven games don’t have the issue where there can only be one game in a given setting.
I agree completely. Do you have a personal connection to Chernobyl?
Wojciech Pazdur: Yes. We’re personally related to the Chernobyl story. Not just because my family lived in Poland, which is quite close to Chernobyl, but my interest in this subject, personally, was related to my parents. They were both nuclear physicists, working in a laboratory in my city, and they were taking care of the measurements of the radioactivity. And I remember that we got to learn about Chernobyl in a strange way. At the exact moment of the disaster, there was no direct communication. The government was blocking communication for quite some time until it became obvious that something bad was going on. I remember the day my father came home. He said that we need to stay home and close the windows because something is going wrong. The radioactivity level in the air is increasing, and nobody knew what it meant. It wasn’t at dangerous levels, but it was significant. Nobody knew if it might be the beginning of WWIII or a nuclear disaster. It eventually became clear that it was a fire in the nuclear power plant in Ukraine, and a radioactive cloud was spreading over Europe. But we were living in the shadow of that catastrophe and didn’t know what it means. In Poland and the other Soviet-influenced countries, we were constantly hit with propaganda that nuclear war was just around the corner. We believed we could be attacked by a nuclear airstrike from the US at any time. People in the schools, like me, were learning how to use gas masks and knew the safety protocols during a nuclear strike and so on. We were really scared, I can say, about what happened in Chernobyl.
So there was a real period of uncertainty, that the Chernobyl disaster would not be localized, and could spread across the world, or at least the region?
Wojciech Pazdur: Then we got the “okay, it’s not so bad.” And we had to drink this awful iodine drink, stuff to prevent you from absorbing radiation. It was totally disgusting. I remember it, even today. And then they said it wasn’t necessary to take it because the radiation quickly dropped down, at least in Poland. Still, we remember this time. For people my age, it was memorized. It’s a bad or at least a very strange memory of our childhood. Maybe if I was older, I would have seen it as something more serious. But I was a child, so it was, like, “We’ve got this world scenario, a nuclear disaster, something strange and scary.”
That’s incredible. I have a dear friend who is 89 years old, and she tells me stories about “duck and cover” and seminal events like Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassinations, and it’s so incredible to get her perspective and to get the point of view of what things were like in the East during some of its most difficult crises. Those fears never really drop off. They just change and morph into different fears. Anyway, tell me about the story of Chernobylite. The lead character is a fella who’s gone back to the Zone to try and uncover traces of what happened to his lost love, right? And what kind of combat training does he have?
Wojciech Pazdur: To be honest, I’m not very concerned about his combat training. It’s the part we added as an element of gameplay that was needed for building the gameplay loop around survival and combat and stuff like this. At the beginning of the Chernobylite design was the story. And the story of the characters that have been touched by this tragedy. Actually, going back to the beginning of our conversation, that was the idea that we would somehow show that this is the story of lost happiness, lost love, of how one thing can change, not just a big part of the world around you, but also your personal world. That’s what is interesting about the Chernobyl story itself, the story of the catastrophe. It’s not just about the look and feel of the environment, but how it influenced the fate of the world. Many historians say that Chernobyl was the beginning of the fall of the Communists. It proved how much the USSR was built on lies. The TV story on HBO was telling us that everything about Chernobyl was built on lies. We had the exact same idea at the beginning of designing our story. Our story would be constantly playing with the subject of truth and lies, but in a different way, since it’s a bit more fantastical and supernatural. We focused on a story of someone who lost everything in the incident but is desperate to find the truth. I won’t spoil it that much, but if you think logically if someone goes back after 35 years to Chernobyl, it’s not likely that he’ll find his young girlfriend. He’s more likely thinking or expecting to find the truth about what happened to her.
Right, he’s not, like, gonna find her waiting for him.
Wojciech Pazdur: But we are playing with the sense of truth and lies given the meta-level around the game. If you don’t think about it deeper, it’s just a story about a guy looking for his girlfriend in the Chernobyl Zone. But how does he look for someone who’s been gone for 35 years? She probably didn’t stay there. If she stayed there, she’d probably be dead. He’s not really looking for her. He’s looking for the truth of her. That’s how we play the whole story of the game. There’s constant playing and testing the player’s will to learn the truth. I believe it’s metaphorically related to the situation of ordinary human beings. We’re living in a world where we’re being bombed with lies. We’re being bombed with inconsistent information. It’s hard today, to judge what is true and what is lies. I think the HBO show struck the same tone.
Yeah, misinformation is nothing new, but it’s been having a real moment lately.
Wojciech Pazdur: In the Communist era, the government was failing to tell the truth. You know you are being lied to, but you didn’t know what the truth was. Today, you have all sources of all information, and you can get it from any place you want, so it’s still a problem to figure out what is truth and what is lies. I believe this is why the fall of the Communist story could be a good subject for modern players, to deliver something that has players uncover the past but also feel similar vibes like you’ve been playing a modern story. Like the way people say about the pandemic and the Covid vaccination.
Lots of misinformation on that front.
Wojciech Pazdur: That was the story, of truth and lies. And it’s also a story of love. We believe that Chernobylite is a love story in Chernobyl. We believe the game allows you to play in many different ways. It has a lot of elements, a lot of mechanics, a lot of locations, a lot of subjects you can focus on. But you should always have something that’s a bit lantern in the background, a big light that you are following on your journey. And this big light is the love story, his love for the girl you’re trying to find the truth about.
Without spoiling anything, would you say Chernobylite is a fully-grounded realistic fiction, or does it lean into more other-worldly sci-fi sensibilities?
Wojciech Pazdur: It’s definitely a science fiction kind of story. But to keep it consistent with the world setting, we referred a lot to science fiction stories that were popular in the 1980s. Science fiction in the 80s [was] usually based on real science. So we had a good connection of different dilemmas, like the main hero as a scientist. Nuclear energy. And the metaphorical level of it is that today, for people, science is a religion. If you’re talking about nuclear physics, most people around the world will never understand the nature of nuclear physics. But they believe what physicists say is true. So it’s like religion. We built the supernatural elements in our story, in our game, based on scientific theories and hypotheses that, sure, were never proven, they were just speculations, but everything that’s supernatural or magic in our game is based on science. Generally. So we don’t have religious ghosts and spirits or stuff like that. Everything you think is not natural in the game is actually somehow possible to be explained by the general rules of science. Even if, obviously, we’ve bent them to create an interesting experience. The tagline for our game is: “Science is our religion,” or “Science is our magic,” and that’s how we made this science fiction, this supernatural background of the game.
I’m very excited to check it out. Was Chernobylite always going to be on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC, as well as the new-gen consoles? Do you flip a switch and it suddenly has all the next-gen bells and whistles, or is it a bit more complicated than that? Is porting a nightmare of headaches?
Wojciech Pazdur: We had a pretty straightforward approach when we started. When we started, there were no next-gen consoles. There was PC, PS4, and Xbox One. We knew we wanted to make the game for those. And then, we got to see what could be done on the new platforms. Today, the game is basically finished on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. In the meantime, when we learned about the next-gen consoles, we became interested because our technology of creating visuals was a big jump compared to the previous gen of consoles. Thanks to using 3D scans, we have very detailed models, very detailed textures, and we had to put in a lot of work to squeeze them and make them work on older PCs and previous-gen consoles. We had to divide the world into smaller chunks than it was supposed to, not just because of consoles, but for older PCs. So we’re looking forward to releasing the game for next-gen consoles later this year.
Personally, I’m quite excited about the 3D graphics. My background is as a 3D graphics programmer. I’m personally interested in working on Ray Tracing and other new technologies that will be utilized for the next-gen consoles and modern GPUs for the upgrade that will be released for the game later this year. So, generally, we’re working a lot on the game optimization to make it look good and run well on the previous generation of consoles. And it’s working well. But still, I’m looking forward to seeing what Chernobylite will look like on the next generation of consoles. And even what we can do with the next project, which will probably also be about Chernobyl, but made entirely for the next-gen platforms. We will utilize Unreal Engine 5 and utilize much more detailed visuals than we could have used for this. All the objects that we 3D scanned, resolve much more accuracy than you can see in the game. Because of the limitations of GPUs and memory, we had to scale them down to the level where they can all be displayed on the previous generation equipment. But the files on our servers and our hard drives have 100 times more detail, but they just can’t be used in their full glory on older tech. So we plan to utilize them in much better detail and much higher accuracy in the next projects, whatever they will be.
I can hear the ambition in your voice!
Wojciech Pazdur: But making the gameplay part of Chernobylite was actually quite typical. We had a team of level designers, gameplay designers, programmers, artists, and so on. And we have been working on the gameplay part of the game in the way that we have been working on with other games in the past. But for the visual part, and for the world-building part, we have been working like no other company in the world. We spent a lot of weeks in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone doing 3D scanning and capturing data there and figuring out how to capture the accessible places. This whole project was also, let’s say, the experiment started with the Chernobyl VR Project, where we had been trying to capture more and more elements of the big world to create one big location. Today, everyone’s doing photogrammetry or some kind of 3D scanning. There [are] more technology advances in lighting. But in time, since six or seven years ago, we have been pioneers in this field, and for Chernobylite, we have been using 3D scanning on a scale that probably not many other studios are using. Almost everybody is using 3D scanning for character faces. Everyone’s using 3D scanning today for some props, sometimes for bigger objects. But as far as I know, we’re the only team that created so many buildings, interiors, and so on, based on this 3D scanning tech. I’m not saying we’re the best on it today, but I can say we probably utilize it in the deepest way possible, regarding the scale of how it’s being used.
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Chernobylite is out now on PC, releases September 7 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and is scheduled to release on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S before the end of 2021.
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