Following several explosions at the Chernobyl power plant, a blanket of radiation created a seclusion zone. Inside this zone, the government created secret laboratories and power plants, safe from the potential of human disaster. In 2006, for no reason the scientists have been able to discover, thunder, flashes of light, and horrible destruction visited the zone of seclusion. Within the concrete walls, reports began of mutated creatures, zones of impossible physics, and artifacts with strange properties. This zone, “the Zone of Alienation,” is the setting of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series.

I also consider it my home, and it will almost certainly kill me.

The flora is lush, overgrown and unchecked. The fauna is misshapen: grossly muscular, deformed, able to rend at the mind, tear at the flesh, howl into the night, and make the night howl back. Reality itself struggles against the elements, with small pockets of space becoming horrific tragedies of physics. Air that bursts into superheated plasma hides with near-invisible warping of heat vapor, hidden caches of ground that shoot out thousands of volts, pockets of gravity wells that churn any victim into pulp. The wisest tool in the zone is a small cache of bolts, to be tossed into the air, to see if the air cries havoc at their intrusion.

Within the guarded walls are artifacts—perhaps remnants of alien technology or unusual physics—that hold value for scientists risking their lives in the Zone to learn how these strange objects work. Rich men and universities, out in the real world, willing to pay top dollar to add objects to their collection, or get rare and powerful artifacts into their collection. These artifacts are the truest calling to the Zone, drawing men and women into the zone to collect and make their fortunes for the low risk of life and limb. Among them, likewise, are bandits. Poorly armored, with machine pistols and illegally sawn shotguns, stalking prey in the zone hoping to tag someone carrying rare artifacts to the outskirts. Hoping to score a big paycheck without the horrific tragedy of stepping into an anomaly, favoring the more mundane risks of a gunfight.

The price for comfort in the zone is blood and flesh, by the ounce or pound, and everything in it feels as unstable as it is dangerous. But it is also beautiful. The reeds of weed and grass grow to the chest, buildings, businesses, and cities remain as if untouched, leaving skeletons of urban decay marked across the landscape. The wind whispers beautiful songs as it dances across the grounds, with the echos of long-emptied chimes, the sonorous singing of half-completed windows in their frames, and the distant chatter of animals settled in their packs.

Without the genuine terror in the Zone, in the calm immediately following the firefights, the landscape is as beautiful as a national park. Some anomalies are likewise gorgeous, casting aurora borealis onto the chipped concrete and painting the walls of otherwise pitch black tunnels in beautiful hues of orange and red.

The Zone is a part of my mental make-up; it’s a landscape I think about in idle moments and when asked to recommend games. It’s been years, and countless titles since I last stepped foot through the threshold of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, and yet it’s still a part of me. I find myself wanting to walk its dangerous footpaths and gun-fueled chaos again. More than wanting to unpack all of its secrets, the Zone calls to me on an almost spiritual level. The desire just to see more of it again, rather than divest it of valuables, is as much a part of its physical make-up as the mass, the mutation, the murder, and the mania. I long to explore the Zone in the same way moths are drawn to fire; the beauty will maim me, but I find myself extending one foot forward all the same.

  • The “zone” is reminiscent of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalker_(1979_film) –is it central to this series? Or just a diversion?

    • Taylor Hidalgo

      Both that film and these games are based on the same piece of fiction, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. The setting itself is the primary influence for all the events of the fiction and games (never watched the film, sorry), and it has a very central role in everything that happens.

      In the case of Call of Pripyat, the game that I feel best establishes the Zone, the setting is what drives everything. Scientists are there explicitly to study the anomalies, Stalkers travel among and skirmish between their various camps, emissions occur at random giving a balanced importance to stamina and movement speed, and the player’s standard of doing things is victim to the quirks of the Zone.

      • I don’t think I’ve ever read about that book. Its environment sounds a lot like a video game. (All of the “artifacts” are like “items” from a video game.)

        *It brings to mind the 12,000AD Vampire Hunter D universe; where the artifacts have somewhat different origins. I mention it only because the author–probably the most famous in Japan for pulp science fantasy–has a series called Alien, that I am not familiar with, but you can see it here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hideyuki_Kikuchi#Treasure_Hunter_series) and I be damned if its not inspired by Roadside Picnic, since it’s called Alien, but not really about aliens, and involves treasure-hunting (I get the sense if’s maybe for young people, but I am not certain) and each episode is called Zone 🙂

        *CORRECTION: I may be damned. I misremembered. Just two sections say Zone, and it’s a translation, rather than transliterated. Spoke too soon.

        • Taylor Hidalgo

          The videogame-y environment depends on how you’re looking at it. The Zone is a lot more abstract in Roadside Picnic, with its dangers being either instantly deadly or incomprehensibly altering. (The main character’s daughter is born with fur throughout her body, and over the course of several years becomes increasingly feral.)

          The Meat Grinder anomaly, the Wish Granter, names of artifacts, the scientists, and lore are all pretty consistent between fiction and Shadow of Chernobyl, but the origin is different. (In STALKER, the origin is a mysterious force that explodes within the zone of exclusion. In Roadside Picnic, it results from the landing of aliens. Hence the name “Roadside Picnic,” we’re the picnic insects that travel in and find debris and garbage left behind that we can’t understand from visitors whose motivations or understandings we don’t share.) When you’re thinking of artifacts, in-game, they’re rather game-y. Very mechanical and have stats and benefits. In lore, think of them as rare minerals or spacecraft. No one has a need for one of the lost panels of a moon lander, but collectors and universities and museums would be interested in it for varying reasons. Artifacts are that for the purposes of the world: unknown, interesting, and potentially educational. Stalkers make their money by acquiring and selling these. Lore-wise, artifacts are very consistent with how society would react to them. Curious interest.

          That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if Roadside Picnic inspired a lot of different things. The Zone is weirdly compelling in a lot of ways, hence the nature of this article, so it’s no surprise that it may have inspired many different ideas.

          • The description on Wikipedia gives the artifacts in Roadside Picnic an air like a witch’s brew or occult relic: Instant, mystery potency; bewitching names to boot.