'Chernobylite' Developers Are Committed To Authentic, Disturbing Survival Horror
Every now and again, a game comes along that sounds... maybe just a little too ambitious for its own good. I have to admit that I truly thought The Farm 51's disturbing open world survival horror adventure Chernobylite was one of those games when I first heard about it.
Chernobylite was announced via Kickstarter back in June, and currently sits in Early Access on Steam. It was actually unveiled right around the same time that HBO's Chernobyl was captivating audiences around the world. Described as a supernatural survival horror in which players take on the role of a physicist who was at the heart of the infamous nuclear disaster, gamers everywhere were immediately intrigued.
No doubt a good chunk of folk were hungry for a new STALKER, and Chernobylite looked the part. Others had likely noticed the game off the back of the HBO show and were intrigued to learn more. Others still were probably simply familiar with the Polish developer's previous work, including the well-received (and also super-ambitious) FPS World War 3.
Whatever the case, Chernobylite ultimately far exceeded expectations on Kickstarter, more than doubling its original goal. This led to the studio announcing the game would have a ton more features than previously planned, as well as a much larger open world.
"It definitely gave us a huge positive boost," The Farm 51's Marketing Manager Barbara Szymańska told me over email in regards to the Kickstarter's success. "Because we saw that a lot of players believe in us and are excited about what we're doing. The [Kickstarter] campaign definitely helped us a lot during the development process and created an amazing community which is pure pleasure to work with in Early Access."
What really sets Chernobyl apart, at least in my eyes, is the fascinating amount of work and research that the entire studio have put into recreating the site of the disaster and its surrounding areas. If you've been following development of the game at all, you'll likely be aware that many of the development team have been out to Chernobyl and Pripyat to record and scout the area a fair few times now.
According to Szymańska, some of the team have been out to gather resources and reference materials well over 20 times at this stage. It's always, as I'm sure you can imagine, hugely demanding work for everyone involved.
"Last weekend our scanning crew traveled there again to gather materials for new locations in the game," Szymańska told me. "And how was it? Challenging for sure."
"Not only because the access to the Zone has been way more difficult before, especially when you have to stay in one place for hours and go to areas not available for tourists, but also because the place itself is dangerous. Radiation is not that much of a problem since most places are not radioactive anymore, but due to the condition of the abandoned buildings."
"You really have to watch where you're going or else you may fall into a hole in the floor or get injured in other way."
"Also our scanning technology requires taking thousands, thousands of pictures piece by piece so that we can recreate the objects in 3D. This requires lamps, power generators and a very strong will to endure hours of work outside despite heat or cold and wind."
Given just how difficult - and potentially dangerous - it can be for a group of people to wander around a series of decaying irradiated buildings, I had to wonder... why send everyone out there? Why not put together a digital recreation based on, I dunno, Google Maps or something?
"The story of Chernobyl disaster is something personal for us because some of us remember that day," Szymańska explained. "It happened right next to us! Years later our Creative Director, Wojciech Pazdur, became fascinated by Chernobyl and shared his passion with the rest of the team. We've been travelling to Chernobyl for about seven years now."
"Previously we were scanning the Zone for our VR documentary - Chernobyl VR Project - and learned the history of the place and met with witnesses who remember that event. It was a very special project for us. All of this led to the idea to make a game set in Chernobyl and our adventure has kept going until today."
"Chernobyl is breathtaking and inspiring in every corner. At the beginning of the development, we took most of our team to visit the Zone and see those haunted places with their very own eyes in order to understand them better and feel the mood of the Zone."
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"The place is constantly changing", Szymańska continued. "Many places look different now comparing to the time we visited the Zone for the first time. Nature is taking advantage of abandoned places, trees began to grow on the roofs and inside the buildings. The Zone became one huge forest throughout the years since the disaster."
But beyond Chernobyl itself, what has been inspiring the team on the long road to development? You probably won't be surprised to learn that they've been looking at some of the finest survival horror games out there, including Silent Hill 2, STALKER, and other gritty, authentic experiences like This War Of Mine.
They even took the time to watch the HBO show, and while the team were already familiar "inside and out" with the disaster, Szymańska hinted that players might find one or two Easter eggs that reference the critically-acclaimed series in Chernobylite.
Chernobylite actually hit Steam Early Access back in October, and so far the reception seems to the game seems to be... mostly positive. Players have plenty of praise for the game's visuals and atmosphere, but note that there are more than a few areas where it could improve. That is, to be fair, what Early Access is for.
In her own words, Szymańska acknowledges that there have been "some small bumps on the way," but is confident that The Farm 51 can work together with the community to make "a really great game together."
So far in Chernobylite, players can explore the radioactive fallout of the city, fight off both monsters and fellow survivors, and attempt to stay alive in the inhospitable environment as they uncover the unsettling truth behind the disappearance of their girlfriend. A huge raft of features are either being developed or are already in the game, including the large realistic open world, survival mechanics, multiplayer elements, and an engaging single-player narrative to pursue.
If it sounds like a lot - it kind of is. Amazingly, it won't stop with what's already on offer. The Farm 51 plans to flesh the game's story out with regularly-added chapters and other content in an effort to keep players engaged. You can see the full roadmap here, if you're interested.
We're all used to video games - especially Kickstarter-funded projects - promising much and delivering little, but it seems that The Farm 51 were always aware that they were taking on a lot when they started working on Chernobylite. I asked Szymańska if perhaps the studio were cramming too much into one game, but she didn't seem to think so.
"We admit that this project is ambitious indeed, and the challenge is even bigger because our team is rather small, with around 20 - plus ambitious people. Developing in such a small team requires creativity in solving or avoiding problems and this is what we're doing. For example, instead of creating 3D assets from scratch, we use 3D scanning to achieve great results with less amount of work."
Szymańska also theorizes that The Farm 51's lofty goals and aspirations likely have something to do with their heritage. They're a Polish studio after all, just like CD Projekt RED, who managed to become one of the most critically-acclaimed and beloved developers in the world thanks to their incredible work on The Witcher trilogy.
"Well, maybe there is something called Slavic magic," Szymańska wonders. "Ambitious games are made in many countries, however Poland is one of those regions which have evolved rapidly in the last 10-20 years and this is also visible in our game industry."
"It's also great to see that more and more gamedev studios are making games the way they really want to, not just focusing on grabbing more and more money from players' pockets and that players appreciate this."
The immediate future for Chernobylite is clear, Szymańska tells me. Focus on getting the game out of Early Access, and deliver the content and experience that fans are expecting. While it's uncertain exactly when we can expect a "full" release, it's probably a long way off. This is a pretty damn small studio attempting to make a much, much bigger game after all.
What is certain is that The Farm 51 clearly cares about getting Chernobylite right. Too many Kickstarter games over-promise and under-deliver, but the Polish studio comes off as a developer that's absolutely passionate about what it's making. From the team's repeated visits to Chernobyl and Pripyat to the way it works with and responds to the community of players, it's great to see a small studio with such grand ambitions.
I have no idea if Chernobylte will be remembered in the grand scheme of things... but I know that The Farm 51 should definitely be proud of what they're trying to build. Hopefully 2020 works out the way they want it to.
Featured Image Credit: The Farm 51