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‘At this point it’s not just a game’: the making of Ukrainian RPG Stalker 2 – during wartime
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‘At this point it’s not just a game’: the making of Ukrainian RPG Stalker 2 – during wartime

In January 2022, the 400 workers at GSC Game World, the company responsible for creating the popular video game Stalker, arrived at their office in Kyiv. Many of them did not pay attention to the unusual buses parked nearby. Despite increasing tensions with neighboring countries, their daily commute to work felt routine and normal. However, as rumors of war circulated throughout the country, their business partners and President Zelenskiy reassured them that there was no need to worry and that life would continue as usual.

Several weeks passed and their fears were no longer considered irrational. On February 24, 2022 at 4am, Russian troops entered Ukraine from the north, east, and south, launching attacks on over a dozen cities and resulting in the deaths of 40 Ukrainian soldiers within a day. The bombs were dropped with intensity and speed, causing destruction just a short distance from GSC’s office. Fortunately, the mysterious blacked-out buses had been put into use a week earlier, evacuating over 200 GSC workers and their loved ones to the town of Uzhgorod near the Ukrainian border.

“We spent approximately six weeks preparing for [the war],” states Evgeniy Grygorovych, the game director and CEO at GSC Game World. “The drivers were constantly present and working around the clock – although it went largely unnoticed.”

‘This game can reach a lot of people – and show them that Ukraine makes world-leading products’ … Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl.View image in fullscreen

Despite receiving reassurances that Russia would not invade, Grygorovych’s instincts were urging him to escape. He called a meeting to inform his team that there was a high likelihood of war breaking out and offered them the option to flee across the border with their families. It was a difficult decision to make, especially when others were telling him not to worry. However, he prioritized the safety of his team and their loved ones over the business or the game. Their main goal was to save as many people as possible.

For the past 13 years, GSC has been diligently working on the highly anticipated direct sequel to its 4-million-selling cult classic game, Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl. Set in a post-apocalyptic Ukraine after a second Chernobyl disaster, the game depicts the aftermath of a war-torn country. While it is an alternate history, for Ukrainians it hits too close to home. In March 2022, Russian forces took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which they still hold today, causing genuine concerns about a potential nuclear disaster. GSC’s fictional world has started to blend with real-life events.

Offices of GSC Game World in PragueView image in fullscreen

GSC has relocated approximately 700 individuals, including families. The final office relocation was completed the day before Russian troops arrived. Due to the limited allowance of one suitcase per family and only three hours to gather necessary technology from the office, there was little opportunity to assess the situation. One member of the HR team even gave birth during the active invasion, while other staff members were already mourning the loss of loved ones before reaching their destination. Fortunately, the opportunity to start moving arose before the war began, but the severity and difficulty of the situation was unexpected.

The ongoing war has resulted in an estimated death toll of over 500,000 and numerous injuries. The violent conflict continues without any indication of abatement and 170 GSC workers are still present in Ukraine.

“Some people’s position was: ‘Once the war starts I will join the army and be on the frontline.’ And that’s what they did. They immediately started defending our country. They’re still our employees – and we are paying them salaries because their army salary isn’t enough to cover everything. We are still helping them as much as we can.”

Volodymyr Yezhov, the long-standing designer of the series, was eager to be on the frontline. He volunteered for the UVO company and unfortunately lost his life on 22 December 2022, while fighting in a battle near Bakhmut.

Grygorovych expresses disbelief, saying that it is hard to fathom. He shares that your friends have made the decision to remain in your country and fight the war, resulting in some of them losing their lives. He believes that this war should not be happening.

Similar to many citizens of Ukraine, employees at GSC have had to come to terms with enduring this hardship as a regular aspect of their daily routines. While some developers chose to exchange their keyboards for weapons, others remained at GSC to continue working on Stalker 2, either from their office in Kyiv or from different locations throughout Ukraine. For those who remained in Kyiv, the office has become a safe haven.

Offices of GSC Game World in PragueView image in fullscreen

Grygorovych explains that they transformed the space into a shelter while also striving to create a pleasant atmosphere. The goal was to provide people with a sense of comfort and normalcy. The shelter is equipped with musical instruments, such as guitars, and a collection of books. The large motion capture studio was repurposed into a designated area for children, which is now filled with soft toys.

During the winter season, there were frequent power outages due to heavy shelling and conflict. In response, we acquired large generators to ensure a steady flow of electricity. Additionally, we designated a designated space for families to gather as our office provides consistent electricity and hot water, making it a more comfortable option than staying at home.

It may be difficult to comprehend why the developers of Stalker 2 would continue working on the video game while in a war zone. However, for many of them, Stalker 2 is their passion and life’s work. In March 2022, after leaving Uzhgorod for temporary refuge in Budapest, the GSC staff settled in Prague. For many employees, the Kyiv office had become a second home. Therefore, special care was taken to make the new Prague HQ feel familiar with recognizable branding and atmosphere, in an effort to provide a sense of normalcy and escape from the harsh realities of war.

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Symbol of resistance … Stalker 2.

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This greatly benefits us and allows our team to endure. Instead of being constantly glued to social media, watching videos about the war and feeling the pain, returning to work for eight or nine hours provides a sense of normalcy. Grygorovych sighs, expressing the difficulty of developing a game during a war. He laughs when he hears other developers use the pandemic as an excuse for delaying their game for several years.

Kyiv was freed on April 2, 2022, but even after 18 months, it remains a precarious place. Apart from the possibility of a Russian retaliation, there is a greater concern over the large number of unexploded landmines left behind by the invaders – a constant source of anxiety for the city’s residents. Landmines are just one of the many concerns weighing on the minds of GSC employees. For Grygorovych and his team, attending global gaming events, like Cologne’s Gamescom convention, has provided a much-needed break from these worries.

An illuminated flag of Ukraine decorates the wall of the new GSC Game World offices.View image in fullscreen

While at Gamescom, the atmosphere gives the illusion of a pre-war environment. People are focused on game-related tasks and discussions, providing a sense of normalcy and relief for me.

After almost two years since the invasion began, Grygorovych believes that Ukraine has been largely forgotten by the world.

“Last year, there was a lot of concern and support regarding the war from everyone. However, this year, there seems to be a decrease in questions about it. Developers, publishers, and people in general may be starting to forget about the ongoing situation. It’s understandable that no one wants to constantly think about something negative. However, it is crucial to not turn a blind eye to the reality of the situation. If we choose to ignore the existence of evil, it will only prevail. History has shown us this before and we must prevent it from happening again.”

As we continue our discussion, it is difficult not to see this upcoming RPG, created and set in Ukraine, as more than just a fascinating game. It has now become a symbol of defiance.

Grygorovych agrees that this game holds a significant importance for Ukraine, its people, and culture. It is not desirable for a country to only be known for being attacked, rather than for its impressive art, technology, and engineers. This game has the potential to reach a large audience and showcase Ukraine’s ability to produce top-notch products. This, in Grygorovych’s opinion, can have a powerful impact. While it may not be wise for an artist without combat experience to join the frontline, they can still contribute in other ways – and that is what they are doing.

The most popular gameplay trailer for Stalker 2 has received over 2.5 million views to date. Grygorovych recognizes this as an opportunity to raise awareness and potentially prevent further Russian aggression. He believes that keeping people informed about the conflict in Ukraine is crucial for the safety of everyone, as it is a significant issue that will ultimately affect everyone. While their main focus is creating a game, they also see it as their responsibility to bring attention to the ongoing situation and remind people of the reality of the world we all share. Ignoring the issue would only lead to its inevitable consequences.

Grygorovych expresses their desire to not be affected by war and to live in a world where they can focus on their loved ones and leisure activities. They long for a world where their young child does not have to ask when they will return to Kyiv due to confusion about their current situation.

At this moment, Grygorovych becomes overwhelmed with emotion and begins to cry, causing a heavy silence to engulf the room. Our interview has ended. As I shake Grygorovych’s hand, I am struck by the realization of how insignificant reporting on video games can be. However, for the 170 employees at GSC working on Stalker 2 amidst bombing and their concerned colleagues in Prague, this video game is their source of motivation.

Source: theguardian.com