On April 26, 1986, developer Wojciech Pazdur remembers his father returning home with ominous instructions: The family was not to leave the house. They must stay home.
That warning, as Pazdur recalls it, came with a terrifying explanation.
"Measurement devices have gone crazy, and that has to be either nuclear war or nuclear explosion around," his father told him.
Pazdur was 9 years old during the worst nuclear power plant catastrophe in history, the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine. There was no controlling the situation, Pazdur says. As one of the Chernobyl plant's reactors overheated, explosions erupted, dumping radioactive fallout into the surrounding areas.
"My parents were nuclear physicists," Pazdur told Polygon. " ... The government was not saying anything to the people, actually. And information about the accident appeared mostly because people like my parents. Because it was scientists from other countries informed the world that there was a disaster and then the Russian government said, ‘Yes, yes there was a disaster.'"
While the accident itself caused an estimated 31 deaths directly, many more would die of radiation and its long term effects; humans, animals and vegetation alike were contaminated. Hundreds of thousands of people have been relocated over the years following.
It's been 30 years since the disaster, but Pazdur still finds himself drawn to this story and its personal drama. Along with the team over at Reality 51 — a group operating under Painkiller: Hell & Damnation and Deadfall Adventures developer The Farm 51 — he's been working on a virtual reality experience called the Chernobyl VR Project. It's as much an educational experience as it is an interactive one; Reality 51 opted to dig a little deeper than highlighting the disaster in an action-oriented way.
"We decided we need to go serious because after visiting the Ukraine and seeing how sensitive this subject is for many people, we have realized that we can not create some kind of horror game or action game or something like this," Pazdur says. "Then these people would not be very happy about a VR game.
"there are still people dying there."
"They are very grateful that we are showing the story of their country because Ukraine is in a very difficult position, because it's in the center of Europe but it's still in a state of war. Just no one gives a shit about the war, but there are still people dying there. The country is relatively poor and it has a number of issues."
The initial vision behind Chernobyl VR Project was to create a tour, Pazdur says. You can hear and see Chernobyl, but you shouldn't touch or take anything with you. The experience has since evolved beyond that basic idea. The trip is less passive and more uncomfortable in an effort to recreate what an actual tour of Chernobyl might feel like.
"You need to follow some measures, like going through the designated control, like having safety, regulation — you can not sit, you can not eat, you can not drink, and a couple of other things," he says. "So basically, it's a really difficult trip, but for many people it's also supposed to be dangerous, even if it's not that dangerous because if you follow the procedure and you follow the guide then you are basically safe. But most of the people are afraid of the radiation, afraid of the war on the Ukraine, so for many people it's a very exotic place. That's why we tried to recreate."
"we should also honor these people, tell their stories..."
During a hands-on demo, Chernobyl VR Project played out through a mix of movies, people sharing stories and exploration of some of its devastation, recreated graphically in a virtual space. Pazdur explained that Reality 51 wanted to create more than just a "Fallout game or a post-apocalyptic fantastical land" for players to explore. The most interesting thing about Chernobyl in its present state is the people, he said, and the stories of how they suffered through this tragedy. These people will appear in Chernobyl VR Project to share their stories and give you a more personal version of events.
"They are families, they are sick or they have something that has touched them from this tragedy," he says. "So we have decided that we should also honor these people, tell their stories ... we have expanded stories of people who are there, who were there, and the people who left the city with promise that they would come back one day and never came back."
The Chernobyl VR Project is currently available on Oculus Rift for $16.99 and is heading to HTC Vive in August; Pazdur said there are also plans to release it for PlayStation VR by the year's end. Because the game is a "social project," he added that money raised from it will be given to help the victims of Chernobyl.
"We decided that even if [Chernobyl VR Project] isn't that profitable right now, we can at least try to do something of significance," Pazdur says.
"We're using this application as a kind of experiment regarding the VR storytelling the VR control and interface ... We got support from many people, especially the people of Ukraine, including the mayor of Kiev whose father was from Chernobyl. We got the stories from the people of Chernobyl, so it's a combination of these stories and exploring the city."