Cover of the game.

I know it might be a weird question, but is there any video game you can honestly say changed your life? If you asked me, the answer would be, “Yeah, there is one." It was summer 2007, I think. My best friend went on holiday to Croatia with his parents, so I was bored to death.

While I was reading some gaming magazines, I found a preview of a game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost. The preview promised sophisticated AI, realistic graphics, intense firefights with both mutants and human opponents and multiple endings – it immediately hyped me for said game.

I Googled the title and found out that the game was renamed to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and had been released several months earlier. Without wasting any time, I downloaded the pirated version. I was amazed by the atmosphere of the game – never had I felt so immersed in any video game before. Graphics and gameplay were also great, but it was the atmosphere that kept me playing.

There is a chance you’ve never heard of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but I’m not surprised – despite achieving almost a cult status in Central and Eastern Europe, it remained relatively obscure in the West, mostly due to being a PC exclusive, as well as tons of bugs and glitches. The game is an open world FPS, developed by Ukrainian studio called GSC Game World. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set around Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

After a fictional second explosion in the power plant, a surrounding area – called the Zone – became full of dangerous mutants, deadly anomalies, (that defy the laws of physics) and mysterious and precious artifacts, which drew the attention of illegal treasure hunters, called stalkers.

Anyway, I was so impressed by the game, that I bought an original copy, even though I’d been using only pirated versions before. After the release of the following games from the series, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, I bought them immediately. I became interested in paintball and ASG – there are some abandoned buildings in my neighborhood, so I was able to recreate an atmosphere of some gunfights from the game.

I started to learn Russian, the language used in the series, and I speak it quite fluent right now. Hell, I even went on a tour to Chernobyl (and, if you want to know, I’m perfectly fine). So yeah, it may sounds cheesy, but I’m sure that I would be a whole different person, if I had never played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

A few months ago I was digging through one Russian forum for Shadow of Chernobyl mods. I found one topic, called “Horror of Chernobyl”. It was posted only several minutes ago and no one replied to it yet. The post itself contained only a link to .torrent file – no description, no screenshots, no list of features.

“Mysterious mod?” I thought to myself, “Let’s see what secrets it contains!”

I downloaded it and installed.

When I ran the game, everything started as usual – intro with a truck full of corpses, lightning striking the truck, a stalker carrying the sole survivor – the protagonist called Marked One – to trader’s bunker and a message stating, “Kill the Strelok,” on our PDA. The first tasks also seemed to be unaltered. I began to wonder what (if any) changes had the mod brought, since there was no readme file. Gradually, I started to notice some differences. The nights, previously looking more like late evening, were now pitch black. Also, more mutants were spawning after dusk, so leaving camps in the night was an intense experience.

Some new side-quests were also added, mostly revolving around some creepy places like X-Labs, Yantar factory or Bloodsucker’s Village in Army Warehouses. For instance, in one of such missions, player has to obtain a flash drive from a warehouse in Wild Territory.

There are, however, several dead bodies. After finding a flash drive in a hidden backpack, the corpses come back to life as zombies and attack the player. I was really impressed by the mod creator’s idea – it was genuinely creepy. But there was one more thing that was disturbing as hell.

It was after several hours of gaming. I was making my way through some open area. I think it was Dark Valley, but I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, I suddenly saw something in the corner of the field of view. It was a ghostly figure, standing on a top of a small hill. I faced the direction I saw this mysterious thing, but there was nothing. I went on that hill and carefully scanned the area with binoculars, but without any effect. I thought I must be seeing things, so I ignored it.

A few hours later, the situation repeated – weird shape in the corner of an eye, which disappeared after a second. I decided to check on the forum where I found the mod, whether any other player had similar experiences. The thread with the mod was, however, locked a few minutes after I started downloading the file without any reply. One of the moderators deleted the download link and added a sarcastic note stating, “Luke, use the Template,” with a link to a thread labelled, “How to post mods properly.” Without any help from other forum users, I decided to solve the mystery by myself.

I continued to play, as I thought that there must be an explanation somewhere. I began to explore every inch of the game and do every mission, but I hadn’t found anything. I decided to continue with the main storyline. I had to meet a character called Doctor in Agroprom Underground. I reached the location and everything seemed normal – explosion while going up the ladder and Doctor’s monolog explaining that Marked One is, in fact, Strelok – a man the player was hunting through the game.

Suddenly, when Doctor’s speech was over, Marked One/Strelok pulled out a grenade. He removed a safety pin and released the lever, while still holding a grenade in his hands. Just before it was supposed to explode, the screen went to black and the game crashed.

I was confused about what happened, but at the same time, I had a hunch I was on the right track. I decided to try that part again – I assumed that the game crashed, because it encountered some fatal error. Dealing with bugs and crashes, especially after modding the game, is just a part of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. When I clicked the “Load game” button, I noticed a new save file on the top of the list. It had no name and instead of a map name, it just showed, “…”. I decided to load this particular file – the most recent one. The loading screen lacked the location screenshot – instead, there was just X.

When the map loaded, the character was standing in some straight, dark corridor. It looked similar to underground laboratories from the game. I noticed I had no weapons, armor or any other equipment. As there was no other way, I proceeded through the corridor. Suddenly, about twenty meters away, some figure crossed my way, disappearing in the wall. It was the ghost I had seen earlier. I rushed after the figure and found a door, leading to a small, well lit room. There were several documents inside, describing very disturbing stuff.

“I feel sick. They said it was just a fire, but I don’t believe it. It must be something more. I saw my colleagues falling on the ground, dead. I was glad I survived, but at least they don’t have to get through this – high fever, vomiting blood, diarrhea. They said I would feel better, but I know I will die soon.”

“Lena was so happy she would be a mother soon. But what happened to the baby? Half of the child’s face is covered with tumor-like thing.”

“Papa said something bad happened and we have to go. He didn’t say when we will be back. I saw other children leaving the town. I hope we will be back soon.”

“Gone are the homes the gardens and the playgrounds. Gone are the souls who made their livings here.”

I recognized that last words – it was an extract from a song about Chernobyl disaster called “Ghost Town”. I exited the room and found myself in some huge underground location. Ghostly silhouettes of people of all ages and sexes were walking, talking to each other without making any sound. It looked like a peaceful town, albeit inhabited with shadows.

Suddenly, an alarm siren was heard. Most of the ghosts started to run away, others began to attack an invisible enemy. One of the silhouettes fell on the ground, without any move. Others tried to escape, but it tripped. It got on the knees, holding his stomach – it seems he was vomiting. Finally, the room was empty – all of the ghosts had either fled or were lying on the ground. The screen faded to black and text appeared, stating:

Thank you for playing this great game, stalker. Without the suffering of the dead, wounded and deported, this series would never be created.

Victims of Chernobyl disaster.

That was the last time I have ever played any S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game. Not because I'm afraid of some haunted game – I don’t believe in all this paranormal stuff and I’m pretty sure it was just a work of some sick modder. I was thinking of going back to the series several times, but I still have this strange feeling. As if I was dancing during somebody’s funeral.