Fast Travels: Once We Are Gone
Tobias Hanraths looks for signs of life in Pripyat.
On December 2nd, 1942, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and his team successfully split an atom. It was the first man made nuclear reaction and one of the major breakthroughs in human history. It led to a whole number of scientific advances, some of them good, some of them really bad. It gave mankind the chance to create more consumable energy than ever before, but it also enabled us to kill ourselves many times over. So the jury is still out on whether or not this first split atom was a good thing.
But if you were to ask the residents of Pripyat in the Ukraine, they probably would have a pretty definitive opinion on the merits of nuclear energy. Because they are actually the former residents of Pripyat— after the Chernobyl disaster, their town was evacuated. It is now a ghost town, a strange glimpse into a future without humans. It is also a haven for violence and death, at least according to “All Ghillied Up,” a playable flashback in the seminal shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
The game sends you to Pripyat on a mission to kill Imran Zakhaev, a Russian terrorist searching for nuclear material, which in this case are spent fuel rods to use in a dirty bomb. You are the series’ recurring hero Captain Price, and at the time you are still a lieutenant under the command of the very Scottish Captain MacMillan. It sounds like the plot of every action movie ever, but thanks to the derelict beauty of the deserted Pripyat, it becomes something a lot stranger.
As you make your way from the outskirts of Pripyat to its center, dodging enemy patrols and hiding in the tall grass and behind gutted cars and tanks, you can already tell there is something in the air. It’s not just the deadly pockets of radiation your Geiger counter warns you of; it’s something else. There is a low hum lying under everything, an oppressive silence that would make you whisper even if you weren’t on a stealth mission.
It’s the same strange feeling one would find in a graveyard or a crypt. This is strange because not many people in Pripyat died from the accident— at least not immediately. Soviet authorities reacted too late and botched the evacuation, causing many people to suffer and die from radiation poisoning, but they did so later. Yet Pripyat still feels like a place for the dead, not for the living. Despite the absence of bodies, death is everywhere.
One reason for this is that part of the city has been reclaimed by nature, the dark green of moss and mold mingling with the dull greys of concrete. But it’s a very different kind of nature than in a regular forest. There are no birds or any other animals, no noises, no colorful flowers; just bare trees and wizened weeds, creeping up through the buildings and cars people left behind.
The outer areas of Pripyat have been overgrown so thoroughly that when you finally reach the heart of the city it’s almost a shock: barren buildings, in the trademark non-architecture of Soviet cities, suddenly appearing at the edge of a forest or behind a wall of shipping containers. As you make your way through them, the nondescript humming gives way to something else. The sound of playing children fills the courtyards of abandoned apartment complexes; a whisper of traffic noise wafts over from the empty roads.
The sound makes it seem like there might still be something here, just around that next corner. But when you get there and look for cars or children, all you see is emptiness. Pripyat is a literal ghost town now, filled with the echoes of a former life. It could almost be peaceful, if it weren’t for people like you: two trained killers, sneaking through the city in ghillie suits that hide them from the enemy. Not actual ghosts, but a lot more dangerous than some voices and traffic noises.
Price and MacMillan are professionals, so there is not a lot of talking, just the occasional gruff “Two over there. Take them out.” But even they have to remark upon the scenery at some point. “Look at this,” MacMillan whispers while you are sneaking through the empty lobby of an apartment complex, its pillars throwing long shadows on empty concrete walls. “50,000 people used to live here.”
Of course, just after that brief moment of awe and humanity, you go right back to killing terrorists and mercenaries. The plan is to sneak into Pripyat, assassinate Zakhaev during a meeting with a group of weapon smugglers, and get the hell out of there. The first part goes well, the second not so much: Price and MacMillan are discovered, turning their quiet retreat into an extended running battle, guard dogs and helicopters included.
At this point, the city of Pripyat turns from a peaceful ghost town into a backdrop for chases, firefights, and dramatic last minute rescues. As if to drive this point home, the final shootout even takes place in some kind of funfair, under and around the skeleton of a giant Ferris wheel. It manages to feel both exciting and obscene at the same time, like a playground in a cemetery or laughter at a funeral. Not only are you killing countless hordes of enemies, you are also disturbing the rest of others.
But somehow, even this drastic shift of mood fits the place: in its current state, Pripyat is a warning. It’s a glimpse into what might happen if humanity doesn’t get its act together, if it keeps following greed and arrogance into a downward spiral of violence and negligence. Living cities will turn into silent forests, people will turn into ghosts, and the noise of life will degrade into an echo of death. And Pripyat wasn’t even destroyed by a war, just by bad luck. Nevertheless, the destruction is just enough that you can imagine what it might look like if instead of being caused by a melting core, it had been exploding warheads and soldiers with guns.
And still, we cannot leave it alone. For a moment, Price and MacMillan realize what they are witnessing, then they go back to killing their fellow humans. At this moment, a chilling possibility turns into a sad certainty. Because even if we see the warning, even if we are standing right in the middle of the remains of our failures, we can’t help but use them as an opportunity for new violence, destruction, and entertainment. Once the killing is done, all cities will be like Pripyat: empty concrete jungles left to rot in silence, only interrupted by the occasional ticking of a Geiger counter.
Image credit for screenshot of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by Flickr user icanmakeit.de
Tobias Hanraths is a freelance writer and journalist from Berlin, Germany. He used to write about curved TVs and mobile contracts, which got really depressing really fast, so he fled to the magical world of videogames. He has a website and a Twitter account.