Video games offer various forms of escapism, with people playing out fictional scenes of conflict and war from behind a screen every day as a way to unwind. Last week that experience became all too real and all too dangerous for the people of Ukraine following an unjustifiable and unethical invasion by Russian forces.
Immediately following the attack, and ever since, there has been an outpouring of support for the country and condemnation of the invasion from all walks and sectors, which is being covered plentifully by international media – so we’ll focus on our particular niche, as Ukrainian game developers took to social media to express their anger, to let fans know they are trying to stay safe, and to seek support.
Ukraine is home to a strong game industry sector and has produced some highly successful AAA blockbusters as well as sleeper cult hits over the decades. Let’s take a look at some of the best titles the country has to offer, and the developers behind these games.
While governments and organizations are busy supplying the forces defending their homes in Ukraine with the tangible, physical resources they need the most, anyone can help by supporting the country financially – be it with donations, or by purchasing Ukrainian games.
Two popular and critically acclaimed game series on this list are very similar in nature, and share DNA on the developer level – the Metro series, kicked off with 2010’s Metro 2033, is based on a series of post-apocalyptic novels and developed by 4A games. Now Ukrainian-Maltese with headquarters moved to the island nation, 4A was founded in Kyiv and still operates a studio in the Ukrainian capital. 4A was founded by developers who departed GSC Game World, developers of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series which we’ll speak about more later.
Spawning sequels, Metro: Last Light and Metro: Exodus as well as remasters of both 2033 and Last Light, released under the Redux subtitle, the Metro series follows Artyom, a denizen of the Moscow underground which is where the surviving vestiges of the city’s population moved after a global nuclear exchange turned the planet into an irradiated wasteland.
The Metro games are first person shooters with some limited survival elements, primarily kicking in during brief stints where the player needs to traverse the irradiated surface world at certain points in the storyline. The games, much like the novels they are based on, have also touched upon many political themes.
If you don’t feel like playing in a post-nuclear, ruined, apocalyptic world would be the best kind of diversion right now, we can relate – however from a technical and artistic standpoint the Metro series definitely deserves a place on this list, having produced a consistently impressive crop of shooters.
On the other hand, if you have qualms about the series being based on books from a Russian author, worry not – Dmitry Glukhovsky has vocally condemned the invasion of Ukraine, both in a video message and on Instagram where he stated “This war on our Ukrainian brothers is unjust and predatory. It was started by a mad tyrant, but we must all be sorry for it.”
The Metro series isn’t the only great post-apocalyptic game property based on Russian sci-fi novels on this list. If we’d have a dime for each instance it happens, we’d have two – not a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of hardcore FPS action-survival titles is both one of the foremost and perfect examples of the so-called metagenre dubbed “eurojank”, and also exceedingly cumbersome to write out all the time. Taking a whole lot of inspiration from Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, which earlier inspired Tartakovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t a direct adaptation. Instead, it takes many of the base ideas and concepts of the novel and re-framed them against the backdrop of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Developed by GSC Game World, the company which saw employees depart and found 4A later, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in an alternate universe where the Chernobyl disaster happens, but is much much worse, with the surrounding area and the city of Pripyat affected by much more than radiation – all kinds of paraphysical anomalies and hostile mutant monsters infest the area, but it also holds objects with unusual properties that make them exceedingly valuable.
Within the context of the game series, the name is a backronym for “Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers and Robbers”. Spread across three games, released between 2007 and 2009, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. became a cult hit enjoying a great deal of praise despite some technical issues and what may be called dated visuals compared to AAA titles of the time – to fans, it definitely adds to the charm.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chernobyl is a currently in-development fourth entry in the series. Originally announced right after the launch of the third title, Call of Pripyat, the project encountered difficulties and was cancelled, with GSC Game World itself coming on hard times. After being reestablished for the development of Cossacks 3, the revived studio proved strong and confident enough to re-commit to the series in a huge, AAA way.
Envisioned as a much larger project in scope, developed in Unreal Engine 5 and broadening availability to consoles, including the Xbox Series X/S. The game already saw its fair share of controversy when GSC announced plans to incorporate NFTs, but like so many other companies that did the same, retracted these plans following public outcry.
Slated for a December 2022 release, it is unclear whether S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2’s release date has been affected by the current crisis, though we’re going to assume it has been. GSC’s first concern at the moment is hardly when their title will be released, and luckily fans have the tact to share the sentiment – the official Twitter page of the development company has been dedicating its posts to seeking aid for Ukrainian defense efforts, with fans displaying more interest in their safety than in the progress of development – as they well should.
«Gameplay when?» is no longer the most common question. Now we hear «Are you guys okay?» more and more.https://t.co/E6yyzTwwSd
— S.T.A.L.K.E.R. OFFICIAL (@stalker_thegame) March 2, 2022
Sherlock Holmes series
Continuing the trend of games based on great literary works, Frogwares’ series of Sherlock Holmes adventures games have had their highs and lows, but when they hit their highs, they’re really high. Some of the best entries in the series are Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments and Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, which stand out in terms of writing, investigative game mechanics and visuals.
Adapting Sherlock Holmes into video game format is an interesting challenge, since the main character is known for their deductive skills and near-superhuman ability to piece together the clues of a case. How does one translate the more esoteric and intangible elements of detective work, all the while building a gameplay structure that is approachable to the most possible players while still making them feel smart for figuring out the answers? It’s a tough line to walk.
It’s also the reason why some of the less-praised entries drew criticism – however when that delicate balance is achieved, the experience becomes a hugely rewarding one, not unlike the feeling that makes puzzle games attractive to many.
At the same time, some of the Sherlock Holmes games made slight segues into action territory, making the detective extraordinaire into a more hands-on crime fighter, likely to attract a larger player base. However, the standout entries in the series stay true to its adventure game roots.
Day 6: Orders to deliberately bomb and shoot at civilians after multiple tactical failures from the warmonger’s army of untrained boys being blindly sent to their deaths. It only raises our will to live free and in peace.
Get out of our country. You do not belong here.
— Frogwares (@Frogwares) March 1, 2022
In the face of the Russian invasion, Frogwares have taken to Twitter to give daily updates about the situation in the country and how the team members are faring – spreading awareness and signal-boosting calls for support is how they do their duty in this time of crisis.
“Last week we were making games. Today there are people on our streets running with guns in their hands. Bombings of our cities haven’t stopped. Our people remain strong” reads their latest update. Hopefully they’ll be back to making games soon; it would mean that peace had returned.
The Precursors is definitely the weirdest title on this list, and while it has its fair share of technical issues – again, this would be a good example of eurojank – it’s bold ambition and utter uniqueness has earned it a cult following and plenty of praise from the small group of people that know about it; hopefully one that will now expand.
Combining vast, freely explorable terrains on the surface of planets and moons with deep RPG mechanics, space combat, a non-linear story and branching narrative makes The Precursors as varied and versatile as some of the biggest AAA space opera games out there. Developed on what would relatively seem like a shoestring budget compared to today’s blockbusters, the 2009 title set out to do many of the things games like Star Citizen are planning to achieve, and succeeded – mostly.
Seeing broader, international releases via GamersGate (the online store, not the messy journalism controversy) and Steam, The Precursors managed to reach a somewhat wider audience later on than its initial, Russian release. The unique design and style of the entire title, both in its approach to visuals and to gameplay – such as organic weapons for which players must “breed” ammo – certainly made it memorable, even if some issues marred the technical execution.
Developed by Kyiv-based developer Deep Shadows, The Precursors never quite made it to the “hit” portion of the sleeper hit dream, but is to this day a uniquely weird and weirdly unique experience in the world of video games. The developer studio has mostly moved onto localizations instead of making its own games, and isn’t particularly active online. We can only hope that they’re doing well under the current circumstances.
Cossacks: European Wars
Cossacks is the other series that GSC Game World is best known for aside of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with Cossacks 3 having been the reason for the developer to re-establish itself. Even so, the very first game in the Cossacks series has never been surpassed by any of its sequels, and holds up even today as a fantastic RTS experience – considering how the RTS market looks like right now, that’s valuable in its own right.
Taking scale a mite further than most rivalling RTS series, Cossacks boasted no unit limits and features 16 playable nations from the period of history around the Thirty Year’s War and War of Austrian Succession. A number of other historical conflicts from around about this era is also represented. The 16 nations have distinct unit and building designs, with accurate architecture.
Cossacks also styled itself as a partially educational game, featuring a stunningly detailed historical encyclopedia, providing a wealth of information about the nations, wars, politics and famous people of these eras while also giving key context and background to the actual battles the player was fighting.
A deep dedication to realism and details coupled with the unique removal of unit limits gave Cossacks its iconic gameplay flavour that turned it into a hit with the strategy community. Formation mechanics were also implemented when commanding military units, and battles could also spread to the sea where factions would wwith naval units.
Cossacks ended up getting multiple expansions, and its success spawned multiple sequels – though none have managed to one-up the original. Hopefully GSC Game World will get the chance to change that.
While buying or playing these games is hardly the only – or best – way to express support for Ukraine and its people right now, doing still still help – every little bit does.