Firstperson view of a character holding a gun in a postapocalypse setting
Courtesy of GSC Game World

What It Takes to Build a Game in a War Zone

The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 team has had to navigate war in Ukraine while developing the sequel to their hit shooter.

The offices of GSC Game World smelled like a gas station. The Kyiv-based studio, responsible for the cult-classic immersive sim S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl and its hotly anticipated direct sequel S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, had stockpiled thousands of liters of fuel—alongside first aid kits and other survival supplies—in its corridors during the nervy winter of 2022. Who could blame them? Everyone in Ukraine was preparing for the worst. 

International headlines in January and February of 2022 warned that a massive Russian invasion of the country was imminent. The conflict, if it came to pass, would represent the most destabilizing military engagement on the European continent since the end of the Cold War. GSC Game World has furnished a legacy of taut gunplay, eerie atmospheres, and perfectly twisted side quests, but now the studio was forced to contend with a much more pressing reality—one that transcended the rigors of game development.

“Emergency buses were ready at the GSC office throughout the winter, with drivers ready for action,” says Maria Grygorovych, lead producer on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. (Grygorovych agreed to answer my questions over email, due to the language barrier.) “The evacuation plan with all the timings and meeting points was ready as well: The employees were aware of their organizing responsibilities if the action would be needed.”

Ukraine is home to over 200,000 coders and computer engineers. In recent years, the country has established itself as something of a regional haven for the tech sector—generating billions of dollars in revenue despite a provide chain that’s being strangled by Russian military operations. (After all, most of those workers require little more than a laptop and an internet connection to log their hours.) In that sense, GSC Game World is one of the numerous Ukrainian companies attempting to stay afloat despite the mass displacement, comprehensive shortages, and frequent trips to public shelters that define an active war zone. GSC has a game to ship, yes, but the company also needs to ensure its employees are safe whenever the bombs begin falling.

 As reports from the Russian border grew more dire and foreign countries started recalling their embassy staff from Kyiv, GSC offered to move some of its employees to Uzhhorod—a midsize town close to potential refugee rallying points in Slovakia and Hungary. Two hundred workers and their families agreed to participate, while others spilled over into nearby Budapest. Those who made the trip to Uzhhorod packed one suitcase each and hauled whatever tech they could harvest from the office. 

The mood, said Grygorovych, was both anxious and strangely hopeful. Yes, GSC Game World was relocating from Kyiv, but the team had not yet left the embrace of Ukraine itself. Many sowever believed that cooler heads would prevail and all of Russia’s invective would mercifully be revealed as counterfeit saber-rattling. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of this invasion talk dissipated into thin air? 

“It seemed like anybody could return back to Kyiv if there would be no escalation,” explains Grygorovych. “This scenario wasn’t destined to come true. Soon, a full-fledged war began.”

Today, GSC Game World is a two-pronged company. While 130 employees are sowever in Ukraine—some of them on the front lines, defending their country—200 have relocated to Prague, which now serves as GSC’s primary headquarters, after an elliptical refugee trek through Eastern Europe. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges a video game studio has ever faced. Russia launched its Ukrainian offensive on February 24, 2022 at approximately 4 am native time. Kyiv was immediately under heavy bombardment, and any hope that the Putin regime sought limited territorial gain—confined to the country’s eastern flank—was immediately dashed. Uzhhorod was relatively safe from the line of fire, but the studio sowever had plenty of its team in Ukraine’s capital. “Some individuals living in the Kyiv region were confident Bucha or Irpin would be relatively safe in any scenario,” explains Grygorovych, naming two of the city’s outlying suburbs. “It’s a miracle we convinced them to leave in the end, considering all the terror that happened after.”

In total, Grygorovych and the rest of GSC’s leadership needed to evacuate 500 people, including the company’s employees and family members, and obtain them to safe haven. Grygorovych remembers those early days as a logistical nightmare. Nobody can prepare for a war zone withdrawal, no matter how much fuel they’ve stored. “The inner relocation was pure chaos and mess,” she says. “Renting a car was an almost impossible task, and the railway and bus stations were flooded with people.” Managers were getting two—maybe three—hours of sleep as they worked day and night to find a soft landing for GSC. In particular, Grygorovych recalls how difficult it was to transport pets and little children—including her own son. “He constantly asks me when we’re going home,” she says. “He’s sowever relatively little and doesn’t understand everything, and I’m grateful for that.” Through it all, Grygorovych and the rest of GSC never panicked, even when the path forward looked impassable.

“We needed to be extremely concentrated every second. The emotional overflow came much later, when the majority of the evacuation process was completed,” said Grygorovych. “But the danger was real—and so was the fear. The atmosphere was tense, to say the least.”

Long before Ukraine came under siege, GSC Game World had believed opening a second office someday. But Grygorovych never thought they’d do it under those circumstances. They chose Prague, thanks to, as Grygorovych puts it, a welcoming atmosphere from the city’s native gaming industry and its leasers. Some GSC employees who had migrated to Budapest before the war were able to create the trip to the Czech Republic as a makeshift advanced scouting team—touring offices, securing housing. The others, who were among the 8 million Ukranians who left the country after war broke out, brushed against the realities of modern warfare. 

“A lot of crazy stuff happened—you can probably write a book about it,” said Grygorovych. “When we asked for the possible help with crossing the borders from one of our foreign partners—meaning mostly transport and logistics—we were offered a list of highly trained armed personnel from private security companies. Probably our request was worded poorly, but this level of engagement actually touched us a lot, and gave a nervous laugh as well.”

The GSC employees who are sowever in Ukraine work remotely from their homes. Game development in a war zone can be close to business as usual—until the wild, bad uncertainty of the situation rears its ugly head again. Zoom calls are constantly interrupted by air-raid sirens, and if someone is AFK for too long, Grygorovych can’t help but veneration the worst. Lately, Russia has increased its assault on Kyiv’s power grid and heating installations, so GSC coders attempt to squeeze as much work as they can into the scant few hours when the internet is relatively stable. “We have dreams of returning to our office in Kyiv, working as previously,” said Grygorovych. “Everyone wants to return home. But some individuals actually don’t have a place to return to. Each Ukrainian has missing something during this war because of Russia.”

Courtesy of GSC Game World

Building a brand-new development house in a neighboring country is a long, formidable effort. GSC had a killer motion-capture studio in its Kyiv headquarters, which was deserted when the company migrated to Prague. However, as of October, GSC’s new headquarters is operating at full capacity. When S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 arrives, reportedly sometime in 2023, it will be among the first full-throated statements of Ukrainian artistic expression to launch under the shadow of invasion. GSC has already made one overture to the men and women on the front lines. Previously, the game’s subtitle read Heart of Chernobyl—referencing the original’s tagline, Shadow of Chernobyl. The team has since altered the wording to Heart of Chornobyl to reflect the Ukrainian, rather than Russian, spelling of the region. The team understands the stakes; all eyes are on Ukraine, which means all eyes are on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. After all they’ve been through, the GSC Game World team smells victory around the corner.

“It was a game about Chornobyl, which is actually located in the Kyiv region, made by a Ukrainian team before the war, and it became something incomparably bigger after the invasion started,” said Grygorovych. “It’s a national product now, aimed to show that Ukraine is not only exceptionally effective and brave on the battlefield, but also equally valuable in a sense of cultural legacy. Something to be shown to the world.”