As Game Of Thrones concluded earlier this year, not with the bang of long-awaited confrontations, but the protracted whimper of its haphazardly plotted, poorly paced seasons, an unlikely replacement came to dominate our weekly conversations. It was as though it were conjured by the collective will of an industry eager to remind us that this remains, indubitably, the Golden Age Of Television. Neither dragon nor zombie, HBO’s latest monster was a nuclear power plant and its capacity to cause irreversible harm on a global scale, abetted by a state-controlled bureaucracy single-mindedly invested in its own preservation. Lavish production values, convincing performances, and an uncanny ability to extract terror from mundanities only partly explain how a show about a 33-year-old disaster, created by the screenwriter of The Hangover Part II, was briefly IMDb’s top-rated TV series of all time, and multiple spots on this year’s Emmy nominations.
Under the veneer of Serious Art, HBO’s Chernobyl played both on Russiagate fears and contemporary ecological unease. Its primary aesthetic mode was controlled spectacle, its sensationalism elegant. It also wasn’t the first piece of media to bear the name or exploit the tragedy for entertainment. But for the other Chernobyl—a relatively tame power plant simulator game released in the year following the explosion in reactor No. 4—the relationship between creative intent and public perception was reversed: a solemn work, crassly promoted.
It all began with U.S. Gold, a confusingly named British video game publisher that took over the U.K. market in the mid-’80s, mainly by distributing high-quality American software for home computers in the hitherto overlooked territory. As a company, Gold knew a thing or two about sensationalism—and not of the elegant type. In 1985, it acquired the rights to Raid Over Moscow, the infamous doomsday-scenario game that prompted a parliamentary question in Finland and an outraged piece in The Times. When the company’s Birmingham office was picketed by the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, part-owner Geoff Brown responded, as recalled in Chris Wilkins and Roger M. Kean’s The Story Of U.S. Gold, by calling up the newspapers to promote the protest himself: “How could you get better PR?” If an otherwise accomplished, multi-chapter action title like Raid Over Moscow could use the extra publicity generated by its Red Scare rhetoric (according to the ads, the Soviets launch the nuclear strike that starts the game only after the American arsenal has been dismantled), one can only imagine how desperately a glacially paced power plant simulator needed it. After all, according to its own publisher’s general manager—one irrepressible Tim Chaney—playing Chernobyl “was like watching paint dry.”
Paul Norman, the man who wrote the Commodore 64 exclusive, is a peculiar figure in the history of 8-bit home computers, an eccentric genius that seems to have stumbled onto the field by chance. His bluntly professed indifference to the medium borders on contempt, yet gaming arguably owes him its first horror franchise with Forbidden Forest. He had a knack for designing wildly successful, vividly atmospheric action titles, yet his interests shifted increasingly toward arcane simulations. Chernobyl, at times, seems like a program written by someone whose sole purpose is to understand the technicalities that allowed the disaster to happen, and couldn’t care less about creating an engaging entertainment product in the process.
From the moment your shift starts, and the game’s virtual power plant goes online, your role in Chernobyl is closer to a caretaker than an essential participant in the electricity-generating process. In a downright bizarre attempt at narrative framing, the manual informs us that, following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, advances in information technology coupled with a “decline in the average national level of literacy” have led to the automation of the entire nuclear sector. So a central computer does all the heavy lifting for you, while you play the umpire for colliding neutrons: monitoring core temperatures, keeping your eyes peeled for radiation spikes, and, in a touch that will sound familiar to fans of the HBO show, inserting or extracting clusters of control rods to regulate reactivity levels as needed. Instructions (assuming one manages to get past a dauntingly technical and frequently unhelpful 16-page manual) are issued via typed commands. The game has not only the expanded vocabulary but also the bare-bones presentation of a text adventure, featuring little in the way of visual spectacle: rough blueprints, various gauges and indicators, an array of blinking lights to notify you of minor malfunctions.
The problem with this approach is that malfunctions tend to happen quite rarely and, even then, never seem to accumulate into an actual threat. It’s almost as if Norman, in his zealousness to deliver a realistic simulation (the CND, so incensed at Raid Over Moscow two years prior, had, according to Computer & Video Games magazine, endorsed the later game as “accurate”), had also replicated the infinitesimal chances of an actual major accident occurring. The slow-building suspense during your first shift in Chernobyl is enhanced by an interface that collapses the distinction between real player and fictional engineer, while the minimalist sound design of Geiger counter clicks and echoing tubes bumps along. It climaxes the first time your screen starts flashing red, accompanied by the blare of an alarm. But then, rather than escalate into a graphic, skin-sloughing catastrophe, it irreversibly deflates, once you realize that, however extreme your incompetence, however gross your negligence, no meltdown is taking place. No wonder Commodore User described it as “fascinating, at about the level of a physics degree paper” and “one of the most unfriendly and impenetrable programs you’ll encounter.”
Nevertheless, both its American and British publishers tried to stir controversy around an otherwise dry, innocuous game, one that played like an advanced-level edutainment product. Cosmi, for which it was originally developed, came up with the title, despite Norman’s protests; in an interview, he referred to Chernobyl as “the poorly named nuclear powerplant simulator.” Then, just in case there were lingering doubts about the intent of its real-world associations, the company commissioned a cover of a blazing inferno engulfing the stylized hammer and sickle of the title. U.S. Gold, ever the experts in such tactics, went a couple of steps further. They briefly added the word “Syndrome” to the title, suggesting both The China Syndrome, a 1979 nuclear sector thriller chillingly released two weeks before the Three Mile Island accident, and the hypothetical scenario after which it was named, a molten core penetrating the Earth’s crust and burning the planet a new axis. Moreover, in a cleverly misleading touch, they opted for different packaging, retaining the image of a nuclear blast but foregrounding the figure of a technician in a hazmat suit, slyly hinting at an entirely different kind of experience than that of your immaterial IT overseer. Comparing these two covers with that of a similarly historically based game, Three Mile Island for the Apple II, reveals a hilarious gulf in the marketing ethics of their respective publishers.
Still, the crassness of the publisher’s methods was only partly vindicated. Chernobyl was hardly a hit, even if it remains the most recognizable title from the slew of power plant simulators born of early and mid-’80s nuclear anxieties. Norman was adept at researching and reproducing complex systems for his later projects but, unlike fellow genre enthusiasts Will Wright and Sid Meier, he didn’t know how or didn’t particularly care to present them in an exciting or gameified manner. Centuries before Cosmi and U.S. Gold came up with increasingly distasteful ways to link a thoughtful if prosaic simulator to history’s worst nuclear disaster, Jonathan Swift had summed up Chernobyl’s problems with an aphorism: “A man would have but few spectators, if he offered to show for threepence how he could thrust a redhot iron into a barrel of gunpowder, and it should not take fire.” What’s the point in a power plant simulator if it makes it so damn hard to watch the world burn from the safety of your screen? Unless, of course, the difficulty itself is the commentary—just another in a long series of jabs about Soviet incompetence for allowing it to happen. Still, Chernobyl is no Chernobyl when it comes to stoking the fears of the nuclear dragon, no matter how lurid the cover art might be.