Text by Rich Wordsworth. Photos by Sophie Cottrell
“Too much radiation; we’ll have to go around.”
Crouching motionless in a ghillie suit, facing the distant silhouette of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, these words from a sniper hidden in the undergrowth open Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s most bleakly memorable segment: a forlorn touristic detour through the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As a young Captain (then-Lieutenant) Price, you are dispatched with this second sniper to halt a deal between corrupt officials and the game’s primary antagonist, Imran Zakhaev – an arms dealer bent on selling the reactor’s unsecured uranium to terror groups. “Christmas for the bad guys,” as Price puts it, in your briefing. All that stands between you and your quarry are soldiers, wild dogs, a really annoying helicopter and the abandoned city of Pripyat.
The back-to-back missions, All Ghillied Up and One Shot, One Kill, are the first of their kind in the Modern Warfare series: shooting (and sneaking) galleries built on real-world locations, stitched (with some artistic licence) into a haunting backdrop for the assassination plot. Eight years after the game’s release, photographer Sophie Cottrell retraced the heroes’ crawl through the city to see how its appearance in games has affected the area’s trade in disaster-tourism, and how close Infinity Ward really came to realising the world’s most infamous ghost town.
The Chernobyl Power Plant as it stands today. The reactor makes a second cameo appearance in the second mission, looming over Zakhaev’s arms deal as Price lines up his shot through a sniper scope from the top floor of the (real-world) Polissya Hotel, almost an (in-game) kilometre away. The point from which the photo was taken is as close to you can now get to the plant, which has been partly bricked up behind the ‘sarcophagus’ – the stack of concrete slabs which blocks access to the reactor’s core. To this day, there are still angles from which is forbidden to take photographs of the reactor, for reasons of ‘national security’.
The Abandoned School
The State Emergency Service must sign off on all official tours of Pripyat. Excursions into the city have become a lucrative business, with state guide Mykhailo Teslenko explaining that visitors from all over the world – as well as Ukrainians – come to pick over its remains. According to Teslenko, appearances in games like Modern Warfare and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. have been one of the drivers of the dead city’s macabre tourist trade.
The Apartment Building
A 16-storey apartment building, an architectural doppelganger for those through which Price and Captain MacMillan flee after their ill-fated attempt on Zakhaev. This, according to Teslenko, is the tallest in the city. The lift doors on each floor are open and drop straight into the shafts, so for the best views of the city, you have to take the stairs.
The Apartment Building
Inside, the apartments have been gutted by the state. Sinks, baths, showers and toilets have been partially or wholly ripped out. The bottles you can see in the shot are a mystery, but were probably placed by tourists or tour companies. The nearby Chernobyl, now partially repopulated, enforces curfews to stop locals exploring the site at night, which means the bottles probably aren’t the leftovers of trespassers or adventurous revellers.
The Apartment Building
Graffiti on the top floor balcony of Pripyat’s tallest building. The open ground on the right of the picture, half-shrouded in fog, is the city’s central square, through which Price and MacMillan pass at the end of All Ghillied Up. You can’t get far onto the square in the game (access is blocked by a radiation wall), but you can look out over it as MacMillan delivers the line, “50,000 people used to live here; now it’s a ghost town.”
An abandoned classroom in Middle School no. 3, Pripyat. Some of the more cynical tour companies operating in the zone have ‘staged’ certain scenes to punch up their emotional impact. Bottom left you can make out a gas mask, of which several dozen were piled in the middle of the room after having been dragged up from the basement. Gas masks provide no protection against radiation, but were a standard part of civil defence planning in the Soviet Union. The citizens of Pripyat were prepared for the wrong disaster.
A corridor from the same school. The paint has peeled away almost completely and the walls and ceiling are patched with black fungus. Touching anything on the tours is forbidden because of the dangers of lingering radiation – as is eating, drinking or smoking in the open air, taking anything out of the Zone as a souvenir, or breaching the dress code (long-sleeved tops, trousers, and closed shoes).
The Kindergarten in Kopachi village, south-east of the power plant. The kindergarten is one of only two surviving buildings in Kopachi; the rest were bulldozed and buried in a failed state effort to control the levels of radiation. Once again, while the beds may be original, the dolls on the beds are probably not, placed there for effect. If they were, why were they not disposed of along with the mattresses?
It isn’t just tour guides who dress the rooms to make better photos. “Talking about rooms which were ‘set up’, yes, that happened a lot,” says Teslenko. “A lot of photographers and film-makers come to see and film the area… and they set them up, put dolls and toys [in] places they like.”
The Swimming Pool
In the game, Price and MacMillan enter through a door in the top right hand corner of the picture to find a pack of wild dogs devouring a soldier in the deep end of the drained pool. Their exit (a hole in the wall that should be on the left-hand side of the picture) was invented by the game designers; as was the placement of the rusting fairground, which in the game appears just behind the diving boards.
Pripyat was a city for young families, built to accommodate those who would work in the power plant. In Modern Warfare, this fairground is the site of Price and MacMillan’s final stand against waves of enemy troops. In the 1996 flashback mission, this dodgem rink still has its roof, the dodgems are less grubby and the floor is free of detritus and plant life. The Ferris wheel in the background is also closer, making the dodgems ideal cover for enemies sneaking up on your position.
“[The] fairground [was] supposed to be opened on the [national holiday of] 1st of May, 1986,” says Teslenko. “But that never happened, because of disaster on the 26th of April.” However, the inhabitants of Pripyat did get to enjoy the fairground’s attractions (which also included carousels and a shooting range) during a soft opening period before the accident.
The Ferris Wheel
More (small) liberties taken by the Modern Warfare designer team: the famous Pripyat Ferris wheel actually stands on flat ground, not the bank on which you position the wounded MacMillan, and the ground leading up to it is (barring a few scrawny trees) flat and open. Presumably in the interests of challenge, Infinity Ward added a half-empty car park and some fencing to the approach, behind which enemies can take cover.
From the Helicopter
To round out, here is one final shot from the top of Pripyat’s tallest building, taken to mimic the view from the chinook that extracts Price and MacMillan after the fairground shootout. Most of the reddish bushes and trees you can see have grown up since the disaster, and are much more tightly packed on the ground than the sparse foliage in the game.
Sophie Cottrell is a photographer. You can see more of her photos from Pripyat and other travel projects on her website.