The date was April 26, 1986. Out of the blue, sirens began to wail and warning lights flashed ominously across the control boards of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In the blink of an eye life was forever changed for over 50,000 residents of the surrounding area. Many of these historical ripples are still being felt to this very day. Yet oddly enough, it would take weeks for the rest of country to find out the truth about what is considered to be one of the most substantial non-military nuclear events in history. Surprising facts are what make the newest PSVR experience Chernobyl VR so fascinating. The application is an interesting lens through which to view the remnants of what once was and what could’ve been. A promising future left tragically unfilled.
A New Twist on Sightseeing
While the PSVR has a variety of different experiences to offer outside of the gaming arena, this was my first time venturing from these familiar confines. Essentially, Chernobyl VR represented what amounts to a digital tour. I would’ve never considered a “VR Experience” as a viable replacement for real travel. However, when you realize that visiting Chernobyl could be considered legitimately bad for your health, suddenly alternative options seem all the more appealing. The application itself offers up three different ways to consume the countryside. Players can either watch 3D videos of interviews or guided tours, view locations that consist of a small series of static 360 degree photos, or visit fully rendered 3D environments that can be awkwardly explored.
If you’re looking for scenic locales and bright sunny days, look elsewhere. Almost as if to play into every cliché “In Soviet Russia…” joke imaginable, virtually every location that can be visited through Chernobyl VR ends up feeling like the most dreary, depressing, color drained landmark imaginable. Thankfully the actual information being conveyed through the narration does a great job of painting a far more vibrant mental picture of what was once a bustling metropolis. Settings like abandoned schools, crumbling community centers and ramshackle shanty-towns, all show glimpses of their former brilliance, slowly decaying through the unforgiving passage of time.
The fierce juxtaposition of what the viewers eyes are seeing versus what the narrator or guide is saying about each location is part of what makes the VR experience so compelling. You can almost place yourself in the settings and imagine what it could’ve been like to live in the region at that critical turning point in history. As someone who has only seen the purely ethnocentric view of a North American male, it was somewhat shocking to see that in many respects the residents lived lives that were not that different from Americans during the same era. In these revelatory moments the application’s educational value truly shines through.
Another shocking element of the experience was hearing about how the government actually reacted to the event, as told through first-hand accounts of those who lived through the disaster. Despite the fact that each translation is presented in a monotone that would make Ben Stein proud, the actual stories being told are both heartfelt and soul-crushingly candid.
One interview talks about how the first responders to the meltdown were kept in the dark about any potential health risks, while barreling headlong into their chaos taking place in the aftermath. It was only after things calmed down that the government began to face the reality of people dying due to prolonged radiation exposure. Instead of actually dealing with the situation in a humane manner, many of these individuals were sent to medical facilities far away from their families, to keep the populous in the dark as to what was actually going on. Granted, these testimonies should be taken with a pinch of salt, but the accounts still paint a damning picture of the government during a bleak era in history.
As a bit of a history buff, I ravenously devoured everything that this virtual time capsule had to offer. But despite the fact that I learned so much over the couple of hours I spent immersed in Chernobyl VR, there were still a handful of items that I found extremely off-putting. For one, only a few of the 360 degree static images felt like they added any significant value. Why am I looking at a series of still shots within a junkyard? Your guess is as good as mine. There are several other locations that similarly lack any sort of practical resonance, aside from seemingly padding the overall run time. Another element that personally dove me crazy was the lack of any sort of playback controls when viewing an interview or guide session. Did you want to rewind something, just to make sure you heard a piece of the commentary completely? Have fun re-watching the entire clip again in order to find your answer.
Let’s now move on to another presentational quirk that took place once each video clip was finished. Upon completion, the viewer is abruptly shot back to a loading screen, sometimes cutting off dialog mid-thought. On one occasion I found myself wondering if a stoppage was legitimately the end of a video or a presentation bug. Only after re-watching the entire video (see complaint above) did I learn that it actually WAS the end of the clip. Would a subtle fade-to-black have been too much to ask? And the blatant lack of polish is even further amplified by the muddy video quality apparent throughout. It’s such a shame to have production values detract from the quality of the content, but what can you expect when working within the limited capabilities of the PSVR?
Purely when looked upon as an educational vessel, Chernobyl VR has a genuinely compelling story to tell. Unfortunately, the overall lack of visual polish undermines the ambitions of the developers. It may be a bit much to ask $9.99 for an experience that has such a short run time and lacks any substantial replayability. I genuinely like what the developers are trying to accomplish, but it falls short of justifying the price tag. Unless this is a purchase for classroom purposes, you should probably just wait for Ken Burns to decide to cover Chernobyl in a future documentary.
Review code for Chernobyl VR provided by the publisher. Reviewed on PS4, using a PSVR. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.