If I start browsing mid grade horror movies on any streaming service and pick one just because it “sounds interesting,” it’s probably because I spot some old Soviet-era bunkers in the trailer; that’s how I came to enjoy such B features as Ragnarok (not to be confused with Thor: Ragnarok) and Devil’s Pass, based on the real-life bizarro Dyatlov Pass Incident (by the way, check out walking sim/horror game Kholat based on the incident). Something about these decaying ruins from an empire that collapsed in my very lifetime calls to me. Maybe it’s the bizarre mixture of the Soviet Union’s particular cocktail of atrocities, Utopian vision, propaganda, and brutalist architecture that compels me to seek this media out. And of course, games with this aesthetic compel me too.
Why are there so many such settings in media? No answer I give could be definitive, but I suspect it has to do with three factors: a sense of relief in the “what if” sense (thank God the Cold War never got Hot), a degree of verisimilitude as Communist regimes in Eastern Europe built tons of these things compared to leadership in the West (the “mushrooms” of Albania are notable examples) and a bit of escapist projection imagining what could have taken place in these disintegrating structures.
Ruined bunkers are a natural fit for games. Ruins and exploration go hand-in-hand in adventure media; since the days of Tolkien and Howard before him, ruins have hinted at mystery, hidden treasures, and the allure of spending time with the ghosts of a faded civilization, all qualities present in these war-weathering constructions from another era. Additionally, military bunkers are deliberately labyrinthine — the better to confuse an invading enemy or to launch defensive actions — so there’s a lower barrier to suspension of disbelief when wandering around confused in an old busted-up Soviet bunker compared to, say, a space station or a buried Dwarven temple, both buildings I would expect to have a certain internal logic. Plus, I appreciate the irony in fighting mutants or whatever in a structure built for a war which never arrived. With all that in mind, and with up-and-coming old ratty Soviet bunker game Atomic Heart on the horizon, here are five of my favorite old Soviet bunkers in games.
1. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series
While they may not be the original, and I could not figure out which game that dubious honor belongs to — seriously, leave a comment if you know — the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games set the standard by which all future ruined Soviet bunkers in games would be judged. Practically every mission in this gently-speculative science fiction yarn has you diving into some irradiated hole or other to fight mutants next to junked Iskra computers and castoff scientific implements. The bunkers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are full of alternating stretches of environmental storytelling and survival horror, trading anticipation and curiosity for white-knuckle firefights minute to minute. Every moment I’m in one of these I shudder with terror and bliss in equal measure, waiting for some psychic horror to rub me out.
I had trouble with this one. Is the Demichev regime represented in the charming alt-history B-grade time-hopping FPS Singularity truly a Soviet one, or has it merely adopted the aesthetic of the USSR? Is its governing body a series of councils, or is it the de facto autocracy that much of the Utopian dream of the revolution became?
I ignore these questions and many others during play because I’m shooting dudes speaking Russian while in a bunker in Russia which was built in the 1950s, so I think we all know what’s going on here. The highlight of Singularity is that the game hops around in time; you get to see brand new pest-free bunkers and their ruins when your adventure takes you to the present day; it’s a great mechanic and these are some great bunkers. Fans of Titanfall 2 will see shades of “Effect and Cause,” that game’s standout time-travel level, in the mechanics and story of this game.
3. Rise of the Tomb Raider
The first of the sequels to 2013’s reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider follows Lara Croft to the semi-mythical Russian city of Kitezh which has been contested over a thousand years by the Kievan Rus, the Catholic Church’s secret hit squad, the Mongols, the Soviets, and Werner Herzog. It is of course the penultimate entry on that list of esteemed peers which interests us most — my apologies, dear Werner — and you better believe I pumped my fist in the air and whooped with joy when the words “SOVIET INSTALLATION” popped up onscreen because I Goddamn knew it would be old, and there would be rats.
Sure enough, an old Soviet bunker soon manifested. I don’t have a lot to say here other than it’s a good backdrop for Lara Croft’s inspired brand of puzzle platforming stealth murder tourism; those falling-apart-ass buildings have a logical construction you can observe from the outside to plan your route and it makes sense that you’re parkouring around on old structural elements now exposed by the devastation.
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4. Metal Gear Solid V
The rare example from this list of an active installation, the Wakh Sind Barracks is a hellhole the men of the Red Army clearly don’t want to be stationed in. While there are no rats, the barracks are home to gerbils (in many ways the rats of the animal kingdom) and like many locations in MGSV’s Afghanistan, they feel like they’ve seen far too much use in the five short years the Soviets have occupied the country. The fortifications are porous, full of holes from shoddy, incomplete construction and the ravages of old assaults. Similar to Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Wakh Sind Barracks are a logical extension of this world: the soldiers are clearly making do with the hand they’ve been dealt here, shoving prisoners in hard-to-defend cells with ample blind spots and hoping Moscow sends them the resources they need, soon, to rebuild this crumbling fortress.
Big Boss too must make the best of a bad situation, deploying in hostile territory hopelessly outnumbered and frequently outgunned, improvising and cutting financial corners where he can. Like all locations in MGSV, the fractured Barracks are a reflection of the game’s protagonist, and like all locations on this list, I love spending time among these ripped-apart ruins.
5. Metro 2033
The Moscow Metro is among the largest fallout shelters in the world (fun trivia: the largest is in Switzerland, the Sonnenberg tunnel, though this is no longer a civil defense facility). It forms the basis for the Metro 2033 novels and games, where survivors eke out a meager living in a subway station in the aftermath of World War III. The Metro was built to include fallout shelters and so a player can extrapolate that the surviving pieces of infrastructure include durable, old, definitely rat-infested tunnels. For sheer bunker mileage, Metro 2033 and its sequels beat every other game on this list. Bonus points as one of the in-universe factions (cleverly called “the Red Line”) is a bunch of neo-Soviets. One assumes they are creating new Soviet bunkers wherever possible, and I for one wish them luck.