I’ve been going back and forth about discussing this game for a long while now. Part of the reason for this is the fact that I’ve drifted away playing and discussing flawed games that have hidden merits; access to Steam and digital downloads has decidedly shifted my tastes more towards the mainstream. Additionally, when talking about You Are Empty simply as a game, I don’t think there’s much I can add to this sympathetic review an acquaintance of mine did several years ago. However, the Halloween season and my work with the Wolfhound Empire review project have rekindled my interest in Soviet esoterica, so I’ve decided to revisit this game and talk about why I still dig into it at this time of year.
Just to get the basics out of the way, You Are Empty is a horror-themed first-person-shooter, released in 2007 (2006 in Russia), that was developed by Mandel Artplains, a small Ukrainian developer that dissolved after the game was released. The plot is very basic; it’s sometime in the early 1950s in the Soviet Union, and you are a faceless guard. After an ordinary day of guarding, you get hit by a truck and are knocked unconscious. During your convalescence, the world goes a bit 28 Days Later, and when you wake up you have to shoot and bludgeon your way around an unnamed city to figure out what happened.
Now, even taking into account that this game was developed by a very small Ukrainian team that didn’t have the time or money an American developer would have, this is not a good game. Your arsenal is mostly underwhelming, and at least two of your weapons have an annoying tendency to damage you if you don’t aim them correctly. Even your wrench, your basic melee weapon, suffers from this odd foreshortening effect such that you can never tell if you’re going to actually hit something when you swing it. Most of the enemies aren’t visually interesting, generally being some kind of blobby human, with relatively little variation in type beyond “melee berzerker” and “medium-range gunman.” The levels are entirely linear, with few attempts to mix up the combat and movement the way games like Half-Life did (which is odd, as Half-Life is referenced several times in this game). A lot of the time, levels feel less like organic environments and more like gauntlets where enemies just wait for a script to trigger before charging you. The English dub of the game is horrific. And the bugs, oh my, the bugs. I’ve seen enemies spawn into existence right in front of me. I’ve been blocked from progressing because a body was covering a sewer exit. I’ve seen window-washing gantries hanging from nothing, and have shot out a window only to reveal empty white space beyond.
So what keeps me coming back to this game? Why is You Are Empty in my Halloween game rotation when there are hundreds of other, better games at my beck and call. Well, in an image: this.
Over my many years of gaming, I have amassed a small collection of dead Soviet cities. Part of my attraction to them is the touristic element: the ability to explore a different form of urban space without having to shell out for a passport. However, there’s something about seeing these types of cities as abandoned shells that resonates with me. As I’ve mentioned before, I came of age just as the Soviet Union was dissolving, and as such my only experience of it has been through books, movies, and games. There’s something very archaeological about studying the Soviet Union, an element strengthened by art critic Boris Groy’s suggestion that communism and Nazism are the only civilizations that have collapsed within living memory. (A Spenglerian might also bring up the Ottoman Empire and Qing-dynasty China, but that’s outside the scope of this post.) At least for me, digging through the Soviet Union is like digging through Greek or Egyptian ruins; through them I touch the past and meditate on the mortality of things.
Of course, different cities bring different things to the table. The one city I’ve explored the most is Pripyat, Ukraine, in both S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat. Pripyat is interesting in that it is one of the few places on earth where the Soviet Union never disappeared; thanks to the Chernobyl disaster, the city was essentially flash-frozen the week of April 26, 1986. While it has decayed with time and looters, it is still an example of late Soviet life, and of the mass-produced cities of the later Soviet era, untouched by capitalism. The developers of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games also tried a different type of city in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky with the introduction of Limansk-13, a wholly imagined city inspired by pre-WWII Kiev, although issues with the game have prevented me from exploring that one as fully.
You Are Empty, by contrast, is a portrait of the Stalinist city. While I do like the progression of pre-revolution sanitarium to collective farm to factory to urban outskirts to downtown core of the early game, it’s only when we finally reach that core that the game finally opens up. In a sense, the city is more of a purely Stalinist construct than any actual city; the developers have mentioned that the city was inspired by a number of sources, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev, as well as architectural plans for buildings that were never built. By its virtual nature, You Are Empty‘s city makes fewer compromises with reality. As you walk through the city, with its avenues of stern four-storey facades, roundabouts dominated by statues of Lenin, and palatial theaters and subway stations, you experience the distillation of Stalinist urban planning into its purest form.
While visually impressive, it is an environment wonderfully suited for horror, even without the monsters. The city is not a place for humans; it is the crucible for the New Soviet Man and Woman who will live in the socialist future. As a single lonely human, every building and monument oppresses you, glaring at you with a hard, concrete face. There is nothing of the past left in the city outside of the lower-class districts, and no intimate spaces. There are no churches, no schools, no once-inhabited apartments to explore. The only sounds you will hear are the whispering of the wind down the empty streets, the sizzle of the wires that hang everywhere, and the myriad noises of great engines toiling for absent masters. The city is a place where life was not stamped out; it is one where it never existed in the first place.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the game is something developers didn’t quite bring to its fullest, particularly by having the player trudge through various other environments before getting to the main event. To be honest, I am not sure they had much of an overall plan for the game beyond making it a Stalinist haunted house. Still, it is these elements that keep me revisiting You Are Empty year after year.
Apart from the city, You Are Empty does have a few bright sparks. The soundtrack by Dmitriy Dyachenko is fantastic, filled with electronic pieces that capture the brooding weight of the city. The story of the game, or more precisely its antagonist, are these wonderfully expressionist Flash animations that are often more visually interesting that the game itself. Finally, while the game ends with a time travel “put it back the way it was” resolution, the fact that the history is told from a Russian perspective gives the ending a hint of ambivalence that is not normally seen with this type of plot device.
Despite all of this, I can’t in good conscience recommend You Are Empty. In any case, the game was taken off of digital distribution years ago, so finding a physical copy is your only hope for playing it. Still, if you’re a kid or a teenager without much access to other games, it’s exactly the sort of thing that can fire your imagination and stay with you in the years to come.