A modern fairy tale in the game "Yakutsk Train"

Anna Prilutskaya

The game "Yakutsk Train" is more like a simulator: you can walk around the carriage that has been manufactured under the Tver Carriage Works since 1998, sit at a table, look out the window at the snow-covered landscape, or listen to the wheels' rattle. The player becomes a passenger on the train and begins the journey, choosing moods from the "dreary" slots. The game has no end; there is no need to make linear causality or look for rational explanations. Therefore, "Yakutsk Train" can easily be attributed to the category of non-games, in which travelling does not assume an unambiguous plot development. However, despite this, you can hear the stories of other passengers, create a Mansi tale from the pieces of text or fearlessly ride on top of the train.

Soundtracks from the game "Yakutsk Train"
Yakutskiy — Moscow route
The "Yakutsky" station (or "Yakutsky Passage") and Moscow's final arrival point are two existing points on the actual map. Other stops have names, fictitious or borrowed from fairy tales: "Burned Landmass", "Coppery Forehead", "Pleshavnitsa", "Old Loins", "Garden. Main body", and others. The toponym "Yakutsky Passage" triggers a wordplay: the train may seem to depart from Yakutsk, but the station itself is located further south than the city, on the border of the Sakha Republic and the Amur Region. In 1976, the Soviet authorities gifted the station a symbolic role: to the sound of an orchestra and the rattle of snow, they laid the "Golden Link" and began creating a railway service in Yakutia. These days, the passing track became a small weatherboard building decorated with tire flowerbeds.

It is interesting to look at the construction of the same road in another game, Trainz Railroad Simulator, in which the authenticity of the landscape, technical parameters and the process of controlling the train become the main mechanics. In the video, relying on the terrain map and considering the complexity of the terrain, the streamer builds a railroad to Yakutsky station and tests drives over it. You can see that the road is highly complicated, with complex gradients felt even in the simulator.

The architecture of the stations in "Yakutsk Train" folds into brick castles. There is nostalgic post-Soviet postmodernism, low-cost concrete-panelled Soviet brick buildings with solar bars, and a humble fortress in a snow-covered taiga. This architectural mixture does not refer to some historical segment or repeat the characteristics of the buildings of Russian Railways; it reflects on our modernity, in which some of our contemporaries are so fond of talking about post-Soviet, medieval, and tawdry things. The ambiguity of the buildings and their lostness all along the route are accompanied by desolate scenery and a minor tone announcing the train's arrival.
The landscape in the game also plays a semantic role: you can watch the scenery for a long time from the carriage, repeating the usual trips in real trains. Industrial areas and holes in quarries, northern cities, snowy deserts with small huts and frozen lakes pass by the window. The game is endless, and all these landscapes will stretch endlessly behind the player. It is impossible to get to Moscow; it is always far away. "Yakutsk Train" may remind the project of poet Ilya Mazo and developer Alexander Ignatov "IT'S WINTER", whose genre on Steam is specified as a sandbox, sad 3d, Russian "toska". The primary setting of the project is two authors: a winter Russian courtyard and panel houses. The player can wander through the world of panel khrushchyovkas, snowy evenings, poems and slightly real events. While "IT'S WINTER " is about little life, "Yakutsk Train" has ample spaces and ancient animals. Nevertheless, what evokes common feelings is the dreary, sometimes eerie, sometimes mesmerizing Russian winter.
According to the legend of the game, the railroad is laid along the ancient trails of mammoths. The train repeats the movements of the extinct animals. In the game world, "mechanical" is synchronized with the route of the "biological", and sometimes a landscape covered with mammoths’ skeletons glimpses through the window. It becomes part of one of the characters' stories (the Scientist). It knits together a narrative about mammoth bones and the causes of animal extinction. The story is based on the work of scientists from Tomsk State University, "Comprehensive Studies of the Barabinsk Mammoth Refugium in 2015." This work explores the role of humans in the formation of mammoth "cemeteries".
One such significant burial is located at Volchya Griva (Wolf's Mane), an upland area in the Novosibirsk region. There, at the excavation site, scientists found pathological changes in the skeletal tissues of mammoths, and geochemical analysis of the landscape indicated a change in climatic conditions. Animals began to die in large numbers in the vast area regardless of anthropogenic influences; many mammoths were dying from a lack of essential minerals in their bodies. Now Volchya Griva is a kind of cemetery, but in those days, it was a mineral oasis where mammoths aimed because of the abundance of calcium, magnesium, and sodium needed by large herbivores. There were also traces of cuts on the bones, which could have been done by ancient man's tools, but their small number allows scientists to assume that people used the remains of mammoths that fell from injuries, diseases and predators, and were not the reason of such large-scale burials. The study concludes by stating: "Humans witnessed and they were ones of many participants of a natural event: the extinction of mammoth fauna." One of the recommendations that the Scientist gives to the players is to monitor the balance of minerals in the body and their bones: for this purpose, it is worth eating foods high in vitamin D3.

In the scientist's coupe, you can find the remains of a mammoth skeleton, and this is not the first time she has taken it to Moscow. The player can learn from her that it is possible to find traces of grains, pollen, mushrooms, and algae in the bones of extinct animals. This whole set blooms lushly in the next coupe, resembling a swamp or a forest.
Fairy Tale
Dreamlike attributes can be found all over the carriage. One of the coupes resembles a dense forest, where you can find a stuffed duck with an egg and a horned skull. The train is inhabited by a character who speaks in characteristic language: "Bring me some sweet bread, then I will let you in," "Only someone thin will get through, like a dog tongue," or "I hear a swallower animal walking, I will not open". Finally, you can collect pieces of text from a Mansi fairy tale during the trip.
Elements of the fairy tale appeared in the train thanks to Vladimir Propp's book "The Historical Roots of the Magic Tale". In his work, the folklorist analyzes the mythology of primitive peoples and their ritual practices. According to Propp's version, the initiation ritual was the source for the fairy tale and explained many of its motives: ritual participants underwent tests, were transported to another world through specific actions and returned from it already in a "new form". In the text, Propp cites frequently encountered structural elements of the fairy tale: the mysterious forest, the big house, the magical gifts, and more. He also parses the fairy tale characters such as the serpent, one of the complex and mysterious figures. From the book, we can learn that the first versions of the serpent were related to the motif of the absorption of the hero. There is a deep connection here with the ritual. A participant of initiation needs to pass through the belly of a monster (it could be a hut or some construction) to acquire magical abilities. At this stage, the figure of the serpent brings a benefit - knowledge of the language of beasts or shamanic knowledge. Later, when the ritual dies out and the semantic connection with it is lost, the motive of absorption also changes; it transforms into snake fighting. With the development of farming and cattle breeding, the form of heroism and tools for fighting the serpent changes in fairy tales, and in urban culture, when a man loses the close connection with animals, the serpent becomes a dragon, combining several animal figures. The early serpent-devourer has no description of its appearance; it is "a creature terrible but fundamentally good," writes Propp, its appearance developed later than its function. Other animals also performed this role: fish, birds, even a mammoth.

The mammoth performs all the serpent's functions: he rules the waters or the subterranean depths, he is the guardian between the world of the living and the dead, and his appearance is also not always accurate: he is both a mammoth bull and a water bull, and at the same time he possesses the traits of a bear or deer, sometimes a salmon. In the Mansi tale, which is hidden in the train, you can find a mammoth bull; he is not the main character, but he is still connected with the water. According to the story, he is threatened by boys who can throw arrows at him. It is clear that the tale is quite late: in it, the mammoth bull no longer possesses the ancient power, his figure no longer arouses awe and reverence. As Propp writes in his book, "All of this shows that the ritual has been forgotten and that its components are used for artistic creation. They can be seen as spoiling and distortion, but these cases show a creative reworking of the motif - the dying out of the old and the birth of the new". In the game world of "Yakutsk Train", we observe the bones of the ancient animal and the dreams of scientists about the resurrection of mammoths, which also sometimes sound like a modern fairy tale.
Idea and design: Anna Prilutskaya
Programmer: Anton Shelestov 
Sound design: Senya Merlin