Inner America: why the setting of the Yakut games is so reminiscent of the United States
Daniel Lekhovitser
The Day Before
An opinion is held among certain film critics that some of the best Russian films of recent years have been shot in Yakutia. Ichchi by Kostas Marsan, Scarecrow by Dmitry Davydov, Black Snow by Stepan Burnashev... There are many more films that go into making up the so-called “Yakutian new wave”, but these are the first to readily spring to mind. The critical profession likewise agrees that Yakutia is a hotbed of auteur horror and the viscous thriller of slowly building suspense; that this is a telluric, elemental kind of cinematography, entwined in the roots of ancient trees, and situated in the haze of local mythology.

And there really is something to be afraid of out there: a bleached, perishing desert, the exotic spiritualism with its supernatural beings the Abas and Sullyukkyun, and the chthonic settlements forgotten by the rest of the world, cut off from big cities. However, if you actually think about it, this is not just about the geographical setting of horror, but also the folk beliefs and cultural characteristics – and the cinema of Yakutia takes everything from these. The Yakut gaming scene is following the same strategy too.
«Ichchi», 2020
«Scarecrow», 2020
«Black Snow», 2021
An important disclaimer that must be made here is that a video game – regardless of its scale, budget, and production method (whether it be an indie project or on the AAA level) – can theoretically draw more fans into its orbit than an identical movie ever could. For example, should another comic book movie from Marvel and a large-scale game with a solid budget be released, the audience is guaranteed to find out about them somehow. The release of an indie game and independent cinema is quite another thing though. The difference lies in the fact that a movie is more likely to be shown at several local festivals, while a game is more likely to be published on the Steam gaming marketplace, where gamers from all over the world will see it. And here we return to the specifics of the Yakut game development industry – it does not exist. And this seems precisely because games are distributed differently than movies.

One of the most famous Yakutia game studios is Fntastic. Its portfolio includes several video games that balance on the watershed between the thriller and horror genres. Among their most well-known products is the survival-horror (or, as the genre has been christened on the Ru-net, “survivor”) game The Wild Eight. This narrates the story of a survivor of a plane crash in the middle of the snowy desert (you can choose one of eight protagonists, each of which has a unique set of skills).

The gameplay in The Wild Eight is reminiscent of The Long Dark, whose plot likewise begins with a plane crash in the middle of the taiga. The heroes of both games survive on tree bark and rodents, constantly needing resources, warmth, food and shelter. From the point of view of survival practices, The Long Dark is believed to constitute a very realistic simulator: a session can end in a few minutes if you fail to bandage a wound in time, to warm yourself by a fire, or forget about finding enough protein. The Wild Eight is even more merciless to the player: it unfolds at a headlong pace, and the player is constantly in need of more and more food, wood, metal ore, etc.

However, nature is not the only foe to withstand in this case. On the third or fourth day, at dusk, the player hears the crackling of branches and rustling undergrowth near a small camp. Anyone who knows at least a little about Sakha mythology will most likely be thinking that an encounter with a being from the pantheon of local spirits is about to take place. But the opponents are, perhaps, the most Americanised monsters of all – zombies.
The Wild Eight
The Wild Eight
Another game from the studio is just as Americanised in appearance. Propnight is a mixture of the “prop hunt” and survival-horror genres, reminiscent in this respect of the famous Dead by Daylight. Four teenage heroes are trying to escape from an infernal killer in the middle of the classic scenery of American (and then world) horror cinema: a farm, a closed school, and a cabin in the woods. The antagonists arrayed against them, under the control of another player who has opted to confront the four dexterous teenagers, are: a demonic nun, a Slenderman–like monster, and a crazy farmer like the one from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre – none other than the canonical heroes of Western film folklore.

The third game the studio has in development, The Day Before, is to be an open-world shooter. A post-apocalypse America in ruins, hordes of the infected. Such a summary might apply to around a dozen games, ranging from The Last of Us all the way to Days Gone, might come to mind sound like this in the retelling at once, but this American-centric post-apocalyptic motif is one of the factors explaining the Yakut developers’ strategy to abandon local colour and aesthetics. Most non-American games (especially Japanese ones) make the USA the centre of the apocalypse, rather than some other point on the planet. Recall Resident Evil and Death Stranding, for example – games by Japanese developers, which, despite having access to a large local market, are nevertheless targeted at the North American player. Philosopher and anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term “non-place”, referring to spaces without local specifics and which are the same whatever country one may happen to be in. Office buildings, airports and hospitals in Korea are not going to differ too sharply from those in Austria. It might be said that the US setting with its inhabitants is able to act as a kind of all-place – one with scenery familiar to almost everyone, and in which canonical plots unfold. In this regard, the desire to westernise elements of a game is understandable, because this is the only way to attract attention. On the other hand, it is hard to remember any game about a zombie apocalypse set in the tundra – and this is a space that might also prove attractive to players.
The Day Before
Today, Fntastic is a studio that is taking on a major project, and one that requires greater productive and financial capacity at that. This means the stakes are high. And yet it was not so long ago that they were working on indie projects – and thus niche products in which specific cultural features, non-trivial plots and local knowledge had even been welcome. Is it really possible to say that there is no Yakut game developing? Of course not. And what’s more, it is developing itself, making clear progress and being written about in the English-language specialist press. But at the same time, can we really say that the games of Yakutia differ from the products of the global market, in the way that Yakut cinema does? It would appear not.