3D artist Ilya Cherkasov asked us to publish his diaries about his experience surviving in Mariupol and shared how learning 3D can help save your life during wartime.
My name is Ilya, I'm 23, I live in Ukraine and I develop graphics for games. I was in Mariupol from the first days of the war, where there was no electricity, water, or gas, the stores didn't work, and you couldn't buy any food. Huger, the cold, constant exhaustion, the feeling of danger – we really had to survive. I experienced three months of this survival, two months of trying to get out of the city, humiliating filtration, and a long way through Russia and Belarus to Poland. Now I'm finally safe, enjoying the freedom, and ready to tell you about my experience.
For as long as I can remember, I've always been fascinated with the world of post-apocalypse, I like stories and adventures in Metro Exodus, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., The Last of Us, and RUST. I couldn't imagine that at 23 I'd find myself in a world very similar to what I saw on my computer screen.
In my personal 3D projects, I've always preferred to work with old and destroyed objects and environments because there's always some history behind them. You just believe in this world as ours is not perfect, so what can be more imperfect than total destruction? Overall, such destruction gives you more opportunities to prove yourself as an artist and work on an asset and think its story through.
The problem is no references or even the most realistic environments can show the real picture, the true horror, they can't capture all the emotions you feel when you're inside this post-apocalyptic world. At times, I felt like Ellie from The Last of Us Part 2 or Artyom from Metro Exodus. At least there was no radiation or a mushroom cloud, thanks for that.
Some aspects were similar though: I sometimes carried three hidden knives and a steel pipe, a wood bat, or an ice pick. All my life starting from February 24, 2022, can be divided into several periods and compared to video games.
Keep in mind that the war in Ukraine is not a game, there are people dying and fates being destroyed. But for me, it is easier to transfer all the terror I lived through into the gaming field. This is the only way to handle all this pain.
First, it was Battlefield with its warfare, the moment when everything is getting destroyed, the buildings are on fire, and ash is everywhere. The moment when the city is becoming smoldering ruins, truly dark times. Now Mariupol is looking like the Battlefield map, forgotten to be reloaded.
When it all started, it was very cold, so much so that some people got frostbite. The most terrifying is lying in bed at night and hearing a plane – the sound of death that makes your heart beat faster even when you're asleep. You're getting ready for a thousand-pound bomb to be dropped on your home, and you're always thinking about the despair of lying under the rubble. If you don't die, it's the scariest – to be lying and dying under the cold concrete, bleeding out and losing hope with every passing minute. Scary it's not when you're wounded, this is just painful; when you're killed, you won't have time to realize it. Scary it's when other people are killed in front of you, that's what's scary. Scary it's seeing corpses and crosses on your favorite city's streets, seeing children's ripped-off arms holding toys, that's what's truly scary.
You don't sleep at night occasionally twitching from explosions and remember the warmest and saddest moments of your life. You smile but then imagine what your or your loved ones' ends would be like. You wonder what you'd do then and what you'd think about. You imagine how heroic or tragic your ending would be. Terror fills you until you start remembering again, how you lay the same way with your girlfriend, hugging her, feeling her warmth, how you laughed and how good it felt.
You remember your mom and dad, their love, care, and support, and the most valuable moments of your life. You remember your school years and best friends, how you skipped classes and laughed. You remember how you played with a cat for the first time and how it loved lying next to you and you felt its warmth. And you thought that one day, you'd get a friend like that of your own.
Thinking about that, you realize that the people on the battlefield feel a hundred times worse. they don't know if they can go to sleep today, and if they do, whether they'll wake up. You just want to stop it all as soon as possible and live; live differently, anew, while you still have time because our lives are so short.
Art by Ilya Cherkasov
Next is Metro, the moment in your life when you go into dark basements to find some food, when you walk around scorched blocks, when you go to the places others would never set foot in.
And, of course, Rust is a very similar universe, with its competition for food, medical supplies, and other resources. The moment when you cut down trees all the time to start a fire, when you take anything that can help you survive. All your daily routine, how to cook food, clean up, wash your clothes, becomes a real quest taking up all your time. You need to get water as well as food and firewood that you need to find and chop. It's always dark in the house, you can't see anything and can't even flush the toilet. In addition, there is always fighting outside, missiles, rockets, and fighter planes all the time. You need to constantly think about what you're going to eat tomorrow because if you don't find any food, you'll be tired, and your chances decrease. To survive, you need energy, to get energy, you need food, it's simple.
At first, we had food supplies, enough to last us some time, but it was bound to end sooner or later. Plus, it was February, so it was really cold. As all the stores were closed, we had to get what we needed from the destroyed city.
Before venturing out, I made three rules for my trips:
1. Take only what I need to survive. Some people were dragging sofas, and I couldn't understand how they could risk their lives for a sofa. As the stores weren't working, some people would steal anything they could.
2. Help if you can (This War of Mine). Life is unfair, especially to good people in bad places. In that world, what doesn't cost a thing is the most expensive, and often, it's kindness. By helping others, I could find new opportunities, which I would have missed if I hadn't helped. For example, information about what and where could be found. It boosts spirits and gives strength.
Art by Ilya Cherkasov
3. Hesitation is akin to death, every moment of your life can be the last, you need to always be on guard, see and listen to what's going on. And you need to be lucky as I was on the brink of death 4 times minimum.
The most important in the beginning are nails, screws, and planks, something to fix the broken windows and help you not freeze to death. Often, a lot of loot was where people were afraid to go, you could find food and tools there.
Despite the horror around, there were sometimes positive moments. Once, I managed to save some books from a burning bookstore. Books and stories helped me get distracted from this whole situation, when I woke up every day thinking it was not a dream. The words "Good hunting, stalker" had never been this symbolic for me.
Your survival in these conditions depends on many factors, but my experience as an environment artist helped me analyze the area and find the way to my goal. Also, understanding how different mechanisms that I'd modeled before are made, such as roller shutters, locks, and doors, offered me new opportunities.
I wasn't looting, I only entered buildings already open or damaged before me. They were usually markets, offices, and repair bases. It was a chance for me to find loot first.
Sometimes, different mechanisms would break and stop working, so I had to fix them with what I had. Without modeling them and understanding how they worked, I doubt I would have managed. I always carried a couple of screwdrivers and a wrench with me, you can make magic with them.
The Last of Us
The gaming experience I got in The Last of Us also helped me use dumpsters to climb somewhere. Many people think if the door is blocked, you can't get inside, but you can get anywhere if you use your wit. Now I realize how dangerous my adventures were, but when you're hungry and responsible for others, you can do almost anything.
Playing The Last of Us Part II, I was examining the environments and learning how different things were made most of the time. Thanks to The Last of Us Part II I learned to analyze a building's state to understand how safe it is to enter and the best way to get inside.
In the CGMA Environment Art for Games in Unreal Engine course, I liked watching Peyton Varney's streams, where he talked about how the environment can show history and how it affects players' immersion. I would also like to thank Ben Keeling, who supported me when I was still in Mariupol. I studied Advanced Substance for Environment Art, and thinking about how I would make a texture in Substance 3D Designer helped me get distracted.
Metro: Last Light Redux
When you come to a new location where you can theoretically find food, water, and medical supplies, your success depends on how you analyze the area and set priorities. I tried to assess the yard, the street, or the building, figure out how many rooms it has, if there is a basement or not.
There was a bookstore that interested me from the very first weeks, where I got a lot of useful loot. I couldn't get there for a long time because of the fighting but one day, I managed to reach the street I needed, sneaking through secret paths, which I knew well as I had often explored the city looking for references, grunge, and alphas for different things. There was a three-story store with books, stationery, and bakery products. This location reminded me of Metro: Last Light's library, where you find a new path or room every time.
First of all, I assessed the building: the gates were broken and open a bit (I could squeeze in), and the windows were smashed. It was built on a hill, and I could see the basement. It's best to first walk around the building and find the most important information, without taking anything, to figure out if there are people or animals (danger), the chance of collapse, the ways of retreat, and how to get inside.
The biggest quest in this location was to get into the locked warehouse basement using the elevator, which I managed to get running with a diesel generator I found there. I went down and found a scotch tape and a shopping cart I used to move firewood.
This warehouse was my plan B, where I could have spent the night if my apartment had been burnt down. I remembered this place well because it reminded me of Metro, where I also had to find different ways to get to the goal.
I was going crazy because I couldn't work as an artist. Some evenings, I tried to combine Substance 3D Designer nodes in my head and imagine what would happen. I started breaking down scenes from the landscapes I found in art books, thought about the modules, and counted textures and environment objects. Sometimes, I wanted to take photos of the destroyed city to make references or scan some objects, but it was hard to handle. Plus, if you take pictures, you might get into trouble.
Art by Ilya Cherkasov
"What am I feeling?" is the question I couldn't answer all that time I was surviving. When you're there, you can't feel anything: neither hunger nor fear. When you're stressed, hunger fades away and your mind becomes clear. It saves you as long as you have the strength to find something. Fear makes you tired, tired of thoughts about what will happen if you lose an arm or leg, or both. How you will work in Zbrush or Maya with one hand, after all, it's software where keys are really important to me. Perhaps I could work in Substance 3D Designer or Painter, but the full props pipeline would be a problem.
I've wanted to be a game developer since childhood, downloaded Unity back then and tried to figure it out, although I didn't get past creating terrain then. Unreal Engine 3 wasn't free then, so some guys and I connected through the internet and bought a license to plan our further game development. Of course, nothing came out of it, we lacked knowledge, but I've never given up the idea of making games and I could find my niche; what makes me feel happy is making 3D art.
Now, I'm safe, staying with my friends in Poland. It was a long and hard way to freedom. My old life, just like my city, has been destroyed, it doesn't exist along with the city I loved. All my friends are far away, and I don't know if we'll ever see each other again. If anybody asks you how to pack all your life into a couple of suitcases, I know the answer. I set out for a long journey into the unknown, not knowing where this road will lead me.
I'd like to thank my heroic mom, who met this challenge with me, only our unity as a family helped us survive and get out of there. Also, I thank my sister and her husband, who helped us a lot.
I'm really grateful to my friends, who supported and looked for me this whole time:
- Wiktor Bałuszyński – 3D Artist at siili_auto
- Damien Lappa – Environment Artist at Massive Entertainment
- Nikita Hrushevskyi – Model Artist at Ubisoft Toronto
- Valentyn Klymenko – Game Designer (Mobile Hyper-Casual Games)
- Alexander Sheynin – Senior 3D Artist at Dekogon
- Kostiantyn Surkov – 3D Artist at Vostok Games
- Aleksandr Silantev – 3D Environment Artist at GSC Game World
- Svetlana Maslova – Level Artist at TRACE studio
- Peter Sikachev – Lead Graphics Programmer at People Can Fly Studio
- Eugenia Gioanina – Senior Environment Artist and Environment Art Craft Lead at Avalanche Studios Group
Thank you, my leads and mentors:
- Ben Keeling – Advanced Environment Artist Rocksteady Studios
- Sergiy Wursta – Lead 3D Artist at GSC Game World
- Sergey Chebotok – Lead 3D Artist at Kevurugames
- Alexander Kolyasa – Environment Artist at Techland
Thank you, 80 Level, and especially Kirill Tokarev, who contacted me when I was still in Mariupol and suggested I write this article. And I'd like to thank those who supported me and shared my post on LinkedIn, it was really important for me.
Thank you and stay safe.