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Europe’s Biggest Salt Mine Is Now in 'Minecraft,' and It’s Helping Ukraine Rebuild

On February 24, 2022, Stepan Bandrivskyi woke up before dawn and got ready for a special day: his birthday.

It wouldn’t be a particularly happy one. Hours earlier, a couple dozen miles away, Russian tanks had rolled across the borders of his native Ukraine. The full-scale invasion had begun.

Like so many other Ukrainians, Bandrivskyi didn’t know what to do. So he went to work, to the Soledar Salt Mine, a cavernous state-run operation in Eastern Ukraine. Kyiv says it is the biggest such mine in Europe. His manager told him to go home: The mine was closed. It hasn't resumed operations since.

Bandrivskyi fled the region not long after, as Russian forces advanced. After nearly a year of fighting, during which the mines were turned into bunkers, Russia seized and occupied the town of Soledar—although fierce fighting continues nearby. Over time, Bandrivskyi came to the painful realization that he may never see the salt mine, and its eerie and isolated beauty, ever again.

Last year, Bandrivskyi received a phone call from a colleague. “He invited me to participate in a very interesting project,” he says.

The Ukrainian government wanted to completely map the mine “and translate it into a game environment,” he says. Bandrivskyi seized the opportunity. “I wanted to keep it in my memory, and I wanted other people to be able to kind of immerse themselves in this world as well,” he says.

With that, Minesalt was born.

The idea for Minesalt comes from United24, the official crowdfunding arm of the Ukrainian government. For nearly two years, United24 has raised funds to rebuild apartment blocks and purchase de-mining equipment. Last year, United24 began shipping batches of salt to donors, through its “Soledarity” campaign—raising some $3 million to purchase reconnaissance drones.

But as the war drags into its third year, donor fatigue has set in. That has pushed United24 to come up with new and innovative ways of attracting the world’s attention—and support.

Minesalt, which launches today, might be their most inspired effort yet.

“It is important for us to remember and talk about every Ukrainian city that is under temporary Russian occupation,” Yaroslava Gres, chief coordinator of United24, told WIRED in a statement. Last summer, when a team suggested bringing Soledar to life as a video game, it was a very easy idea to say yes to.

Built for the wildly popular sandbox game Minecraft, Minesalt challenges players to race through the mine, collecting 140 hidden salt crystals as fast as possible. At the end of the run, a quiz tests players’ recollection of details from Soledar. But, like in the rest of Minecraft, Minesalt players can also opt to wander at their own pace.

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Players who compete in Minesalt will be vying for a list of prizes—from Twitch gift cards to an Xbox Series X, to bags of salt from the mine itself autographed by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

If players make a donation at the end of the game, they are also entered into a raffle, for a chance to win a customized Minesalt figurine and other prizes.

Funds raised through the game will go to rebuilding the Velykokostromska school in Dnipro oblast, in an area under Ukrainian control. In October 2022, a Russian missile struck the school’s gymnasium, leveling most of the building. United24 says repairs will cost over $1 million.

When a player opens Minecraft for the first time, they generally play as Steve. It was an apt coincidence that, for Minesalt, characters play through the eyes of Bandrivskyi—Stepan is the Slavic equivalent to Stephen.

“I was offered a role of being a guide and walking the developers through these locations as they are in real life, and explaining to them how these locations function,” he says. “What are the peculiarities of, for example, the salt deposits and the work that's being carried out there.”

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To recreate the mine, the team relied on ample images of the massive tunnels which snake underground. But they relied on Bandrivskyi and his colleagues to bring it all to life. One miner even drew a map of the mines by hand, which the team incorporated into the game’s design.

“Thousands of people had to leave their favorite city and the place where their families worked generation after generation. They lost everything they worked for,” Gres says. “Through Stepan and his memories, we recreated the mines in detail, bringing back the place that people loved and cherished for years.”

The underground complex, which boasts more than 100 miles of tunnels, hides all sorts of incredible secrets. There is intricate cave art, drawn by locals over decades and generations. There is a makeshift concert hall, where musicians have performed over the years, a soccer pitch where miners have played pickup football, and a sanitarium which some believe has health benefits. Then there’s the church, which serves as a holy place for its workers and Soledar locals.

“This place is not just a salt mine,” Bandrivskyi said. “It's like a museum.”

Bandrivskyi and his family now live in Khmelnytskyi, in western Ukraine. He says his older daughter was already a Minecraft fan when he was invited to help craft the game, but it was his younger daughter, only 6 years old, who really grew excited.

“She was just bombarding me with different questions—like who I'm going to be in that game, where this game will be set, which tools I will be using, and so on and so forth,” he says. Bandrivskyi installed a prototype of the game to allow her to play through it and offer some feedback. It had a real impact on her, he says.

“She was writing a letter to Saint Nicholas, asking for a tablet, so that she could download this game,” Bandrivskyi recalls. Inspired by her dad's work, she wrote on her wish list that she wanted “a game without pain and suffering.”

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Endorah, the French video game firm tasked with building Minesalt itself, tells WIRED in a statement that it tried to mix “plans, photos, videos, memories” into building the 3D model of the mine. It was no small feat: The company had two people working on the 3D models and another 11 building the game itself. The developers carefully selected each texture to make the game as true-to-life as possible.

“When you enter the mine for the first time, when you go down and see the walls,” Rémy Dronneau, who coordinated the project for Endorah, tells WIRED, “it’s real shivers.”

United24 also leveraged its roster of celebrity ambassadors to add some panache to the game. As they speedrun through the mine with Bandrivskyi, players encounter entrepreneur Richard Branson, Nobel laureate and biochemist Paul Nurse, Supernatural actor Misha Collins, American astronaut Scott Kelly, and Ukrainian boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk.

For nearly a year, Soledar was “a fortress on the front line,” as United24 calls it. Amidst heavy fighting, particularly against the quasi-private military firm the Wagner Group, Ukrainian fighters used the mine tunnels as bunkers to frustrate their advance. But by January 2023, Russia seized control of the entire town as they marched on to Bakhmut, about 10 miles away.

Fighting has rendered the mine unusable for the time being. But Bandrivskyi remains optimistic that it will be operational again someday.

“I do think I will return, at some point, to work at Soledar again,” he says. “I'm pretty sure that this will be a Ukrainian city and a Ukrainian enterprise that I will return to.”

In a group chat with other employees, Bandrivskyi says that feeling is consistent. There will be plenty to do when they return. The railway tracks which service the mine will be in desperate need of maintenance, for instance. “I have even made a list of things to do at work,” Bandrivskyi laughs.

Building Minesalt was a great experience, he says, but his real goal is to return home and rebuild Soledar—and the Velykokostromska school. “I want to convey the idea that Soledar is not just the city of salt,” Bandrivskyi says. “But also a city of solidarity.”

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