The article below represents months of work and appears in Well Played 2.0, a game studies textbook published by Carnegie-Mellon University under the guidance of Professor (and Celebrity Guest Editor) Drew Davidson.
Each chapter of Well Played discusses a single game or franchise, with both meanings of the well-played phrase in mind: the game must be well played as a book is well-read, and it must provide something to better the medium as a whole. Beyond that, the analytical expectations are dependent on the writer. My chapter was about the STALKER franchise, which I know and love well.
I really wanted to do a “director’s cut” version of the article for Tap, including self-made, narrated gameplay videos and the like, but a recent computer crash has eaten up all my STALKER saves. It’d just take too much time to put a project like that together. Instead please accept the odd embedded YouTube video, plus some additional pix and multimedia that don’t appear in the book.
This is a textbook chapter, not a blog post. As such it’s even longer, boringer, and more pedantic than I usually write. It even has footnotes. Enjoy!
Alone for All Seasons
Environmental Estrangement in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Originally Published in Well Played 2.0: Further Reflections on Games and Meaning
Edited by Drew Davidson, Ph.D
Etc. Press, Carnegie-Mellon University
The explosion shattered a quiet, cool April night in Ukraine, ripping through the housing that concealed the uranium and graphite pile of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor Four. The men in the control room had known of a problem for a few moments, but their frantic attempts to bring it under control had failed. Flaws in the design reduced the flow of cold water into the reactor during a safety test, allowing it to boil its reserves of liquid coolant. A 2,000 ton steel-reinforced concrete roof was no match for the explosively expanding vapor. It ripped the lid off the reactor as easily as a frustrated child losing a game might flip a checkerboard, catapulting the entire assembly 400 feet into the sky. Searing steam rushed out, replaced by crisp spring air. With a sudden abundance of oxygen to burn, the graphite in the reactor pile erupted into flames. The uranium fuel rods melted into molten slag as the blazing fire hurled nightward a black column of radioactive soot. And so began, at 1:23 a.m., on April 26, 1986, the greatest radiological disaster in the history of humankind.
“Close the window and go back to sleep,” Vasily Ignatenko told his wife. “I’ll be back soon.” He was a firefighter on duty in the nearby city of Pripyat. Along with his colleagues, Ignatenko was among the first emergency crews to respond to the explosion. All they knew was that there was a fire at the power plant.
Of her husband’s brief hospitalization in Moscow, Lyudmilla Ignatenko would say, “pieces of his lungs, pieces of his liver, were coming out his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff.”
Vasily Ignatenko died less than a month after the Chernobyl incident. No first responders would survive the year. No one warned them the fire was radioactive. No safety equipment was issued. No Geiger counters were available. In their hurry to help, many of Ignatenko’s squadmates had arrived in shirtsleeves, without even their firefighter’s gear for protection.[i]
Within four months, the entire city of Pripyat, population 50,000, and dozens of surrounding towns and villages had been evacuated. In total, 30 square kilometers around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s doomed Reactor Four were emptied and sealed off. Considered more toxic than anywhere else on the planet, the forbidden region is known as Чорнобильська зона: the Zone of Exclusion.[ii]
21 years later that Zone, so removed from the world we live in, would help catalyze a game design technique with the power to shepherd players to expansive new realms of immersion.
Into the Breach
In 2001, Ukrainian developer GSC Game World announced S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Originally titled Oblivion Lost, GSC envisioned an open-world science fiction shooter set in an alternative Exclusion Zone – in which a second explosion at the reactor greatly expanded the size and personality of the Zone, and altered reality in the region. It allowed the power plant itself to become sentient: an alien, incomprehensible intelligence that would come to be known as the C-Consciousness. And what is a brain without a body? The Zone itself would fill that role.
Another result of this event was the appearance of “anomalies,” pockets of roaming, reality-bending energy. Anomalies can misdirect time, invert gravity, emit bursts of heat or electricity, even teleport matter. Many are almost invisible, and human contact with nearly every kind causes extreme injury or death. Anomalies, in addition to scattered radiation and the sudden appearance of ferocious mutants, meant traversing the Zone of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would be a hazard in and of itself.
However, that danger comes paired with irresistible temptation. Anomalies “throw” objects with fantastic, impossible physical properties, artifacts that violate all known laws of physics. Many are deadly or highly radioactive, and all are precious. Soon a black market trade springs up, as scientists and collectors offer massive bounties for the bizarre items. Collecting them requires putting oneself in incredible peril, but the prizes are worth it. Heavily armed treasure hunters swarm to the Zone, braving its many dangers in a radioactive gold rush. Even the military cannot stop the flood, whose lust for adventure and wealth drive them to the poisoned realm.
Those who come to this violated region face unbelievable hardships. The Exclusion Zone has always been guarded by the military, but when precious objects are discovered, the cordon is tightened. Soldiers have strict shoot-to-kill orders; horrifying mutants dominate the countryside; while radiation pockets and anomalies promise hideous death to the careless. Deeper in the Zone are eerie, haunted territories and unexplained psychic assaults. None of it prevents dangerous, profit-minded adventurers from coming in. But of course the greatest danger to visitors is each other – society’s leavings, its unwanted. Men who come to be known as Stalkers, a nod to Andrei Tarkovsky’s eponymous film, itself a rendering of the classic Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. put players in the boots of men who sought wealth in a new and deadly wild world, one different from the Yukon or the old west – those places, after all, belong here. The Zone does not. Spawned from a terrible violation, the game envisioned it as an unnatural, unknowable place, beyond true comprehension, one that is inherently not of Earth – maybe even not of this universe – and certainly not for human beings. Soon enough a legend begins: tales of a final artifact, said to lurk deep inside the ruins of the power plant. According to rumor, any Stalker bold or foolish enough to brave that contaminated landscape and penetrate the concrete sarcophagus that entombs Reactor Four would find inside a power to grant all his wishes.
As the myth of the Wish Granter spread, the Zone became home to more and more of these prospectors. GSC Game World’s reinvention of the Zone draws the cruel, the violent, the avaricious, the hungry for adventure… and those who belong nowhere else.
“There was no place for me in that world,” one Stalker confides, referring not to the world of the Zone but to ours. “It didn’t want me.”
The World Ends with You
Pre-release press was enthusiastic, but as development dragged on and target release dates were missed again and again, industry watchers grew ever more cautious. Nevertheless, when Shadow of Chernobyl was finally released in March of 2007, it received widely favorable reviews[iii] despite significant bugs, poor optimization, and often-incomprehensible translation. General consensus was that for all of its shortcomings, Shadow of Chernobyl transcended them. Its boldness and innovation dwarfed the faults in execution.
Despite the rough edges, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series will be remembered as among the most groundbreaking and forward thinking games of the decade. Years before designers Cliff Bleszinski and Harvey Smith agreed that “the future of shooters is RPGs,”[iv] S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stood alongside Deus Ex and System Shock to set the stage and demonstrate the wisdom of that remark.
To my mind, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s most fascinating trait is its use of a technique I call environmental estrangement: a tool that allows developers to imbue games with a wider and subtler spectrum of emotions and an intensely powerful, intensely personal sense of immersion. While all games can evoke emotion and immersion, environmental estrangement virtually requires players to develop a much more acute connection to the game world, making the experience more intense and nuanced.
Let’s be honest: games are not famous for their ability to evoke complex feelings. Simple ones, no problem. But the more subtle a feeling is, the harder time a game has making the player feel it. Sadness? Yes. Melancholy? No. Anger? Sure. Resentment? Probably not.
I believe environmental estrangement techniques can rectify that. Though the name “environmental estrangement” and the theory under discussion are my own, when used in commercial games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., they make the player feel something much more strongly than most games can. This is accomplished by effectively divorcing the player from his or her own world and sense of self. The human player is taken out of the “real world” environment and placed into the world of the game. A player in this state is easy for designers to manipulate.
Environmental estrangement is about making you feel something; in the case of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you feel a place – the Zone – on a very instinctive level. It builds an emotional connection with the game world, using a variety of experiences to create a persistent sense of forlorn detachment, a profound loneliness, an intense, solitary immersion so powerful that the player must experience the Zone in a deeply personal way.
In a nutshell, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses environmental estrangement to snatch you from this world and put you into another one: one that is unwelcoming, unknowable; obscene. Yet despite this it also creates a need to be in that world, for all that you are unwanted. The player becomes part of the territory, not despite but because of the bleak, depressing emptiness of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Exclusion Zone, the unnatural, ghostly quality that evokes a feeling that you’re an uninvited visitor in a haunted and unreal place.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is not the only game I have observed that uses environmental estrangement, nor is the technique limited to making the player feel lonely. A little later on we’ll briefly discuss some other examples of games that use the same techniques to evoke different but equally subtle sensations. By divorcing the player from any preconceptions of a world, environmental estrangement grants developers a wealth of delicate tools with which to directly manipulate the player in complex and uncommon ways. I will discuss the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games in the context of environmental estrangement, reviewing the narrative, experience, setting, and mood as foundations for how the technique can affect the player.
Please note that the following contains story spoilers that may impact a newcomer’s experience with the games. At this writing, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series consists of three titles: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), its prequel Clear Sky (2008), and Call of Pripyat (2010). In general, when I refer to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I mean the series as a whole; I employ installment subtitles to describe them individually. Some additional differentiations are also necessary:
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (in italics) refers to the game franchise
- S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a narrative macguffin within it
- Stalker is the Tarkovsky film
- Stalkers are the individuals who prowl the Zone for riches and adventure
Finally, my experience with the series is limited to the North American localization of this Ukrainian title.
Where the Wild Things Are
It is difficult to clearly explain the narrative arc of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The games jump around in time and often contradict one another. No one path can be considered canon, as the Zone’s ability to alter time, space, and reality interferes with a linear storyline: characters that had been dead reappear, events that had been prevented nonetheless occur. But the story, however difficult to follow, is important.
Shadow of Chenobyl opens with a truck hauling a load of rotting corpses out of the Zone. Rain spatters the windshield as the Soviet-era vehicle trundles through a late-night rainstorm. Seconds into the opening cutscene, a lightning strike flips the truck headlong into a ravine, scattering its gory cargo through the canvas flap before exploding in flames.
Hours later, as dawn breaks, a Stalker crests the ravine at a run, proceeding downward to examine the wreckage and loot bodies for valuables. He is surprised to discover that one of the people from the back of the truck is alive, unconscious, and bearing a peculiar tattoo – S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – on his wrist. “At least death would have saved him from the dreams,” muses this nameless arrival. He scoops the unconscious man up and trots off through the landscape, and thus you enter the game injured, penniless, and out cold.
Already in this opening cinematic, we see environmental estrangement at play: a bleak and grim landscape, a transport for the dead, a heavily armed loner picking through wreckage for items of value. Solitude, death, and greed: key ingredients in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s soup.
That loner takes you to Sidorovich, a merchant who trades equipment, artifacts, and information with local Stalkers and clients from outside the Zone. Entrenched in a concrete bunker, Sidorovich always seems to know the latest news, and he is very interested in men with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tattoo. Though no one knows what it means, it only appears on Stalkers who have ventured deep into the Zone, an area so dangerous most consider it impenetrable. Those who go too far are usually killed by radiation, eaten by monstrous mutants, or shot by Monolith troopers – a psychotically religious faction of former Stalkers who worship the Zone, somehow trading their minds for the ability to survive in heavily irradiated areas.
Stalkers who avoid the radiation, mutants, and Monolith still die; an energy field of some sort literally boils their brains. Sidorovich and a loose association of other black marketeers recognize that the region beyond this “Brain Scorcher” would be virgin artifact territory, a fortune for the first to get there. Near the Zone’s heart lies the abandoned city of Pripyat, promising more riches; and beyond that the power plant, supposedly the home of the Wish Granter. Sidorovich has seen the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. brand before, but never on someone who is still alive. As he rummages through your clothing, he comes upon a PDA with a single to-do item: KILL THE STRELOK. At that moment you awaken, snatching the PDA from his hand.
The Marked One, as Sidorovich names you, cannot remember anything that happened to him before the accident. While amnesia in videogames is a common and ridiculed trope, it proves helpful here in order to conceal some key plot points, in particular who “the” Strelok is, and why the Marked One is supposed to kill him. The amnesia creates an empty vessel, reducing the importance of his character. Indeed, the real “protagonist” of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the Zone itself. If characters in narrative are primarily responsible for the evocation of emotional response, and assuming that a character can be anything[v], then certainly a place can take center stage as easily as a person. The Zone is the star of this show.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was disorienting to many gamers, who by 2007 had developed certain expectations for how first person shooters were to be played. Traditional shooters typically offer one path, or at most a few; these are often recursive so it’s impossible to really get lost. The environment itself is usually little more than a backdrop designed to showcase set-piece occurrences such as battles or puzzles, and in most cases players never return to areas they have visited. Even the most beloved first person games – Thief: the Dark Project and Half Life 2, for example – essentially herd the player in one direction, through predetermined missions and carefully crafted level design. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is nothing like that.
When you leave Sidorovich’s bunker, you can go anywhere. Eventually hills or fencing or radiation or the ever-present military will cut you off, but there are no corridors here. The vast majority of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place outdoors, with all the freedom thereof. This too is part of the effect that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has on most players: here at the outset, in Shadow of Chernobyl, you are unarmed, without friends or contacts, in a dangerous countryside, with just the vaguest idea of where to go or what to do once you get there. “Kill the Strelok” is the only guidance you’ve got, and while Sidorovich reveals that there is a Stalker by that name, no one seems to know where he might be or why you’d want him dead. From this moment forward, one word will define your time in the Zone: aloneness. Even in the company of other Stalkers, the persistent sensation of forlorn solitude dominates the experience. That sense of aloneness, of desolation and isolation caused by your surroundings, is environmental estrangement at its best: use of the game environment and tropes within it to affect your mindset as a player and subtract you from your conscious awareness of real-world surroundings.
The Zone maintains a viselike hold, not only on the Marked One, but on all Stalkers. “God knows how long I’ve spent here,” sighs Wolf, a friendly Stalker early in the game. “But it’s like this place doesn’t want to let me go.”
About halfway through Shadow of Chernobyl the player learns that Strelok and the Marked One are the same person; you are the man you are trying to kill. Strelok was obsessed with the Wish Granter, a mania that drove him to sacrifice anything to reach it and tame the power it promised. He had made great progress toward that goal, until he was struck with amnesia and forced to essentially start his quest again. But he fails to realize that the Zone is not simply a place. It is a thing – a living thing – that knows what Strelok is up to, and despises him for it.
That Strelok is alive at all was an error on the part of the C-Consciousness, the sentient entity spawned from Soviet-era experiments in mind control. It occupies the power plant and a network of secret laboratories; it is the mind and the Zone is its body. It brainwashes or kills anyone who comes close to discovering it, marking the corpses as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s – scavengers, trespassers, adventurers, loners, killers, explorers, and robbers. The tattoo is a scarlet letter left behind on unwelcome intruders as a warning to the others. The brainwashed are programmed to perform tasks of its choosing. The C-Consciousness seized Strelok moments before Shadow of Chernobyl began. Not realizing who he was, it wiped his mind and sent him off to kill… Strelok, a Stalker it knew was on the verge of discovering it. And as something alien and unknowable, it does not think of humans as equal entities – just as we would say “kill the mouse,” so the C-Consciousness wants to kill the nuisance. The game’s seven endings, based on decisions the player has made throughout, dictate Strelok’s fate.
The subsequent Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat are of great value for understanding the Zone as a character and the nature of the Stalkers who live there. Clear Sky is set a year before the events in Shadow of Chernobyl – well after the 1986 meltdown and GSC’s subsequent fiction, but before the C-Consciousness has set up the Brain Scorcher to protect itself. Your character in Clear Sky is a mercenary Stalker named Scar. Injured at the beginning of the game, he is rescued by the mysterious Clear Sky organization, a scientific team dedicated to study of the Zone. The group believes that recent occurrences in the Zone have been caused by the region reacting to a perceived threat – which we know to be Strelok’s pre-amnesia exploits as he and his allies attempt to reach the power plant.
The Zone can and does protect itself. Aside from the Brain Scorcher field, its primary defense mechanism is a blowout, or emission – a colossal radiation storm originating from the power plant. Blowouts are terrifying events; the sky bruises, the air itself turns angry scarlet as the earth shakes and thunder rumbles. They are deadly, driving animals before them, killing anyone and anything that cannot find shelter. Minor blowouts can be daily events, but massive ones have a sinister purpose. With each major emission, the Zone changes. Routes that had once been safe become irradiated, dangerous paths open up, anomalies move around and throw new artifacts. Clear Sky has learned that Zone is getting larger with each serious blowout. The organization believes that coexistence with the Zone may be possible, but that behavior like Strelok’s is antagonizing it and threatening the possibility that something as alien and unnatural as the Zone will tolerate humanity. Strelok’s invasion has caused instability. All that matters to him is reaching the Zone’s toxic beating heart, the ruins of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The Wish Granter, and the power it promises, drives him ever forward, so forward he goes, ignoring the ruin he leaves in his wake. Like an immune system responding to a virus, the Zone is defending itself.
Environmental estrangement allows GSC Game World to separate the player from normal reality and immerse him or her in the Zone. The Zone is portrayed as an incomprehensible entity, completely beyond human capability to understand or manage. The Clear Sky organization’s goal – coexistence – may be the only realistic solution for the presence of the Zone in this world, and may also be fueled by the revelation in Call of Pripyat that much of Clear Sky’s leadership was once involved in the research that led to the appearance of the C-Consciousness in the first place. But coexisting with something so alien, particularly when provoked by Strelok’s actions, becomes impossible. At the prequel’s climax, the organization’s philosophy of coexistence leads to the utter ruin of Clear Sky and the death of everyone involved with its activities. Strelok’s view – that the Zone is a treasure to be dominated and controlled – threatens to destroy him and reshape the Zone completely; creating the world we visit in Call of Pripyat.
Most critics consider Clear Sky a disappointment compared to its predecessor,[vi] but the environmental estrangement remains effective, evoking that eerie loneliness in the player, despite Clear Sky’s intense focus on interaction with other Stalkers. This prequel’s Zone has many more people, and your character works with them regularly. The revelation of Clear Sky is its presentation of the Zone as a malicious living thing, yet one that people willingly seek out, and become attached to once there. Moreover, it shows the pointlessness of existence in the Zone, as faction wars drag on and corpses pile up. More than once the player must watch friends fall and bullets fly as Stalkers fight over petty philosophy or territorial squabbles. Nothing here matters, everything is poisoned; it’s all worthless. And thanks to the potency of environmental estrangement, the player is able to easily feel this complex, layered emotional connection to the issues of the game. Those “precious” artifacts Stalkers risk everything to collect are so dangerous that even carrying one around can result in a lethal dose of radiation. The bleak, empty landscape highlights the heartlessness and cruelty of life in the Zone, where men kill each other as though this crumbling building or that derelict factory were strategically worthwhile.
Clear Sky took us back a year, and set up the events in Shadow of Chernobyl. Call of Pripyat, meanwhile, tells the story of what happened in the Zone just moments after the first game ended. At the climax of Shadow of Chernobyl, the player had disabled the Brain Scorcher, eliminating the barrier that kept Stalkers from getting too close to the power plant. With the Scorcher offline and promise of the Wish Granter beckoning, the race is on: hundreds of Stalkers pour into Pripyat, each intent on reaching the ultimate treasure first. Warring factions, Monolith’s zealots, personal enmities, and individual avarice reduce the city to a lunatic war zone. Outside the power plant itself, the running gun battle becomes even more chaotic. The Ukrainian military has seized this sudden concentration of Stalkers as an opportunity to kill as many of them as it can, and so dispatches dozens of heavy attack helicopters and tanks. For its part, the C-Consciousness emits a colossal blowout that completely reshapes the Zone.
Where Clear Sky had the player exploring the same general areas of the Zone, Call of Pripyat features three completely new regions, which had been inaccessible until the latest emission. Stalkers waste no time moving in and setting up new camps. In this third installment, you play a Major in the Ukrainian military who agrees to go undercover as a Stalker to learn the fate of five attack helicopters that went down during the climactic moments of Shadow of Chernobyl.
Call of Pripyat takes advantage of new technologies and lessons learned from earlier games to further refine the Zone’s inherent desolation and loneliness. Early-morning trudges through misty fens, nighttime mutant hunts, encounters in the rusted hulks of beached freighters abandoned in 1986 disaster make Call of Pripyat a more introspective game than its predecessors. The player explores abandoned villages and haunted caverns; the eerie ruins of Jupiter Station, a massive radio factory; and finally Pripyat itself, visited only briefly in Shadow of Chernobyl. The evolution of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games is clear in Call of Pripyat, in which GSC Game World was finally able to implement mechanics that had long been intended: the game’s remarkable artificial intelligence, moving anomalies, and blowout-fueled changes to the world as a whole.
Slower-paced, Call of Pripyat is a meditative experience. It retains Clear Sky’s rumination on violence and aggression, while all three games make a concerted effort to exclude any sense of comfort or security. Throughout all three games, diegetic sound is key to this: the loneliness of a wind gust, the far-off bark of a dog, the whale-sounding call of loons deep in the Zone, all make you relish and suffer the loneliness created by the game. But efforts to exclude the player from any sense of home or comfort do not end there.
GSC Game World was hardly unaware of the bleakness of the world it created, and maximized its impact with every sensation. Much of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s soundtrack was created for the game by Ukrainian death metal band Firelake, of which GSC Game World marketing director Oleg Yavorsky is a founding member. But in a departure from the roar-intensive shriekery of traditional rhythmic death metal, Firelake demonstrated its versatility, producing lonely flute and string numbers, lingering ballads, and environmental tones designed explicitly to evoke emotional response. Consider some lyrics from the series theme song Dirge for the Planet, a hauntingly apocalyptic composition that speaks, perhaps, of a world entirely engulfed by the Zone[vii]:
The seas overdumped
the rivers are dead
all planet’s cities turned a deserted land
annihilation declares its day […]
Dancing on the ashes of the world,
I behold the stars
heavy gale is blowing to my face
rising up the dust.
Barren lands are desperate to blossom
dark stars strive to shine
still remember the blue ocean
in this dying world
Throughout the evolution of the series, even as GSC has experimented with new mechanics, new interfaces, and updated play styles, the developer’s vision of the Zone has never changed.
It all comes down to the Zone. The Zone produces these artifacts that Stalkers fight and die for, and the Zone, by its very existence, provides a haven for violent men to do violence. A player willing to give himself wholly over to the world of the Zone will experience this environmental estrangement on a very conscious level, as everything in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games is designed to remind players how alone they are.
The storyline, characters, and even music of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series adeptly connects the player to the environment by removing him from reality, enhancing the feel of the world. This structure allows the series to comment on specific themes. Overall the morality tale of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a commentary on greed, on incomprehensible entities, on connections men form with places. By linking the player to the land as effectively as the Stalkers themselves are tied to the Zone, GSC creates a world and a fiction that, however circuitous, does help the player feel for the people, the place, and even the C-Consciousness, to whatever degree a person is able to empathize with something so decidedly alien.
We have seen how the storyline, characters, and even songs can act as tools of environmental estrangement to closely control player immersion; let’s now look at the manipulation of two other key elements: setting and mood.
The very word “Chernobyl” evokes an emotional response in most people. It remains contaminated to this day; during the desperate weeks immediately after the explosion, radiation from the fire reached nearly every point on the globe. Soviet-era secrecy caused misconceptions about the scope and seriousness of the disaster, with no agreed-upon findings of deaths or long-term effects. The official Soviet tally is 56 dead.[viii]
Meanwhile, a Greenpeace study claims 258 within a few weeks, 4,000 by year’s end, 93,000 by 2006, and more than 140,000 all told.[ix] Those numbers are far from the most pessimistic: recently three Russian scientists published an exhaustive report based on hundreds of sources, claiming that 985,000 have already died.[x] The truth is no one knows. No one can know. How many has Chernobyl killed? Impossible to say, because Chernobyl is still killing. It will continue to kill for generations, as mothers and fathers pass tainted genes on to their offspring. As such it has taken on an unholy significance with some, a specter of nuclear dangers not fully understood.
Today, the Exclusion Zone is safe to visit, to a point. An unknown number of people live there, having either returned home after the evacuation or never left in the first place. Still, it is reasonable to remark that the area is largely abandoned and will remain so for a century or more. Chernobyl is the Eastern European version of Centralia, Pennsylvania, the nearly deserted town under which a coal fire has raged since 1962[xi]. A handful of people remain there as well, intentionally cut off from the world. No post, power, telephone, not even a ZIP code remains to identify Centralia. Settings such as these – derelict, forgotten, cast off, haunted by history and abandoned by most, are ideal fodder for game worlds in which the environment itself is an emotional affecter.
Theoretically speaking, developers could apply environmental estrangement techniques to any location. Bearing in mind that the objective of the technique is to make the player feel something at a primal level by first removing them from their present environment, making it work is simply a matter of creating an immersive experience. In the case of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a great deal of firsthand research allowed GSC’s worldcrafters to sample the flavor of the real Zone and transmit it into their game. For Kiev-based GSC Game World, it was an easy matter to visit the Exclusion Zone. Many landmarks and geographical features that appear in the game mirror real-world locations. The poisoned realm of Chernobyl is an actual place, a place the developers went to great effort to model in their game. In accomplishing this, they were able to transplant the much-lauded feeling of loneliness that exists in the real Exclusion Zone. Visitors have described the eerieness of the region[xii], sometimes speaking at length about how they felt disconnected from the rest of the world while there. Capturing this sensation in a digital medium is not easy, but the results when successful are striking.
As it happens, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. removes the player from his or her own world and places them in one permeated by the sensation of melancholic loneliness. One of its most impressive achievements is that it makes the player feel alone (and lonely) regardless of actual company. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s world is not overrun with people, but it is reasonably crowded. The Zone is not so large that the player will go hours without seeing another person. Later segments of all three games are downright bustling. The madness in Pripyat and outside the power plant in Shadow of Chernobyl are nothing short of chaotically populated, with hundreds of Stalkers, soldiers, and Monolith fighters exchanging gunfire. But the sense of loneliness endures.
Hand in hand with setting is mood. Where you are is important, but the critical key to making environmental estrangement work is how the place makes you feel. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it makes you feel lonely (other games use environmental estrangement to create different sensations, which we will discuss later). Chernobyl, empty and legendary, is a natural setting for a game, particularly a lonely one. It might seem that with so much history surrounding the place, environmental estrangement would be part and parcel of the experience, but Chernobyl alone is not enough. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2[xiii] both feature missions set in the Exclusion Zone, but the sensation of the place is very different than that in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. It feels much more like a traditional action setting, with only the crumbling buildings and occasional landmarks to distinguish it from any other generic location. In a game world, atmosphere dictates player state of mind.
From the moment you take control in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the game’s vision of the Zone bombards you with visual, auditory, and experiential cues designed to separate you from the world of the present. Leaving the ramshackle encampment where rookie Stalkers gather their courage before venturing out into the Zone’s dangers in Shadow of Chernobyl, you crest a hill and encounter your first anomaly. It’s nothing more than a localized distortion, about the size of a phone booth, nearly invisible, just a sort of… wiggle in the air. It is the middle of the day as you stand on a pitted asphalt street. Though the Newbie Camp of 20 or so souls sits less than a football field’s distance behind, there, just over the next ridge, looms the Zone in all of its unearthly and terrible beauty. Any player who stands on that rise cannot escape the shivering sense that they are suddenly and truly on their own.
Sometimes the smallest things in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. evoke the strongest reaction. Every now and then a breeze whispers by, carrying leafy flotsam and dust. Odd as it may seem, that puff of wind alone is sufficient to make many players shudder with loneliness. A rainstorm soaks a group of Stalkers trudging through a swamp as the mournful yowl of a stray cat echoes nearby. Two rookies warm themselves around a trash fire, one strumming a tune on an acoustic guitar. Gnarled trees point like arthritic claws to the sky, their bases wreathed in mist. Crumbling homes speak of the lives hurriedly abandoned in the days after the disaster. In many areas of the Zone, derelict buildings serve as crude encampments or faction bases, while a labyrinth of irradiated and abandoned cleanup equipment – trucks, fire engines, backhoes, busses, even the odd helicopter – crouches next to mountains of half-buried steel rebar and concrete blocks. The ability of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to so powerfully evoke these places helps demonstrate the effectiveness of environmental estrangement as a design technique that creates a sense of reality other approaches cannot achieve.
This allows the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games to readily toy with player emotions, swapping terror, loneliness, melancholy, and exhilaration with ease. In Shadow of Chernobyl, for example, deep in the Zone you visit the ominous Red Forest region. It received the highest dose of radiation during the days after the disaster, when the reactor fire was still out of control. Radioactive particles settled on the spruce trees and killed them, turning the once-green forest ginger-red.[xiv] Red Forest is still one of the most heavily irradiated areas of the Exclusion Zone, and in Shadow of Chernobyl it is also the hidden location of the Brain Scorcher, the psychic field that kills Stalkers who venture too close to Pripyat. At first massive radiation and relentless assaults from Monolith troops bring a sense of white-knuckled action. As you draw nearer the vast electrical substation that houses the Scorcher, you experience brutally escalating psychic assaults. The air turns gold and noisy, while distorted, incorporeal creatures materialize and attack from all sides as the Marked One’s own mind turns against him. Inside the Scorcher complex itself you cannot help but expect the worst terrors, given the starts encountered outside. Instead, the entire facility is almost abandoned, forcing you to experience a good 35 minutes of agonizing tension, broken by only two or three encounters made all the more startling by their rarity. The instant you succeed in disabling the Scorcher, though, the military and Monolith troops pour in. What had been an empty tour becomes a blood-drenched race for the exit.
Nihilism by Design
What, then, is the value of environmental estrangement in game or level development? How can it be incorporated into game development’s creative grammar?
Author Stephen King once said, “Naturally, I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try to horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out.”[xv] Similarly, developers do well to have at their disposal a selection of tools to manipulate player immersion, overlapping them to create experiential chains. Environmental estrangement is such a tool, one with broad leveraging opportunity to affect the player in a variety of ways.
Ultimately it is a tool of immersion: in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it creates a sense of place, which is then tuned to suit the needs of the game. It uses the dismal, melancholy setting across its entire media to accomplish this. But the value of environmental estrangement goes beyond simply creating forlorn, gloomy realms, and certainly beyond creating horror. It can even be used to create positive reactions. There is great beauty in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s ruined buildings, crumbling bridges, and rusted-out industrial parks, while the chaos in Pripyat and the running gun battle outside the power plant itself are nothing short of exhilarating. Savvy developers utilize environmental estrangement as a tool to further other creative goals of a game because players fully immersed in such universes are very easy to startle, excite, frighten, or thrill. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a dominant example of the technique, with some players returning again and again just to re-experience the atmosphere[xvi].
Environmental estrangement must permeate level design, art, story, scripting, audio, and graphics in order to work. As such the design team must share a creative wavelength to ensure consistency throughout all these game components, and the team must also understand the objective of the immersion they are creating. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is about connecting one’s heart to the lonely, inhuman Zone. Other games use the same technique to accomplish completely different feelings of immersion.
Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge has employed environmental estrangement in the creepy eroticism of The Void (2009), a game that sets the player in a gloomy afterlife robbed of color. The Void has a hostile sexuality quite unique in games and realized through the application of environmental estrangement to “put” the player in that realm. The same studio also developed Pathologic (2005), a story about a diseased town with a dark and hideous secret. Pathologic’s release pre-dates that of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and may have influenced the latter’s approach. In the case of Pathologic, Ice-Pick Lodge employed environmental estrangement techniques to adeptly evoke revulsion in the player, a creeping, skin-crawling horror at first unidentifiable and later overwhelming.
Action Forms, Ltd., another Kiev-based developer, accomplished it in the underappreciated Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason (2009), set in a haunted Soviet nuclear icebreaker, where the frigid temperatures are the true enemy. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses environmental estrangement to make you feel the solitude; Cryostasis uses it to make you feel the cold.
Polish studio People Can Fly garnered very positive press with Painkiller (2004), a high-action arena shooter with singularly brilliant art direction in its presentation of life after death, visually painting a world in which every player found themselves questioning their own preconceptions of what hell would really be like.
Meanwhile, 4A Games, also based in Kiev, manages with Metro 2033, a corridor shooter based on the social commentary-rich science fiction novel by Dmitry Glukhovsky. This game has garnered many comparisons to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but in truth its use of environmental estrangement is much more about creating sympathy for the desperation of the human condition than about any connection with a place.
So far, we have seen environmental estrangement in games that generally share two key features: a bleakness of philosophy, and nativity in Eastern Europe, particularly the former Soviet republics. Whether eastern Europeans are naturally more adept at producing hopeless environments is unclear, but there is no doubt that some of the most dismal and melancholy game settings have originated in that region. However, at this point we do not yet see it widely applied in games elsewhere, though there is no reason why the technique should be limited to work from that area, or limited to “dismal and melancholy game settings.” Perhaps other developers have not yet fully realized its potency as a tool. With the ongoing success of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the growing perception of eastern Europe as a powerhouse of unique creativity in game development, we may yet see environmental estrangement grow beyond these borders.
For now, though, many Western or Japanese games may be dark, gritty, or grim, but they are almost never disconsolate in the way that eastern European games often are. Even comparable settings are presented differently. Consider Bethesda’s Fallout 3 (2009)[xvii], a game with similarly apocalyptic overtones to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., set in a Washington, D.C. shattered by nuclear war. While the devastation in Fallout 3 is very ably presented, the emotional experience of exploring that wasteland is not at all the same as the experience in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Journalist Shawn Elliott summed S.T.A.L.K.E.R. up quite succinctly: “Americans just don’t design shooters this way.”[xviii]
Inspiration and Influence
In an environment where games are almost never based on literature, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. also innovates. Roadside Picnic,[xix] the 1972 novella by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, is the driving influence behind the game. In that story, aliens visited the earth and then left, abandoning some of their outrageously superior technology in areas scattered around the world. Called Zones, these regions were littered with bizarre anomalies that affected the space-time continuum and, like the anomalies in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., were typically deadly to humans. Of course, treasure hunters and scientists (called Stalkers; Roadside Picnic pioneered that title) risked life and limb to collect the advanced alien artifacts. One in particular, a golden sphere, supposedly held the power to grant the wishes of its finder.
The title of the novel is a reference to the relationship between forms of life at different levels of civilization and intelligence. When we stop for a picnic, lower creatures have no conception of our activities. We are absurdly more advanced. Our most basic actions and tools are incomprehensible. They do not understand what we are doing or why we are there, they just know they want our sandwiches and potato salad. And when we go, sometimes we leave artifacts from our picnic behind: discarded plastic wrap, an empty soda can, a melting ice cube. All these things, so simple to us (indeed, worthless and disposable) are alien and terrifying to the animals. As they creep in to collect our scraps, they are entering a zone of terrible danger, where an unrecognizable object could mean fabulous riches or instant death. They know it is dangerous, but they cannot resist the temptation… as the Stalkers of Roadside Picnic cannot resist the temptation of discarded treasures from this alien civilization, one so advanced that we are to them as mice and ants are to us, so advanced they may have never noticed our presence on earth at all. Post-picnic scavengers are, to humans, as humans are to God – or, at least, as we are to entities so far advanced they might as well be God.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed Stalker (1979) [xx], based on Roadside Picnic, and with a script co-written by the Strugatskys. Produced well before the Chernobyl incident, Stalker is a beautiful and melodic film, and intentionally far more nebulous regarding the Zone and its dangers than the novel on which it is based. Since access to the Zone is supposedly illegal, early on the characters agree to use anonymous titles rather than names. Thus the leads are Stalker, Professor, and Writer, the former making a living by guiding people into the region. The rumor about the power to grant wishes remains the same. In the film, instead of a golden sphere, it is simply a room, a room that Stalker insists must never be approached directly. He claims that death lurks invisibly in every inch of the Zone, and that without him Professor and Writer would be killed in minutes. Stalker’s incessant warnings and elaborate precautions frighten the others at first, but over time Writer and Professor come to doubt that the Zone is dangerous at all.
Indeed, the trio arrive at the room without injury, and here Professor reveals that he has brought along a small nuclear bomb to destroy the Zone, to prevent evil men from using the room to take power.
“I wouldn’t bring anyone like that here,” Stalker cries, desperate to prevent the destruction. He needs his Zone as much as the Stalkers of the game need theirs, and the idea of its destruction is unthinkable.
“You are not the only Stalker in the world, my friend,” replies Professor, though in the end he decides against destroying the room.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. draws more inspiration from novel than film, and naturally takes significant liberties in the interest of making the game fun. The concept of the Zone as a place to which some men are irrevocably drawn, despite the dangers and in search of an all-powerful artifact, resonates through all three installments. Whereas Professor was willing to destroy the room in order to prevent evil men from using it for their own ends, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s Wish Granter is its own self-correcting mechanism. In the game’s five “bad” endings, the player does in fact reach the Wish Granter and wishes for something based on prior in-game decisions – wealth, immortality, power, etc. In every instance the Wish Granter provides exactly what he asks, but in a way that either kills or cripples him. The Wish Granter exists to destroy the men who would use it.
On the subject of men, the absence of female characters in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games is worthy of note. While this may have simply been a convenience on the part of GSC Game World, it seems odd that a game in development for over six years would overlook something as obvious as this in the interest of simplicity. While the likely truth is that GSC could not be bothered to create the models and animations necessary to include female characters, I prefer to think that the world of the Zone is just not one that would be inviting to women; the Zone is a haunted, violated place that nonetheless is itself a surrogate mother of sorts to the men who live there. Many Stalkers are quick to say they love the Zone (others profess to hate it), and some have gone so far as to worship it. A Stalker’s relationship to the Zone tends to be more important than his relationship with other humans, male or female.
If You Gaze Into the Abyss
In an interview, some of the Liquidators – Soviet workers and soldiers press-ganged into cleanup duties after the 1986 disaster – reflected that the Zone calls to you, that once someone has been there, he always has a bit of it inside him, pulling him back.[xxi] Even in the real world, it seems that the Exclusion Zone has a certain degree of power over the minds and hearts of people who experience it. It is a physical, touchable, tangible place that has been gathered up, packaged, and set aside. It is not part of this world any more.
And yet the same sun, the same moon shines on us as does on Chernobyl. Men and women do live there; even in this world they call themselves Stalkers. The ruined reactor still generates dangerous levels of heat as it crouches beneath the Object Shelter, a crumbling concrete sarcophagus never meant to entomb it this long. Many of the fire engines that brought Vasily Ignatenko and his fellows to the reactor remain where they parked that April night, still too radioactive to safely approach. The Red Forest lingers on, a resurgent haven for wildlife now that people no longer occupy the region – though stories of odd mutations and radioactive animals persist.[xxii] Pripyat still stands, overrun with growth, home to nothing but ghosts and memories.
Did the developers know what the game would do? Did they plan for it and consciously use a technique to accomplish that end? Maybe the folks at GSC just thought they were making a lonely-feeling game set in a world they made a sustained effort to recreate. The term environmental estrangement, as mentioned earlier, is my own. It may come as quite a surprise to developers to hear that their games apparently included it all along. But something has to explain the deftness with which complex emotions and themes are so well presented in some games and so ineptly presented in others. It is like a well-schooled and experienced filmmaker (Tarkovsky, perhaps) shooting the same film as a student who lacks a similar breadth of wisdom and toolset for building emotion through cinema. Environmental estrangement is a tool; not everyone uses it.
I recall moments of terror I felt during my maiden playthrough of Shadow of Chernobyl. Deep in a series of underground tunnels, you encounter your first “genuine” mutant: not just a twisted version of local wildlife, but something created by the Zone. Inch by inch I crept through the dim passageway, hesitant to use my flashlight for fear the beam would be noticed. Off in the distance was only darkness, but I spotted a pair of tiny lights. As I moved closer they blinked out, and then I heard a roar, a ravenous howl like nothing human. I had no idea what had made that sound, only that it was not natural, and that it knew I was there, that it was coming towards me. I switched to full automatic on my brand new assault rifle and held down the trigger. This was a stupid thing to do, because bullets were rare and precious at that point in the game. I did not have extras to waste painting the blackness with lead. But I was terrified. I did not want to die alone in that darkness. I simply reacted at an instinctive level. Thankfully, bullets could kill it.
Shortly thereafter I visited the Dark Valley. In Clear Sky, this territory would be a key faction stronghold; in Shadow of Chernobyl, it was a gloomy and frightening region of ghosts and solitude. Whereas in most shooters players creep from moment to moment, expecting the worst at every turn, GSC Game World created a universe in which – first of all – there are no turns. Just the environment, there for you to see. And despite the fact that 99% of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games let you see exactly where you’re going, the desire that someone be there to comfort you, is never far. Even when someone is there to comfort you, they are never enough. You are always alone, always vulnerable. You don’t belong here. And you never will. But that doesn’t change your need to be in the Zone.
Years later in Call of Pripyat I found myself trudging through the rain in a swampy wetland infested by wild dogs and bandits. The mundanity of my current task – pick up some food for a group of heavily armed squatters at a nearby repair facility, so they would let me in to hunt around for a set of tools – belied the ever present danger of the world. Already, having only played for about three game-days, I was starving, bleeding from a wound, and suffering radiation sickness. I had spent the last two nights sleeping on a stained mattress in the rusted-out hulk of a beached Soviet freighter, co-opted by Stalkers and transformed into a makeshift camp and marketplace. I was supposed to be discovering the fate of lost helicopters, but had quickly learned that establishing myself in the Zone was as important to the success of my mission as simply finding the downed birds.
Environmental estrangement can be the realization of such places – regions that simultaneously are and are not part of the world, places that, when entered, somehow seal us off from the rest of humanity, and all dreams of home vanish. S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a testament to what games can evoke when they forsake gravel-chewing space marines and damsels in distress in favor of elegantly crafting such a grim and desolate place. As revolutionary as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was as an open-world shooter, it will be remembered for where it took us.
Email the author of this post at email@example.com.
Screenshots and reference photos from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games courtesy of GSC Game World or taken by the author. Used with permission. Other photography, screenshots, and maps available in the public domain. Special thanks to Oleg Yavorsky and Anton Bolshakov of GSC Game World, Ben Hoyt of 47 Games, Jason Della Rocca of Perimeter Partners, Bill Harris of Dubious Quality, as well as Tony Sakey, Alissa Roath, Jason Dobry, and Marcus Sakey for advice and edits.
- [i] Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Trans. Kieth Gessen. Urbana-Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive P, 2005. Print.
- [ii] Various. CIA World Fact Book. Central Intelligence Agency. Langley, VA 2006. Web. 25 Mar. 2010. <http://https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/>.
- [iii] Aggregate. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl for PC – GameRankings. Gamerankings.com – CBS Interactive, 20 Mar. 2007. Web. 20 Dec. 2009 <http://www.gamerankings.com/pc/540331-stalker-shadow-of-chernobyl/index.html>.
- [iv] Crossely, Robert. ‘The Future of Shooters Is RPGs’ – Bleszinski. Develop Online/Intent Media, 6 July 2009. Web. 12 Dec. 2008 <http://www.develop-online.net/news/32305/The-future-of-shooters-is-RPGs-Bleszinski>.
- [v] Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: The Doll’s House. New York, NY: DC Comics, 1990. Print.-
- [vi] Aggregate. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky for PC – GameRankings. Gamerankings.com – CBS Interactive, 15 Sep. 2008. Web. 20 Dec. 2009 <http://www.gamerankings.com/pc/942067-stalker-clear-sky/index.html>.
- [vii] Yavorsky, Oleg (lyrics). Dirge for the Planet. Performed by Firelake. Kiev, Ukraine: GSC Game World, 2007. Song.
- [viii] Dumas, Daniel. This Day in Tech: Events That Shaped the Wired World | April 26, 1986: Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Suffers Cataclysmic Meltdown. Wired Magazine, 20 Apr. 2010. Web. 1 May 2010. <http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2010/04/0426chernobyl-nuclear-reactor-meltdown/>.
- [ix] Greenpeace. Chernobyl Death Toll Grossly Underestimated. Greenpeace.org – Greenpeace 18 Apr. 2006 Web. 5 Feb 2010. <http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/chernobyl-deaths-180406>
- [x] MacPherson, Christina. Region’s Death Toll from Chernobyl Nuclear Accident Close to 1 Million. Nuclear News, 26 Apr. 2010. Web. 18 May 2010. <http://nuclear-news.net/2010/04/26/death-toll-from-chernobyl-nuclear-accident-close-to-1-million/>.
- [xi] DeKok, David. Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennysylvania P, 2000. Print.
- [xii] Horner, Lisa. Chernobyl: A Tour of Ground Zero. School of Russian and Asian Studies, 6 Aug. 2009. Web. 7 Apr. 2010. <http://sras.org/chernobyl_tour_of_ground_zero>.
- [xiii] Infinity Ward (developer). Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; Modern Warfare 2. Encino/Los Angeles, CA: Activision/Blizzard (pub), 2007; 2009. Interactive.
- [xiv] Mycio, Mary. Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry P, 2005. Print.
- [xv] Playboy Staff. Playboy Interview – Stephen King (from June 1983 Issue of Playboy Magazine, Reprinted on Website). Playboy Magazine, June 1983. Web. 2 Dec. 2009 <http://www.playboy.com/articles/playboy-interview-stephen-king/index.html>.
- [xvi] Rossignol, Jim. Why I Still Play Stalker. Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 1 May 2008. Web. 12 Sep. 2009 <http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/05/01/why-i-still-play-stalker/>.
- [xvii] Bethesda Softworks (developer). Fallout 3. Bethesda/Rockville, MD: ZeniMax Media (pub), 2009. Interactive.
- [xviii] Elliott, Shawn. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC). 1UP, 20 Mar. 2007. Web. 5 Dec. 2009 <http://www.1up.com/do/reviewPage?cId=3158131>.
- [xix] Strugatsky, Boris, and Strugatsky, Arkady. Roadside Picnic. Trans. Antonina W. Bouis. New York, US: Macmillan, 1977 (English). Originally published 1972, USSR. Print.
- [xx] Tarkovsky, Andrei (director). Stalker. Mosfilm. Screenplay Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, 1979. Film.
- [xxi] Alexievich/Gessen, Voices from Chernobyl. “Monologue on a Single Bullet.”
- [xxii] Mulvey, Stephen. Wildlife Defies Chernobyl Radiation. BBC News, 20 Apr. 2006. Web. 15 Sep. 2209 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4923342.stm>.
Cool article. I’ve experienced what you write about more in STALKER than any other game. I do think a lot has to do with the visual and audio cues. Devs like Bethedsa would do well to study this a little closer. Eastern Europeans seem to instinctively grasp how the environment affects people, dating back a few hundreds years at least. You see it in the art and literature and now in games.
Interesting you mention Stephen King. I seem to remember reading an article where he said one of the first things he tries to do in a novel is to cut off all sense of connection to the outside world in order to create more immersion and allow him to write his own rules. Peter Straub did this well in his novel Floating Dragon where he literally created a zone for his characters and plot.
Excellent read. Obviously you know this content well, and present it in such a wonderful and insightful manner. I’m now in awe of a game I simply thought of as “cool” before.
I’m not exactly as forgiving of the game its lack of women though, and actually mildly offended by it. But I won’t let that alone cloud an otherwise brilliant title.
Masterful article, sir. It took me a few days of keeping this page open in my browser to finish it, but I made it. I suspect you’ve alienated many a casual reader though 😉
Seriously though, your love and knowledge of all things S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (I fucking hate writing that out…) is admirable, and that text really is enjoyable. I’m still working, ever so steadily, to complete Shadow of Chernobyl and begin Call of Pripyat (Clear Sky is never included in Stalker (fuckit) bundles, it’s just the other two…is the game actually so poorly received that they purposely do this?). One of these days, as we say.
Thank you, everyone who endured it – and thank you again to Drew Davidson for the opportunity. This is a franchise that has been very important to me, and is worthy of even more study. There’s a lot there.
Xtal, I suspect that Clear Sky isn’t included in bundles simply because its publisher, Deep Silver, doesn’t have the correct association with Steam. Clear Sky is by no means bad… I enjoyed a lot of it. There were missteps, yes, but to my mind nothing that really detracted from the game. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s available digitally.
It’s not necessary to play Clear Sky (or even Shadow) to play Call of Pripyat, which is undoubtedly the most polished of the three, and the one that realizes most of what the concept was going for. I won’t call it the best because Shadow was simply so revolutionary and so unforgettable, but Pripyat gets it right.
I will say that Clear Sky reveals more clues about the over-arching narrative, so if you really want to be a Zone Scholar, you have to play and play carefully. It’s the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets of the STALKER universe – no one’s favorite, but a lot of clues.
It’s a great chapter Steer. I show affection by sticking gum in the hair and running away.
Not available digitally you say, eh? Hmm… I’ll take a look see around.
If you can’t get it digitally, there is always Amazon.
Steerpike, I was wondering what your thoughts are about Bioshock and how it relates to to environmental estrangement. I know it’s not the most subtle of games, but may be a good Western example of the idea in play.
[…] franchise from Well Played 2.0 – a book of criticism, one game per chapter. It’s now available to read online. It’s a cracking read; despite having read a large chunk of the writing about the article, […]
I don’t think any game will ever make me feel so isolated and desolate as this one. You find a way to express this unique feeling and do a great game great justice.
For great justice!
Armand, I loved the world Bioshock created – definite moments of chill or terror, and definitely a sense of being part of a place that was as unreal and yet as fully realized. It’s unsurprising given that it came from the System Shock 2 people, another game that did a lot with loneliness of environment. Like STALKER, Bioshock made me forget I was in this world and feel very much part of Rapture. Only a handful of western games have ever accomplished that.
I would dearly love to read all this. Is this spoiler free? I’ve played Shadow, intend to skip Clear Sky and plan Call of Pripyat [sometime in the far future where the days are 56 hours long].
HM, it’s fairly spoiler-free for Pripyat. Most spoilers are for Shadow itself (the identity of the Marked One). Hopefully even those I do reveal don’t seriously impact the experience. I’d be flattered to have you read it.
While the majority of the article is easy to agree with and mirrors some of my own feelings about the STALKER series, there is one thing I have to take issue with.
I believe there are no women in the zone because they would represent the option of comfort and perhaps civil society (in the sense that people might settle or establish families in the Zone) in a place that is supposed to offer nothing but bleakness and death.
I don’t know if you did or not, but I think the easiest option would have been to shoot an email to GSC and see if anyone had anything to say about why there are no women. For an essay like this, I’m sure you’d have been able to wrangle a serious answer from them.
I was in communication with Oleg Yavorsky of GSC for weeks throughout the development of the article. I didn’t ask him that (or many other questions) because part of the intent of Well Played is that the article is written by an individual who has immersed him- or herself into the game world, with only token input from developers.
Two scholarly theories as to why there are no women in the Zone have been put forward: your own (which is a really good one, and well-articulated), and the suggestion that since the Zone draws the most vile, dangerous, and impulsive men in the world it would create a victimization danger that GSC just didn’t want to deal with.
One practical theory exists: you can’t just put boobs on a male model and make it female. You have to do new mocap, new skeletons, new gaits, new everything, and GSC just didn’t bother. Frankly this one is probably the truth, but given the option I’ll take yours.
Thanks for reading!
All three easily coexist. While the real answer is probably the practical one, for me it added to the estrangement. I’d played half of STALKER before realizing there were no women. When I did notice it made perfect sense for both reasons mentioned.
It’s standing on darn thin ice to claim their presence would inherently have been a civilizing agent but not, I think, an untrue one. The lack of women whether because of resources or intent amps the brutality and alienation.
The Zone itself can be read as a womb (in the movie and the game, not at all in the novel) but I’m not putting one toe to that ice.
I’ve always wondered what the surviving brother thinks about their coded satire of Soviet USSR turned into existential film into videogame landscape. It’s a darn strange spiral.
That’s an interesting question – I don’t know how Boris Strugatsky feels about all of this. As I understand it he and his brother were involved with the movie and satisfied with the fact that it tells a very different story… though I know Stanislaw Lem hated Tarkovsky and Solaris, so that may just be the party line.
I originally included some further reflection on women not wanting to go to the Zone because of the threat posed by… well, by the worst men in the world. But reading it I felt I was coming off as implying that women weren’t or couldn’t be dangerous, or couldn’t take care of themselves. That’s not what I meant so I cut it. The Zone as surrogate mother (or womb) seems to make sense given the conversations you have with other Stalkers. Interestingly, I at least never got a sense of femininity from the environment, though many Stalkers refer to the Zone as a she.
I’ve been meaning to ask Oleg if there are going to be females in STALKER 2. He’s been very helpful throughout, plus I pimped his band. : )
I know it’s not gonna be a popular opinion, but the absence of women in the game by my view just comes off as a form of sexism. A couple of you have suggested the danger of the zone and the people there as a possible explanation, and my thought is that it’s pretty close as to why. The way I interpret it is simply that the developers didn’t think women were capable of doing such macho things as running through the woods fighting mutants and jerks, despite women being in various armies around the world doing these very same sorts of things.
I have a very hard time buying the “it’s too much trouble to make a female mesh” argument as the game has a pretty wide verity of animated 3D meshes, and adding one more couldn’t have been that hard. If not in the first one, they could have found there chance in the second or third.
The whole game has a very macho “tough men doing tough manly things” feel, and putting women there would have softened it up too much. This is a game made by men, for men.
When you look at Metro 2033, a game that does feature women and is made by (from what I understand) some of the original core Stalker team, you can see they serve one of 3 purposes in that game. Mother, victim, or whore. They don’t carry guns or fight alongside your character. That’s a job (again) for very macho, manly men.
Both games ooze machismo, and the lack of women in strong rolls only adds to that feel.
I haven’t heard anyone mention a possibility that seems very obvious to me: perhaps women avoid The Zone because it is a sterile environment that destroys fertility? That is complete hypothesizing on my behalf, but I believe that could be realistic, given the fiction of Stalker. The Zone doesn’t seem like it would welcome creation that is not on its own terms.
I realize that argument also carries the connotation of sexism, as not all women care about fertility, but maybe that’s enough of a deterrent for the ones who would consider entry…
That’s a great point, xtal. The Zone wouldn’t like creation not on its terms – the things it creates exist only to destroy (the Wish Granter being the prime example of this). Creation for any other purpose would likely be repelled. And of course the place is radioactive so any women worried about fertility would have a reason to avoid it.
Armand, I don’t disagree with you, but I don’t think there’s any sort of malicious sexism in the game. It may be, in the case of STALKER at least, that dudes making a game about dudes just didn’t include dudettes. Even the least sexist among us can make these foolish mistakes without thinking. It’s the lack of thinking that injures the game.
As for Metro 2033, yeah, I see what you mean. Again I think it was done without explicit malice, but once again a little forethought to just include a few female rangers would’ve offset the issue… particularly since Metro did have female models and mocap.
Everyone was so excited when it was learned that there’d be female marines in Gears 3, but the overall impression was “why weren’t they there before?” At least the one female character in the first two games was a strong individual in a position of power. Epic has always been reasonable with treatment of strong females (they’re contenders in Unreal Tournament as well), if in a very macho way.
There’s a lot of macho-ism in games that I could frankly do without. As teaching tools nothing beats games, so even implicit sexism in them can be damaging, while equality would be influential.
Something interesting about STALKER is that while the men in the games are deadly, avaricious, cruel, and impulsive, they’re also sort of childlike in certain aspects of their humanity. It’s like they’ve been dumped into this great playground and play and play and play without realizing what they’re doing. Their eagerness to kill one another over essentially nothing has always resonated on that point with me.
Maybe most women, being generally more sensible, would wonder what the point of going to the Zone is. It’s just an endless game of Cowboys & Indians with higher stakes.
I don’t believe a lot of sexism (these games included) has malicious intent. It’s often just cultural perspectives and upbringing, which in far too many cultures, have women painted as figures like mother, victim (in need of saving,) or sex symbol. I think your final comment falls into the same category.
“Maybe most women, being generally more sensible, would wonder what the point of going to the Zone is. It’s just an endless game of Cowboys & Indians with higher stakes.”
It assumes that “most women” are somehow different enough from men that they wouldn’t want adventure, wealth, big guns and exploration. I just don’t believe that.
But assuming this was somehow the case. A whole world of women all refusing to visit the zone because they are too sensible to play cowboys and indians, why then wouldn’t they come with the group of scientists in the last game? Plenty of female scientists would love the opportunity to learn about such scientifically bizarre wonders as what would be found in the zone. Or just the opportunity to make a name for themselves in the world of science.
Frankly, I just don’t buy the argument that women wouldn’t want to go into the zone. Women join armies and security teams in real life all the time. They are on the front lines of war-zones as doctors, in deep jungle villages as anthropologists, in freakin’ space on the space station. To suggest that women wouldn’t have an interest in any of these things is really sort of an insult to all the women in the world that go through shit we ourselves would never do.
I’m a guy with a history of doing “adventuresome” things (ever camp out on top of a live volcano in the middle of a rain storm by yourself?) But I would never want to serve in Afghanistan as a soldier, or work as a doctor in some small African village where tribes are mascaraing each other. Yet plenty of women do this sort of thing every day, for a variety of reasons ranging from good-will, to financial gain, or simply a sense of adventure.
I believe that sexism for the large part isn’t intentional or malicious on the part of men. The guy “protecting” his girl from presumed predators and dangers by being overbearing and controlling truly believes he’s doing a good thing for her. It’s not because he’s an evil jerk or anything. He’s just been brought up in a world where we are told as boys from the very start that we are different from women. We play with guns and action figures, they play with dolls and houses. We are big and strong, and they in need of a protector.
Sexism is entrenched in our cultures and very psyche to the point where intelligent, progressive voices such as Steerpike’s would suggest women wouldn’t go to the zone simply based on their sex. Your comment was well intentioned and by our cultural standard, even rational. But it’s just not true, and really kind of an insult to the women who do crazier more “manly” things than any of us are willing to do.
And though the developers of the Stalker games may have had no intentions of sexism in their product, it is there. I personally feel it is our job to confront and deal with these issues, not sweep them under the rug with explanations like making female 3D models is too much work or that women are too feminine for the Zone. That sort of argument just furthers sexism in gaming, and does a dis-service to all the women who want/need strong female role-models in both gaming and the real world.
Can we get a FUCK NO?
Anyway, Armand, I certainly didn’t mean my comment to be sexist. Women are different from men, though – but there’s an enormous disparity between those who think that “different” means “different” and those who think that “different” means “inferior.”
In the real world I’d be pretty surprised to learn that there were no women at all in a place like the Zone, for many of the reasons you describe. But STALKER isn’t the real world; it’s literature. And a lot of my position is based on the fact that it’s literature. I’m curious about the literary implications of a woman-less Zone… be it Eric’s suggestion that coed Stalking implies a comfort and civility, xtal’s that the Zone itself might reject the feminine, or the possibility that women would not find anything to want in the Zone.
I also don’t agree with the suggestion that making 3D models is too much work is a “sweep under the rug” argument. GSC Game World had a publisher, a publisher that was paying for the production of this game. A publisher that had, by the way, spent millions on a game that showed no signs of ever shipping until that same publisher literally forced the developer to release it as is. The time involved with modeling, mocapping, voicing and skinning female characters seems trivial in an argument about sexism in games, but the reality may simply be that no one was willing to pay for it. As to the subsequent games… same engine, same models, same skins, new publishers… but again, there are economic realities associated with creating a product. While I don’t approve of that excuse as a way to justify not having women in a game, it’s unfair and inaccurate to shrug it off as though it’s a completely invalid point.
My remark about women being more sensible was intended as a joke, not a condemnation of the idea of adventurous women.
In the film, there’s Stalker’s wife and daughter, and Writer’s girlfriend. All appear only briefly and none ever visit the Zone. In fact, Stalker returns to it against the vehement wishes of his wife, who wants nothing to do with the place. I don’t think there are any women in Roadside Picnic either, at least none who are Stalkers. It’s been a while since I read it. While I think the STALKER games (and many other games) missed a chance by failing to include women in what is a much larger and more open-ended narrative, I also think it’s worth noting that it is literature, and like the literature on which it’s based, sometimes decisions are borne out of pragmatism or artistic intent rather than sexism.
Been playing back and forth in PM with Armand. I agree with what he’s said here about passive sexism (I’m guilty myself, too often) and also with Steer. The first game barely got released; they were frantically cutting features under pressure to get the game shipped.
In my earlier comment I first wrote mother, then backed up to a clumsy Jungian female aspect reference, then sat on it for a bit. Womb seemed the best summation. There’re the many she’s Steer mentioned plus the pervasive language in all three sources about penetrating the zone.
The path to fertilization is actively antagonistic to sperm. There’s immune responses, the wrong acidity. It’s a hostile internal environment. So one reading is Zone-as-womb and all the men are sperm trying to be the one and only one to fuse with the egg. All their squabbling is the competition and the Zone is having none of it. (Or is selecting for the one, a slightly different reading.)
There are many other approaches. In all of them the Zone itself is the female side of the coin.
I’ve little patience for intellectual wankery but firmly [joke very much intended] believe the game would’ve been weakened by female NPCs. (Not because women are weak.) Sometimes a dev backs into something that adds to their game because of technical limitations or a blindspot. Probably a bit of both in this case.
Sorry about misunderstanding the joke Steerpike, it’s hard to tell on the internet.
Perhaps I’m again misunderstanding this, but your comments make two different points. The first is that from a literary perspective, the lack of women in the game is intentional, a way of strengthening the narrative. The second is that they weren’t able to include women due to pressure from the publisher to get the game on the shelves.
With the first explanation, I think I just need a lot more info from the people responsible for the decision. What was their motive, what did they hope to show by leaving women out? In Moby Dick (a GIANT book with only a single mention of women throughout) it was the author’s exploration of homo-erotica and his own homosexuality made manifest in the fiction he created. It’s also a whaling manual for anyone who wants to hunt whales the old fashioned way, where women weren’t involved.
What would be the creator’s intent in Stalker though? I personally can’t come up with a good explanation, and haven’t heard one that’s very convincing yet (waiting to see Fink’s explanation.)
As for the second option, the lack of time/budget and the pressure to produce the game, I figure the decision not to include women came very early on, (unless they’d started developing it, but just couldn’t finish it in time, which I feel we would have heard about by now if that’s what it was.)
Regardless, the decision was made not to include women for the hassle of creating the 3D mesh, animating, skinning, and voicing. But the decision could have just as easily been to include one less monster type in the game. All the different monsters required the same process, and having a couple female voice actors come in with the guys couldn’t have been that outrageous a cost. Something else could have been dropped from the game instead.
Even if they wanted very much to include women, but couldn’t due to limitations, it seems like to not include them in any of the follow-ups knocks that argument out. Plenty of new content was introduced in the second and third games, but still not a single female character.
I understand budgets and deadlines and investors wanting results. I deal with those exact same issues in design every day. But I’ve also seen modders create entire 3D human meshes for games with skeletal structures, voice acting and so on without seeing a single dime of pay. It seems if they really wanted to, women could have been a part of the game by the third entry, and someone would have been willing to pay for it.
Until I find an explanation that makes sense to me, my interpretation is simply that this was due to (likely unintentional) sexism. It doesn’t help the sense of immersion or environmental estrangement because for me, within the first half hour of the game, I kept wondering, “So where are all the women? Will I see one in the next room? The next camp? Ever?”
Again, I don’t mean to insult you or anything of the sorts. I’ve read enough of your material to think of you as a feminist without giving it a second thought. But for me, the Stalker series did a disservice to women, and without a better explanation, it will continue to effect my view of the game. As I said in a much earlier post though, I don’t think this alone is enough to reduce this game’s value too much. It’s still a better shooter than most of it’s competition, and has so many cool things going for it.
On a slightly different note, the games are all very “white” too aren’t they? Maybe I just don’t remember, but the game lacked any non-white Russian sounding guys. No black people, no Asians and so on. In order to put black people in the game, they could cut out the modeling and mocapping and so on, and just make a couple extra skins, get a single extra voice actor.
I think the game is simply a reflection of the cultural upbringing and awareness of the creators, a white, male dominated one at that. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just read too much about equality and so on. Hell, maybe it’s just my own liberal Western American cultural perspective demanding some variation in the people in the zone. Whatever the reason, this is how I feel about the game, and it truly takes away from my experience of it.
EDIT: btw, on that “camping trip” my car was almost completely out of gas, and it was raining so hard, I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. It was Mt. Saint Helens when it looked like it may erupt at any point. I had a single, non-water proof tent and the mountain rumbled all night. At first light, I coasted down the mountain on neutral until hitting a gas station, then drove straight to Seattle where I got very drunk and blacked out. Good times!
EDIT2: We can edit comments now!
I’m arguing the lack of women, whatever the reason for their absence, strengthened the narrative. We need to separate the why they were not included from the results.
…and I’m drawing dead. My PM attempts to convince you utterly failed. Your hatred of and glib description of Moby Dick may be the chasm. Moby, like STALKER, (the movie and especially the first game) are about obsession. A masculine form of obsession.
Uh-oh. Back on thin ice.
If that twisted form of the hero’s quest doesn’t click it simply doesn’t. Both are pocket universes, realistic within their envelope. The toing and froing of STALKER is dodgy if the player opts out and takes the broader view. Obsessed men are inherently silly beasts. Prip, while a more polished game, frayed the edges of the pocket which is why I prefer the original. I expect and fear more fraying in 2.
Understood, Armand, and I certainly hope we’ll see women in STALKER 2. The fact is there’s not much excuse to not have them, unless the developers have a literary reason for it.
What you saw as two contradictory arguments I meant as two distinct possibilities: I have no idea why there are no girls in STALKER… just that there may have been a good reason and may have not been.
The race issue surprises me less. The game is Ukrainian and set in Ukraine, which as far as I know is a pretty Caucasian area. After all, there are no American or British Stalkers there of any color or gender. You develop what you know.
I think the key question in this debate is what in the BLUE FUCK were you doing atop Mt. Saint Helens in the first place? Nature is scary. I avoid it when I can.
First, this is a great discussion.
Second, I played with Barbies as a child and quite enjoyed it. I only had two or three GI-Joes… their lack of potential bored me.
Third, Armand, if I ever get around to writing it, I think (and very much hope) that you would enjoy my argument for why New Vegas is the most sexually progressive (female-equality wise, obviously) game that exists. It’s a topic I care about fervently, my girlfriend and I considering ourselves feminists, and it’s nice to see other folks passionate about it too.
Even if you are searching relentlessly for an answer where there may be none. (I don’t mean any disrespect by that.)
I was on the mountain because I’d never seen lava before, and decided a drive up to Washington from Oakland (16 or so hours) was in order. I was also pretty stupid. I didn’t see lava that night (thank goodness!)
A few years later, I hiked 4 miles through black lava rock as sharp as broken glass (again at night, with a shitty flashlight, and tiny bottle of water and nothing else) on the Big Island of Hawaii where I finally got to see flowing lava. It was neat, but surprisingly not the neatest thing I saw on that island. The view from on top of a 14,000 foot tall island mountain was much neater!
Max, I hope you do write that article on New Vegas, and explain how the gratuitous set of prostitutes serving no purpose other than eye candy outside the casino fit into it all! I know, I’m horrible!
I can list some actual issues in the feminism dept. with that game, but I agree that over all it approaches the issue (and a number of others) in a great manner. And I really would like to read the article should you write it.
Finally, Fink, I can sort of kind of see your point after our long discussions. Sort of. : )
“I was on the mountain because I’d never seen lava before”
Now this is a configuration of words I never thought I’d read. In my life.
I’m still working my way through the Steerpike’s article, but I just had to jump in right now having read Finkbug’s comment on the idea of The Zone as womb. I’d never thought of this before and find myself swept away with the concept.
I think it’s smarter to cast The Zone as a female body (the womb is where the child grows), Stalkers as sperm working their way toward the Chernobyl NPP “egg”. I’d love to expand on this and cover what happens when Strelok reaches the egg and fertilises it with his presence and actions, but I haven’t played Pripyat and so can’t comment if revelations could push the narrative in this direction. (Heh, and don’t you spoil me, commenters of doom)
If there was more symbology within the original game that sold this idea, I could have seen this as literary validation of the men-only-please world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: the game as sexual act, penetration of The Zone. Or even, risking extremely dangerous territory: rape, casting the Zone as the victim, which changes the tone of the game somewhat.
The game’s conclusion is the conception of something, the strange child of the Zone. What the shape of that child would be – the Future – we can only wonder.
But I don’t know if there’s enough in the game to support it: like my commenting ancestors here, I just think it was unintentional sexism.
If New Vegas were a world where women could be only prostitutes, like Duke Nukem for example, then I would condemn it. Vegas’ prostitutes had a choice, however; the proof is the successful women around them, bred in the same environment.
A large part of combating sexism is the availability of choice: those prostitutes clearly had that and they chose. And you, sir, are judging them!
Tread lightly, my friend. 🙂
Just finished reading this – awesome work, Steerpike. It makes me want to go back and play S.T.A.L.K.E.R. right now, hitting every note in terms of what really made this game great. It has that same “WTF am I doing in this place” sensation that Thief often evoked.
I’ve told Mrs. HM that STALKER was a successor to Thief – even though they have completely different play styles – and needs to experience it. Your piece here pinpoints exactly why it’s so unique and memorable.
It’s interesting that so many shooters used to be nothing but enemies (Doom, Quake…) but the disconnect from all civilised life that occurs when you enter Red Forest is overpowering. From there, you plunge into a terrifying gauntlet through Monolith-held territory, across Pripyat and into the heart of Chernobyl. There’s no respite from the hostility.
Thanks, HM! I hope I didn’t put any spoilers in there that messed up your future play.
The comparison of STALKER to Thief is a very interesting one. Thief also had a touch of environmental estrangement, particularly in certain moments or certain missions. I like the idea of STALKER as a spiritual successor of sorts.
As you say, the moment of entry into Red Forest marks the “ending sequence” of the game, and to me it’s some of the most brilliant shooter design I’ve ever seen. Overwhelmed not just by Monolith – which really turns on the heat at that point, to the extent where the rocket launcher I’d been hauling around finally got some use – but by radiation as well. Your Geiger counter goes from a general soft ticking to a constant roar (it is Red Forest, after all), and even once Monolith lets up the psychic assaults begin.
Gregg and I have wistfully discussed the sucker-punch emptiness of the Brain Scorcher complex. After all you’ve been through in Red Forest you expect a nightmare, but it’s practically empty… until you shut the Scorcher down, then all hell breaks loose and stays that way through Pripyat and onto the power plant grounds.
It would be very interesting to discuss the three games’ respective endings: Clear Sky makes a very evident break between the front half of the game and the last half. Its final moments are reminiscent of Shadow’s Power Plant battle, only this time you’re chasing down a single moving quarry during that hellish gunfight, rather than trying to get through. Call of Pripyat, meanwhile, offers an interesting take on the ending and leaves you with a decision that actually hearkens back to what so many Stalkers say about the Zone in the first place.
I felt burnt out by the final super difficult rush from Red Forest onwards – the number of quick loads was incredible, probably more than VVVVVV, and I was killed by radiation so many times.
Playing another STALKER seemed a bridge too far – did I really want to put myself through it again? Your article, however, has reminded me everything I loved about the experience and how much I’ve missed it since.
Mrs. HM and I put Thief as probably our favouritest game of all. A magic mix of unique narrative, historical reality with light fantastical elements and powerful environments.
Although I originally thought Thief offered some missions that featured strong environment estrangement, as you say, The Haunted Cathedral and Return to the Cathedral knock the ball out of the park in particular – it might be argued that as Garrett does everything in his power to avoid people and never to engage, it lends even the most populated of environments as alienating. Like going to a party and knowing no one there – alone in a crowd.
We missed this. With STALKER I found it again.
Of all the comments I read above I’d have to agree with Steerpike’s statement that STALKER was a piece of literature first and foremost. My feeling is the narrative was developed organically and during its development a female character never emerged. Like Finkbug, I was never even aware of this till about half-way through the game. To me the question is this: Is it the artist’s responsibility to consider race, gender, colonialism, Freudian, Marxist, formalist, everytime when creating art or is it to allow the creation come into existence on its own terms? Is it sexism that there are no women in STALKER or is STALKER simply a story about men?
EDIT: Armand, do you remember the date you went up on Mt. St. Helens? I moved out to Portland in ’79 and almost went up a couple of times that spring of ’80 just before it blew. Lot’s of people I knew were going in and out of there. Finally I chickened out when the rumblings got serious. I did know one guy who was up there when it blew. They found his camera near his body and he had taken photos of this approaching black cloud as he was running (futilely alas) down the mountain.
I went up there as soon as they let the public back in. It was sort of like the STALKER environment, this weird landscape that seemed like it was from another world.
My visit was much later than that first actual explosion. I went about 5-6 years ago when they suspected it would blow. It kept rumbling all night, and the locals were on high alert, but alas it held together (good thing too!)
[…] make recompense to our irradiated Gods, I make the offering of this gigantic article on Stalker. It says stuff like: “The storyline, characters, and even music of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series […]
That makes sense. I didn’t think you were that old as to be on the mountain way back when.
There are still areas desolate from the blast but it’s all returning to green pretty quick now. Though the movie The Road found a little patch that was post-apocalyptic enough to work for a scene or two, nature is roaring back for the most part.
A brilliant article, enjoyed reading every word of it. The memories of my first STALKER:SoC playthrough came flooding back, reminding me what a superb experience the entire thing was – it was more than a game I played to further the story, or to kill the next guy and so on, it was a game I played simply to exist in the Zone. I definitely must play it again at some point.
Not many games achieve such an atmosphere, Bioshock being mentioned earlier, and the Metroid games are all superb at it, but besides those there aren’t many I could name. I wonder, however, if this is how it should stay. If every game came out with such a sense of a powerful emotion, for example loneliness, will it not lose its power due to us expecting it of everything? Perhaps I’m wrong, but whenever discussing the above games I feel that they are special for it, and that, I imagine, is part of why I love them.
Hi Philip L, thanks for the complimentary words.
You make an interesting point about maybe not all games should be so… intense, or perhaps a better word is effective. It’s true that things are naturally diluted if you experience them constantly, and there’s a tremendous sense of reward and joy that comes in finding certain diamonds like STALKER, like Thief, and others.
Wonderful piece of writing there, thank you very much for putting into words what I have always felt about those games and couldn’t quite express.
If anyone is still looking for a digital copy of Clear Sky, I suggest you visit Gamersgate (direct link: http://www.gamersgate.com/DD-STALKERCS/stalker-clear-sky?caff=291). It’s not too expensive and all the important mods work with that version. I highly recommend Clear Sky Complete (found here: http://www.moddb.com/mods/clear-sky-complete), which fixes a lot of the bugs that made the original CS release such a mess.
Thanks again and keep up the good work!
[…] to explain the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise to nongaming […]
OK, I am really VERY late to the party this time around. Mostly because I knew Steerpike would knock it out of the park so I wanted to have a quiet hour to read it all in one take.
Anyway, two things.
First: What is all this insanity about Clear Sky not being available digitally? It’s on Steam, I have a Steam copy and I have just checked Steam and it’s there for € 9.99. Could it be that it’s just not available for North America???
Second: the discussion about the lack of female characters in the series managed to totally confuse me. Mostly because I never once during my playtime with either of the three games said to myself “Dude, this game rocks but it would rock even harder with a pair of tits”.
Or to put it into slightly less profane terms, I never once thought “Hey, how come there are no female characters here? Something is off!!”
In other words, the lack of female characters was so natural to me that I would probably never in a million years notice it if it was not mentioned here in this discussion.
Now, it probably has to do with you guys being “western” and me being “eastern” in terms of our cultural heritage, etc. I come from a former-communist culture, just like the people who made the game and we both share slavic heritage and orthodox christian mentality. So, it’s pretty safe to say we share a fair bit of a mindset and in this mindset, not having women in the Exclusion Zone just makes a lot of sense.
I am not going to overanalyze it (not that I am capable of it), I will just say that the Zone is basically a war-zone, where no written laws apply and where it’s really who has more firepower and armed dudes on their side. It’s fairly comparable to a lot of Balkans areas back in the nineties – a bunch of military and paramilitary formations claiming pieces of territory and living through periods of uneasy peace and frequent fighting. And you just wouldn’t have women there. It was mostly (almost exclusively) men. Sure, there probably was an odd female volunteer figthing in this or that paramilitary group but I don’t remember any of them being mentioned in any news ever and for the most part it was men doing all the fighting.
Now S.T.A.L.K.E.R. setup is fairly similar. In the ex-Yugoslavia wars in the nineties people were fighting for territory, sure, but a lot of it boiled down to looting and destruction. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is very much about looting and then about territory. In case of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., though, we are talking uninhabited territory to start with, so no civillians caught in the maelstorm of war. It’s mostly a bunch of paramilitary groups duking it out between themselves (and the military), trying to get valuable items they can sell, trying to control pieces of turf that only have strategic value (meaning that they have no “natural” resources – no fertile land, no clean water, even most of the artifacts are already looted). Since women are not usually members of the military in countries like mine or like Ukraine and they for the most part are not usually members of ad hoc paramilitary groups, to me it stands to perfect reason they would not be featured in the game.
Perhaps this means our societies are (more) sexist (than the western ones) but this is just how it is at the moment so S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is a very fair representation of reality in that regard.
The same goes for the coment made about it being a caucasian-exclusive game. Sure it is. Because this is a game made by Ukrainian people about Ukrainian people. It’s not science fiction for the sake of it, it actually makes great efforts to present characters in the game as people you might actually encounter in real life if you were to find yourself in the midst of a paramilitary conflict in Ukraine. The government of Ukraine is certainly not known for its penchant for letting mercenaries from all over the world run freely accross its landscape and you can bet your sweet ass they would clamp down even tighter if there were real life events similar to what you see in the game.
Sure, the fiction of the game postulates that Ukraine is strong enough as a state to prevent Americans/ UN/ China/ Russia from actually imposing international control over the zone which might not sound convincing to an average westerner, but then again, we ARE talking about a largely uncontrolled situation where most of the participants actually treat it with discretion. Being a Stalker is supposed to be an exclusive profession so you don’t see much venture capital invested into exploration of the zone. It’s also illegal and the military is preventing exploration actively (held back only by strong factions like Monolith) and it is not such a stretch of imagination to assume that even the government makes sure that the information flow from the Zone to the outside world is reduced to a trickle, especially since nobody else invovled wants to talk about it that much to start with.
At the same time, even though the artifacts you can find in the zone are supposed to be valuable – you can tell that most Stalkers you meet are actually quite poor. Most of the equipment is makeshift, or used or scavenged, there simply is not that much money going round the zone (not to mention that you improvise anti radiation treatment by drinking vodka). Which means (and it’s obvious anyway) that most of the people in the game are not in it for the artifacts. It is the wish granter that they seek.
Now, and this could be just me speculating but what the hell, to me this always naturally explained why most of the equipment in the game is so low-tech (the most advanced techin the game by far are the firearms and even those are just ordinary military rifles, some of them in really crappy condition, there are no futuristic energy weapons or railguns in the franchise) and why you only see Russian speaking people in there: to make it worthwhile for the foreign mercs/ fortune hunters to make an appearance you’d have to ensure the economy is rich enough to support their considerably higher costs of operation. But it is not. The artifacts actually don’t make that much money, and we can speculate that whatever market for these things IS out there, it’s fairly low key and wouldn’t support a career of a professional fortune hunter flying in from the other side of the globe with some expensive tech in tow. No, it’s ALL about the wish granter and it’s only the natives, with their history of living in systems relying on imaginary economy that WILL play the game and sacrifise so much to reach an object that is supposed to grant their wishes. I always saw it as a purposeful comment on the former USSR and the whole communist block, an observation about the mentality of the people who went from relative poverty and relative safety to real poverty and real unsafety when the USSR/ Eastern Europe communism crumbled down. They are the ones believing that there is a magical wish granter somewhere in the middle of the hostile, yet motherly Zone (and yes, people refer to it as a “she” because the word Zone in Slavic languages denotes female gender), the wish granter who will reward them for believing and for persevering. A proper westerner (if I may speak in stereotypes) likely would not see the economic logic in this and thus, they are absent from the Zone.
I’d like to officially defer to Meho’s opinion on the matter. It’s amounts to perspective, I guess.
Meho, I’m grateful for your take. We westerners tend to view the world through our own glasses, often not even bothering to recognize the complexities of art from other cultures… or even language. For example, English nouns are not gendered, so I’d never have known that “Zone” is a feminine noun otherwise.
Personally I’m not bothered by the absence of women or non-Caucasian people in STALKER, simply because, as Meho says, it rocked without tits.
I see the Zone as a new American Wild West or Yukon, and again, there were few women there. The political and personal aspects of the game had not at all occurred to me. Thanks for that perspective!
On the notes brought up in the more recent discussion, I feel a moment’s wistfulness for a STALKER 2 in which the zone expands drastically after the use of the Wish Granter… Swallowing up inhabited zones – and the game setting itself to be a zone not in 20-30 year old ruin but in fresh chaos, as normal Ukrainians struggle to cope with the growing dangers of anomalies and mutation. This would also get rid of radiation. Bloody radiation >.> Always try’n to kill meh..
[…] Low on news, high on opinion, Tap is very busy recently. I'd have to shout out for Matt Sakey's enormous S.T.A.L.K.E.R. piece (and the massive comment by Meho is an interesting followup), Lewis B's article on Valve's […]
Delightful read. And it brings to mind one of my favorite aspects of CoP: The achievement ‘Marked by the Zone.’ It’s text reads: “You managed to survive an emission without taking cover thanks to the anabiotic pills. The effects of this on your psyche are unclear, as you notice a strange silence inside your mind. It seems that you no longer hear a constant stream of thoughts.”
According to some sources (And some fine people with audio equipment to spare), this has an unlisted, but mentioned effect. In the dark places, the tunnels beneath the ruined buildings, if you listen closely to the background music, you will hear soft voices whispering things, in both Russian and English. After you win this achievement, though, the voices vanish.
Thanks very much, ShiningRayde, and welcome to the site.
I’ve heard that same story about the Marked by the Zone achievement and always meant to test it out, but never got around to it.
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[…] charge was Matt “Steerpike” Sakey, head of Tap-Repeatedly who I'd fallen in love with due to an incredible essay on S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. Also, Gregg B, a writer from Tap-Repeatedly who I'd stalked back to his web home after exchanging […]
What an excellent essay. It explains why the STALKER series are not reallygames that I sometimes replay, but a place I revisit regularly. And a place I can suddenly get a longing to revisit, like the island I’ve often spent my summer vacations on. Or Berlin or London. I don’t know how many visits (ok, playthroughs) I’ve done, but the games gets me every time, and on every expedition I’ve found secluded corners I’ve never been to before. The strange combination of fear, loneliness and sheer zen meditativeness is like nothing else in the game world. I’d even hesitate to call it a game at all, in the usual sense.
I wish the franchise was still active and in the hands of the right developers. I wish the ex-GSC crew the best of luck with Survarium, and I do understand the advantages of developing an online game, but it doesn’t sound like my kind of Zone at all. We’ll see if I’m wrong.
Until then, I’ll do what us STALKERS do, sit by the fire, pick my guitar and wait for Lost Alpha. 🙂
Thanks Voidoid, and welcome to the site!
I share your concerns about Survarium. It looks gorgeous, very STALKER-esque, but I just don’t care for multi most of the time, and I doubt it will be possible to recreate the mood of STALKER in an environment with hundreds or thousands of other players.
At a party the other night, STALKER came up for some reason, and a friend said something like “aren’t there lots of games like STALKER now?” Well, no. There aren’t.
There aren’t any games that capture the same sensation. And more generally, open-world shooter/RPGs are sort of uncommon. I’d expect them to be more popular than they’ve proven to be.
Has anyone had much luck with the STALKER fan mods and add-ons? Other than the “Complete” mods, which really just address graphics, I’ve had nothing but trouble getting them to work. MISERY for Call of Pripyat looks amazing, but it just boots to a black screen no matter what I try.
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